Ordinary People (소시민) – ★★☆☆☆

Ordinary People (소시민)

Ordinary People (소시민)

Jae-pil is about to have the worst Sunday of his life. From the moment the hapless salaryman wakes up in a grotty motel, he is beset by a host of problems – his bullying manager demands Jaepil ‘massage’ some figures or else lose his job; his estranged wife begins divorce proceedings while filing for custody of their daughter Soo-in; his nagging sister is demanding money to donate to  her church; and he has just become the prime suspect in a murder case. One thing’s for sure – this Sunday is going to be hell.

A humorously dark tale, director Kim Byung-june’s Ordinary People is an entertaining slice of ironic satire that pokes fun at the insane challenges of the everyday salaryman. Striking the tone just right during the first half, the film spirals into theatrical silliness in the second, subverting the intelligent mockery for obvious gags.

Aside from a rather oddly dramatic preface during the opening credits, Ordinary People begins in promising fashion as director Kim explores the insanity within the mundane tasks bestowed upon the middle-aged Korean office worker. Using central protagonist Jae-pil as a cypher, he piles on the absurd stresses such employees endure with an impressively dark and often subtle wit, balancing the tone well between realism and farce as Jae-pil is pushed to breaking point. The title perfectly reflects director Kim’s brand of humour – these characters and events are indeed ‘ordinary’ in the lives of many Koreans yet there is a comedic ridiculousness to it all that he works hard to emphasise.

Jae-pil is told to 'massage' some figures for his company

Jae-pil is told to ‘massage’ some figures for his company

However, just as with this year’s other darkly satirical film (and Jeonju Film Festival winner) Alice in Earnestland, Ordinary People takes an ill-advised turn at the halfway mark. Through a misunderstanding in an apparent murder case Jae-pil is considered a suspect, from which the events and characters all suddenly descend into farcical comedy the likes of which wouldn’t be out of place on a Korean ‘gag concert’ TV show. The dry and ironic humour of the first hour comes undone as the Jae-pil’s situation comes increasingly ludicrous and the acting evermore theatrical, culminating in the eye-rolling introduction of colourful chubby gangster trio the Bear Brothers. Director Kim is certainly aware as his protagonists recount how bizarre the events have become, yet it continues to escalate until the film reaches its overly long conclusion with trite melodrama.

While the introduction to the characters and their relationships are in need of tightening, both Jae-pil and his sister are great devices through which to explore the stresses of contemporary Koreans. Jae-pil is a likeable protagonist and one who the audience genuinely want to succeed despite his occasionally frustrating whiny impotence to his problems. His sister, however, is largely pushed to the margins of the story, a real missed opportunity as her role as an intelligent journalist who quit due to marriage could have provided further great ironic satire from a female perspective, as well as offered a fun counterpoint to Jae-pil’s misadventures.

The situation escalates when Jae-pil finds himself in trouble with the law

The situation escalates when Jae-pil finds himself in trouble with the law

Verdict:

Director Kim Byung-june’s Ordinary People begins in darkly satirical fashion through ironic jokes at an average salaryman’s expense, yet following such a promising opening the film missteps into absurd theatrical comedy at the halfway point before ending with trite melodrama. Yet the potential displayed in the first half means Kim’s future films are ones to watch out for.

★★☆☆☆

Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

Twenty (스물) – ★★☆☆☆

Twenty (스물)

Twenty (스물)

Following their high school graduation three best friends must decide on their paths in life. Studious Kyeong-jae (Kang Ha-neul (강하늘) opts to attend a respectable university, where he quickly falls for the charms of senior Jin-joo (Min Hyo-rin (민효린); poverty-stricken artist wannabe Dong-woo (Junho (준호) decides to retake his final year, becoming close to Kyeong-jae’s sister So-hee (Lee Yoo-bi (이유비); while handsome-yet-stupid Chi-ho (Kim Woo-bin (김우빈) is aimless until meeting actress Eun-hye (Jung Joo-yeon (정주연) despite already dating So-min (Jeong So-min (정소민). The one thing they all agree upon however is they all want sex, and lots of it.

