In modern day Busan, cantankerous old fogie Deok-soo (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) runs a general store in the famous international market region. Walking around the area with family and friends prompts memories from his past to return to the surface, reliving the experience that he and his country endured on the path to modernisation after the Korean War. Deok-soo recalls the traumatic events his family suffered through during the Hungnam Evacuation in the winter of 1950; working in the coal mines of West Germany, and meeting his wife Yeong-ja (Kim Yoon-jin (김윤진); operating as an engineer during the Vietnam War; and striving to reunite with the people he lost so many years ago. Always at his side is best friend Dal-goo (Oh Dal-soo (오달수) as they sacrifice everything for family.
Impressive production values and an epic sense of scale are the scant positives of director Yoon Je-kyoon’s Ode To My Father, a disturbingly nationalistic take on recent Korean history that eschews the complexity of the era in favour of manipulative melodrama. Poorly written, shallow, and horribly acted throughout, the film’s revisionist take on past hardships and overtly patriotic sentiment ensured its success with the middle aged while perpetuating the alarming trend of ultra-conservative cinema for everyone else.
Ode To My Father – literally translated as International Market – is best described as ‘the Korean Forrest Gump‘ for the manner in which the film depicts dark periods of history through rose-tinted glasses, centred around the actions of one man. Indeed, while the events onscreen are specifically and uniquely Korean, the narrative structure as well as visual devices are constantly ‘lifted’ from its American counterpart. While Forrest Gump rightly received criticism for its revisionist take on American history, Ode To My Father takes such conservatism to new heights by completely removing any mention of the military dictatorships and authoritarian rule Korea endured following the war while crucial events aren’t even alluded to. Korean films that were produced during the strict censorship of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – when Ode is set – contained more insight and compulsion so it’s perplexing to see the periods romanticised in the contemporary age.
While Park Su-jin’s screenplay eschews historical detail, director Yoon Je-kyoon instead puts all of Ode To My Father‘s large budget onscreen with considerable flair. The Hungnam Evacuation is brilliantly realised as thousands of panic-induced refugees seek transportation to evade war; the claustrophobia of the West German mines is palpable; Vietnamese jungles and bases appear authentic; and the collective grief of TV show ‘Reuniting Separated Families’ is powerfully poignant.
However in each case the impressive production values are undermined as melodrama is exalted above all else, serving to greatly limit the impact such scenes attempt to generate. Director Yoon is so determined to make audiences cry during the (a)historical vignettes that national pride and overacting take place over subtlety and good taste.
The scenes in Vietnam are employed merely to at as a crude parallel to Korea decades earlier and to boast of the nation’s advancement, while a dramatic bomb blast sequence is all but ruined due to a voice over articulating Korean struggles. Yeong-ja is forced to halt her legitimate argument with Deok-soo in order to rise to the national anthem (reportedly President Park Geun-hye’s favourite scene according to several news outlets). Even conveying the importance of TV show Reuniting Separated Families is impaired when an American adoptee, who cannot speak Korean, suddenly recalls perfect sentences from her youth 30 years prior while wailing uncontrollably.
Further exacerbating the situation is the manner in which Korean celebrities are horribly shoehorned in throughout the narrative, as well as the representation of youths as ungrateful, rude and self-centred, which serve to provide catharsis for the target audience – middle-aged Koreans – and in that sense is a resounding success, but the achievements come at the cost of context, respect and decency.
Carrying the entirety of the film on his shoulders is Hwang Jeong-min, a usually reliable actor with an impressive filmography, yet in Ode To My Father his theatrically is unnecessarily excessive and akin to a bad TV drama. Certain scenes are absolutely cringeworthy to experience, particularly his rendition of being elderly. Kim Yoon-jin fares slightly better as wife Yeong-ja, yet that’s primarily due to her character’s absence for much of the running time once she’s served her purpose of marriage. There is no chemistry between them thanks to the poor script and characterisation, which attempts to make the couple saintly figures.
Oh Dal-soo, as is often the case, is the most entertaining presence. Using his knack for great comic timing he is fun to watch, and ironically it’s his bromance with Deok-soo that forms the central relationship of the film. However even Oh Dal-so cannot save Ode To My Father from being little more than a well-made nationalistic melodrama.
Ode To My Father boasts an epic scale and lavish production values yet is a disturbingly nationalistic and highly melodramatic take on recent Korean history. Director Yoon Je-kyoon is determined to force audiences to cry throughout his revisionist tale and for middle-aged Korean it undoubtedly provides catharsis, while simply perpetuating the alarming trend of ultra-conservative cinema for everyone else.