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Sentiment, humor hit 'Home'

Natural performances from first-time actors highlight the appealing South Korean film.

November 15, 2002|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Jeong-Hyang Lee's "The Way Home," a tale about a small boy and his aged grandmother, has inherent sentimental appeal, but Lee balances it with considerable humor and an unblinking eye toward the realities of a primitive way of life. Eschewing professional actors, Lee gambled on little Seung-Ho Yoo to play pugnacious 7-year-old Sang-woo and on 78-year-old Eul-Boon Kim, who had never even seen a movie, to play his grandmother. As Lee has said, she got lucky, but she also displays skill in drawing from her stars natural portrayals that have not a trace of self-consciousness.

A tired, forlorn woman (Hyo-Hee Dong) arrives in a remote mountain region on a scruffy bus with her little son in tow. With no advance notice and few words, the mother, having trudged up a rugged mountainside with her boy, dumps the kid on her own mother, who's mute and bent-over with age; she has not seen or contacted her mother since she ran off to Seoul with a local boy at age 17. He abandoned her and their son long ago, and her little shop has failed, leaving her in debt and unemployed. She promises her mother she'll return in about two months, by which time she expects to have landed a job and gotten her affairs in order.

Sang-woo, who bears all the marks of a kid who has been alternately neglected and indulged, understandably feels abandoned and is hit by cultural shock -- what, no pizza, burgers or KFC? He reacts with predictable rage and doesn't realize or care that his grandmother, although she cannot speak, can hear him when he exclaims to her that she's stupid. His grandmother unwaveringly responds to this and much more bratty behavior with an unconditional love.

The woman lives under minimalist conditions in what is little more than a ramshackle hut clinging to the hillside. The presence of a TV, although never seen turned on, suggests she must have some sort of power source, but she most definitely has no plumbing. As surely difficult and painful as it must be for her to get around, she reveals a generous, caring nature toward others. She is a woman of dignity, at peace with herself, and she's reached the point in life at which it's hard to tell whether she simply accepts her lot in life uncomplainingly or has merely become resigned to it. While we're wondering whether she will ever have any impact on her irascible grandson he in turns has further difficulties relating to a neighboring girl (Kyung-Hoon Min) and boy (Eun-Kyung Yim).

"The Way Home" is simplicity itself, and Lee is alert to the details and incidents of everyday life to sustain the film with wryly amusing observations and much affection, even for the boy, who after all has been asked to go through a singularly difficult adjustment. The first South Korean film to receive major studio distribution, "The Way Home" is a loving little film of considerable appeal.


'The Way Home'

MPAA rating: PG-13, for mild thematic elements and language.

Times guidelines: Suitable family fare.

Eul-Boon Kim...Grandmother

Seung-Ho Yoo...Sang-woo

Kyung-Hoon Min...Cheol-e

Eun-Kyung Yim...Hae-Yeon

Hyo-Hee Dong ...Mother

A Paramount Classics and CJ Entertainment presentation in association with Tube Entertainment of a Tube Pictures production. Writer-director Jeong-Hyang Lee. Producers Woo-Hyun Hwang and Jae-Wood Hwang. Executive producer Seung-Bum Kim. Cinematographer Hong-Shik Yoon. Editors Sang-Beom Kim and Jae-Boem Kim. Music Dae-Hong Kim and Yang-Hee Kim. Art director Jum-Hee Shin. In Korean, with English subtitles.

Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; and the University 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (800) 555-TELL.

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