Now twenty, the horny trio are forced to choose a path

Now twenty, the horny trio are forced to choose a path

Surprisingly entertaining and often laugh-out-loud funny, Twenty is an enjoyable comedy by director Lee Byeong-hun. As a youthful sex comedy the film is an undoubtedly silly affair and has little substance, yet it has enough quips and gags to ensure that it’s an amusing viewing experience.

One of great pitfalls of youth-sex comedies is the objectification of women through the lustful gazes of cliched lustful male protagonists, and director Lee Byeong-hun wisely sidesteps such eye-rolling banality. While the three friends initially occupy stereotypical roles and take predictably alternative routes after graduation accordingly, the characterisation later becomes more fluid and develops as the narrative progresses. Furthermore, rather than have the camera fetishise their love interests to generate laughs, many of the jokes are derived from the trio’s stupidity and naivety in both love and adulthood. Indeed, the females are often far more mature and intellectually superior compared to their male counterparts, with their especially frank attitudes towards sex and masturbation offering some of the film’s best jokes. Although twenty years old, in many ways Chi-ho, Kyeong-jae and Dong-woo are still boys and as such the gags come thick and fast at their expense.

Chi-ho discovers what life is like without an allowance

Chi-ho discovers what life is like without an allowance

The narrative also eschews any coming-of-age morality from the proceedings which makes the film a little vacuous, yet director Lee manages to allude to, and poke fun at, many of the features of modern Korean life. As with his previous film Cheer Up Mr. Lee, the helmer/scribe produces jokes from the ridiculous situations that arise on film sets, though isn’t afraid to highlight the darker areas of ‘sponsors’ (aka ‘sugar daddies’). The manner in which young people seem to record everything seeming by instinct, especially in university rites of passage, is a fun dig at youth culture, while bittersweet jokes are also garnered from financial hardship.

Twenty loses its way as it enters the final act, as director Lee appears unsure of how to end his tale of boyhood silliness, which culminates in some contrived pairings and a rather random confrontation with some local gangsters. It’s all laughably farcical and slapstick, though does continue for too long and hints that some more stringent editing could have been employed, yet it’s nevertheless an entertaining and enjoyable experience, and in a time when so many productions emerging from the industry are so dark, Twenty is a refreshing change.

The trio find their friendship renewed despite odd circumstances

The trio find their friendship renewed despite odd circumstances

Verdict:

Director Lee Byeong-hun’s youth-sex comedy Twenty is a surprisingly enjoyable affair, particularly as the helmer/scribe steers away from cliches and objectification to generate laughs from the silliness and naivety of young men. It’s farcical and contains little substance, but as the gags continue to roll Twenty is a consistently fun, lighthearted, and one of the more successful Korean comedies in quite some time.

★★☆☆☆

Reviews

Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다) – ★★★★☆

Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다)

Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다)

Arriving in Suwon City a day earlier than scheduled, film director Chunsoo (Jung Jaeyoung (정재영) bides his time by wandering around the local landmarks. By chance, he runs into pretty artist Heejung (Kim Minhee (김민희) and persuades her to join him for a cup of coffee. As the two spend the day together conversing awkwardly over meals and drinks, Chunsoo and Heejung become closer.

Then, events play out again with Chunsoo’s more gentlemanly manner and Heejung’s greater sense of independence arousing slight variations in their burgeoning relationship.

Director Cheon-soo persuades artist Hee-jeong to have coffee

Director Chunsoo persuades artist Heejung to have coffee

Undeniably charming and beautifully told, director Hong Sangsoo‘s Right Now, Wrong Then is a genuine delight. The stirringly sensitive drama is the kind of story only the acclaimed auteur could produce, capturing the endearing awkwardness of human interaction with keen insight and is wholly deserving of its accolades – namely the Golden Leopard (Best Film) and Best Actor for Jung Jaeyoung at its premiere in Locarno International Film Festival, with more undoubtedly to follow.

It’s become almost a cliche in itself to point out director Hong’s interest in capturing the subtleties of human interaction, the awkward clumsiness of smart men over confident women, of repeating scenarios with slight adjustments in characterisation that result in rather different outcomes, but as he does it so insightfully it’s hard not to constantly acknowledge his deft skill in such areas. With Right Now, Wrong Then director Hong wonderfully succeeds in capturing the beauty of such moments with an endearing humour and grace that is captivating, conveying a palpable charm that was somewhat lacking in his prior effort Hill of Freedom.

Right Now, Wrong Then is in fact two films in one, and much of its pleasure is derived from juxtaposing both stories. In the first installment, film director Chunsoo is shy, secretive, and akin to a wannabe philanderer; in the second he is a shade more confident, honest and direct. The differences that arise through his interactions with artist Heejung, who is shy and passive in the first tale before later becoming more independent and assured, are subtle yet profound as conversations take alternate trajectories that greatly effect them both, resulting in radically different outcomes for their relationship.

Hee-jeong and Cheon-soo drink and converse as they grow closer

Heejung and Chunsoo drink and converse as they grow closer

In lesser hands such simple tales of strangers meeting would be mildly entertaining, yet actors Jung Jaeyoung and Kim Minhee fulfil the roles with astonishing nuance and depth, propelling the drama into one of the best K-films of the year. Jung, who previously worked with director Hong in Our Sunhi, excels as the sensitive Chunsoo by conveying the character’s social ineptitude wonderfully with awkward mannerisms and speech, while also managing to capture a unique sense of charisma with his forthright honesty later in the film. It’s clear why Jeong was the recipient of the Best Actor award at Locarno and he’s sure to add further trophies to his cabinet as Right Now, Wrong Then screens at more international festivals.

As Heejung, Kim Minhee is absolutely captivating. Her performance is unquestionably deserving of high praise and accolades. Her facial expressions and quirks, particularly during some of the film’s pivotal and revelatory scenes, contain so much palpable emotion that they resonate long after the credits have rolled. With Right Here, Wrong Then, and with her upcoming turn in Park Chan-wook‘s Fingersmith, Kim Minhee looks set to become one of the K-Film industry’s most sought after actresses.

The subtle differences in characterisation result in alternative outcomes

The subtle differences in characterisation result in alternative outcomes

Verdict:

Director Hong Sangsoo’s Right Now, Wrong Then is a charismatic, endearing tale of burgeoning relationships only the celebrated auteur is capable of telling. Wonderfully subtle, insightful, and humorous, the drama is a heartwarming tale of human interaction and the possibilities of tender new emotional experiences.

★★★★☆

Busan International Film Festival (20회 부산국제영화제) Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

The Piper (손님) – ★★☆☆☆

The Piper (손님)

The Piper (손님)

Shortly after the Korean War, travelling musician Woo-ryong (Ryoo Seung-ryong (류승룡) and his sickly son Yeong-nam (Goo Seung-hyeon (구승현) embark on a trip to Seoul to treat the youngster’s tuberculosis. On the journey, the exhausted pair are granted refuge at a secluded mountain village presided over by a kindly Elder (Lee Sung-min (이성민), but it quickly becomes clear that something very strange is transpiring amongst the folk residing there. Learning of the severe rat infestation, Woo-ryong boldly offers to rid the village of the vermin, yet when the residents renege on the fee and cast them out, the piper seeks a very unique brand of revenge.

Woo-ryung and Yeong-nam play for the villagers

Woo-ryung and Yeong-nam play for the villagers

Taking The Pied Piper of Hamelin as its cue, director Kim Kwang-tae’s ‘reimagining’ of the classic European fable into a Korean morality tale is a bland, fractured, and unengaging effort. Aside from some attractive cinematography The Piper consistently appears as if still in the development stages conceptually, which serves to dilute audience interest and lessen thrills – a crucial issue for a film about killer rats.

From the moment it begins, The Piper generates a sense of intrigue as Woo-ryong and son Yeong-nam hide in a secluded cave during a storm, the wind of which blows so strongly that a secret path to a hidden village is revealed. As the duo seek respite there for a day or two, suspense grows as the inhabitants appear to exchange meaningful and worried glances due to the arrival of their new guests. Yet while events are set up promisingly the mysterious nature of the film is largely a direct result of its structure and a strange sense of incompleteness. Occurrences, characters and relationships arise and recede with precious little introduction or general context making the story a rather fragmented and confusing effort. As such, audiences aren’t given any reasons to care for any of the protagonists, or even dislike the antagonists, other than the fact it’s clear a macabre secret is being hidden.

Woo-ryong develops feelings for widowed shaman Mi-sook

Woo-ryong develops feelings for widowed shaman Mi-sook

The story itself is a symbolic tale, using the microcosm of a mountain village to articulate how war, history and paranoia looms large in times of unrest and influences people into evil deeds. It’s a solid premise and one that’s full of potential, however director Kim Kwang-tae doesn’t manage to effectively convey the scope of his message. In part this is due to the fractured story and characterisation, but also the rats simply aren’t the potent menace they ought to be and are not frightening in the slightest, and though billed as a fantasy-horror The Piper doesn’t really fit into either genre, generally conforming to genial drama tropes. Furthermore, Welcome to Dongmakol and Moss dealt with similar subject matter and while viewing it’s impossible not to think of these superior examples with nostalgia.

The fractured narrative structure makes it even more difficult for Ryoo Seung-ryong to carry The Piper on his shoulders, and though he tries his best to infuse the role and the film with an infectious energy, it often translates as overly theatrical and bothersome. His burgeoning romantic relationship with widowed shaman Mi-sook falls completely flat due to the lack of development and contrivances within the script. As Mi-sook, Cheon Woo-hee – certainly the best actor in the film – desperately tries to wrangle something from the role and manages to infuse some palpable emotion in a scene here and there, yet as the audience is never given any information about her or as to why empathy should be given, her efforts are tragically wasted. Lee Sung-min isn’t provided with scenes of gravitas to make him a worthy nemesis, while K-pop star/actor Lee Joon makes blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances. The most compelling role falls to youngster Goo Seung-hyeon as tuberculosis suffering Yeong-nam, who brings a surprising amount of empathy to the story.

The villagers are hiding a secret related to the rats, but what is it?

The villagers are hiding a secret related to the rats, but what is it?

 Verdict:

Though billed as a fantasy-horror The Piper is ultimately neither. While the cinematography is consistently gorgeous and director Kim Kwang-tae’s premise has merit, the film suffers enormously from a fractured structure that conveys it as incomplete, resulting in audiences unable to engage or empathise with characters and events, or even enjoy the sporadic thrills.

★★☆☆☆

Reviews

Veteran (베테랑) – ★★★★☆

Veteran (베테랑)

Veteran (베테랑)

After a three month sting operation involving stolen cars, tough detective Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) and his team, headed by Team Leader Oh (Oh Dal-soo (오달수), congratulate themselves and prepare for the inevitable promotion their work has wrought. Yet the celebration is cut short when Do-cheol’s truck driver friend Bae (Jeong Woong-in (정웅인) is critically hurt while protesting for unpaid wages, with all evidence pointing to rich, spoilt conglomerate owner’s son, Jo Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in (유아인). While Jo’s aide Choi Sang-moo (Yoo Hae-jin (유해진) attempts to use money and influence to have the case closed, Do-cheol is relentless in his pursuit for Jo’s incarceration.

No-nonsense detective Do-cheol finds himself in hot water during a car theft sting

No-nonsense detective Do-cheol finds himself in hot water during a car theft sting

Brilliantly entertaining, wonderfully inventive, and featuring a gripping politically-charged story alongside bone-crunching stunts, director Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran is easily the most exciting slice of Korean cinema in 2015 so far. In what has been a particularly poor year for the industry, Veteran offers a badly needed revitalising breath of fresh air as well as marking director Ryoo’s most accomplished work to date.

Veteran begins in incredibly strong fashion as Do-cheol and his team take down an international car smuggling ring, with the quips flying almost as fast as the punches. It’s a fantastically thrilling introduction to director Ryoo’s distinct stylisation as well as the quirky characters on the investigative team, as the film excels with brilliant tongue-in-cheek humour mixed with frenetic stunts to hugely entertaining effect. For action aficionados Veteran also manages to include comedic riffs on other examples of the genre, notably Transporter 2‘s garage sequence, to raise self-referential laughs. It all makes for one of the most high-octane adrenaline-pumping openings in recent memory and is an absolute riot.

After kicking off so impressively, Veteran‘s pacing dramatically changes gears in order to lay the foundations for the central narrative. It’s a jarring alteration yet also a necessary one, as helmer/scribe Ryoo takes his time to incorporate new conflicts and antagonists, building the politically-charged threats posed to palpable levels. It’s an effective technique that demands investment while allowing the film to roar to life through exciting set-pieces, culminating in an explosive pulse-pounding crescendo that will have audiences gasping, wincing and laughing in equal measure.

Jo Tae-oh, the young heir to a conglomerate, wields power and influence

Jo Tae-oh, the young heir to a conglomerate, wields power and influence

Veteran never forsakes the story for action, with the engaging narrative consistently touching upon highly politically sensitive issues within contemporary Korean culture. News media in the peninsula has for years reported on the spoilt and selfish behaviour displayed by chaebol (conglomerate) CEO’s children – the most recent of which was the infamous ‘nut rage’ incident – and Veteran picks up such themes brilliantly by exploring how such figures employ their power, finances and influence to avoid legalities. Bolstered by a basis in modern society, it’s great material for the genre, providing villainous personal and corporations and some compelling twists and turns, whilst also granting a sense of catharsis for the general public.

While corruption informs the impetus of the story, Veteran is also at its core a tale of two men in bitter conflict, and it’s hard to imagine any two actors other than Hwang Jung-min and Yo Ah-in fulfilling the roles so emphatically. Hwang Jung-min in particular is clearly having an absolute ball as detective Do-cheol, bringing incredible humour and charisma to the role so that even when he is being stubborn and downright dirty, he is nothing less than engrossing. Yoo Ah-in meanwhile is in absolute top form as the vile Jo Tae-oh, with his performance earning considerable praise. The characterisation is a tad excessive yet Yoo Ah-in commits so confidently that he’s an absolute joy to hate. Legendary supporting actor Oh Dal-so gets some of the film’s best laughs, while it’s great to see Yoo Hae-jin, who’s often typecast in comedic roles, stretched into new terrain.

Although an enormously entertaining film, Veteran is not without problems. Writer/director Ryoo still seems to have difficulty writing three-dimensional female characters, constructing them either as nagging bitches or wholesome victims. Miss Bong, wonderfully portrayed by Jang Yoon-ju, is somewhat of an exception and a welcome kick-ass heroine but tends to provide punchlines rather than development.

That aside, Veteran is easily the best slice of popcorn cinema this year and a joyous thrill ride from start to finish.

Do-cheol chases his adversary in a thrilling finale through the streets of Seoul

Do-cheol chases his adversary in a thrilling finale through the streets of Seoul

Verdict:

Veteran is a revitalising, pulse-pounding action/thriller from director Ryoo Seung-wan. Examining the corruption in chaebols has never been so cathartic as the film is consistently entertaining, wonderfully inventive and featuring some truly exciting and hilarious stunts that has audiences gasping, wincing and laughing in equal measure. Easily the best slice of popcorn cinema in 2015.

★★★★☆

Reviews

Killer Toon (더 웹툰: 예고살인) – ★★★☆☆

Killer Toon (더 웹툰: 예고살인)

Killer Toon (더 웹툰: 예고살인)

Talented artist Ji-yoon (Lee Si-yeong (이시영) is the creator of one of the most popular web comics series in Korea. Her forte is the horror genre, illustrating gruesome scenes of death and suffering  as supernatural forces return from beyond seeking vengeance. However upon submitting her latest edition to the company, the editor is later found dead and brutally disfigured in the exact same fashion as the panels within the art. While all signs point to suicide, detective Lee Gi-cheol’s (Eom Gi-joon (엄기준) instincts lean towards murder and an investigation into the only potential suspect – Ji-yoon – begins. Yet as Ji-yoon is struggling to differentiate between reality and fantasy, and with corpses beginning to pile up all referencing her web toons, can the culprit ever be stopped?

Ji-yoon is the creator behind a successful horror web toon series that begins to come true

Ji-yoon is the creator behind a successful horror web toon series that begins to come true

A solidly entertaining K-horror, Killer Toon is the latest macabre offering from The Red Shoes director Kim Yong-gyoon. Featuring an intriguing premise that is brilliantly visualised in the first act with gruesome excitement, the film gradually seeps into melodrama before succumbing to a frustrating and illogical finale. That said, Killer Toon remains one of the better – and certainly more successful – additions to Korean horror cinema in years.

One of the great frustrations of K-horror is the recurring utilisation of episodic vignettes that don’t coalesce into a satisfactory whole, thereby diluting the compulsion of the story and undermining the very scares within. Killer Toon however takes a refreshingly novel approach to such criticism, constructing a variety of macabre sequences within the framework of webtoon narratives, ironically adhering to the problematic episodic nature while also managing to construct an engaging structure. By using an artist and her comic strips as the framework and source of terror, director Kim Yong-gyoon is given free reign to impose any sadistic sequences of his choosing within the greater whole, amalgamating the disparate features into an impressive and entertaining horror package.

Due to the concept Killer Toon is also a visually absorbing affair, with comic panels employed effectively to heighten suspense and terror, bringing a new dimension to the genre. The comic panels are frightening in themselves with the seemingly interactive depictions of death and murder, even comedically knocking macho detective Lee from his chair in one scene, yet combined with real sequences of terror Killer Toon is elevated above its peers.

Horror scenes are combined with webtoon panels, adding heightened frights

Horror scenes are combined with webtoon panels, adding heightened frights

Yet much of the praise lies primarily within Killer Toon‘s first act, as from there the narrative veers into generic melodrama territory. Rather than focus on the intriguing premise, the source of the webtoon becomes the prime concern. Along with detective Lee, Ji-yoon attempts to uncover the mysterious origins of her ideas by way of a myriad of cliched developments audiences have witnessed multiple times before. As such, the potential offered by the refreshing concept is squandered in order to clarify a mystery that really didn’t need to be explained – the power came from not knowing.

While the cliched second act is frustrating, it pales in comparison to the irritations in the third. In a bid to tie up all the narrative loose ends and add a few twists to keep audiences guessing, the finale becomes wildly illogical and ridiculous. Chiefly this is a result of protagonists being completely re-characterised to provide shock, but it goes against prior developments and serves to remove viewers from the story. That said, the morality tale that arises due to their actions is one that resonates, particularly in contemporary society.

Ji-yoon searches her illustrations for clues to the origin of the deadly webtoon

Ji-yoon searches her illustrations for clues to the origin of the deadly webtoon

Verdict:

With its original approach, Killer Toon is one of the most refreshing additions to K-horror for quite some time. Employing comic panels as the source of horror allows director Kim Yong-gyoon to create some visually stylish and suspenseful macabre scenes, a promising opening that has its potential later squandered by cliched melodrama and illogical twists. Yet the morality tale resonates, making Killer Toon a solidly entertaining piece of horror cinema.

★★★☆☆

Reviews

Ode To My Father (국제시장) – ★★☆☆☆

Ode To My Father (국제시장)

Ode To My Father (국제시장)

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.

Deok-soo recalls the horrific experience his family endured during the Hungnam Evacuation

Deok-soo recalls the horrific experience his family endured during the Hungnam Evacuation

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.

The mines of West Germany are claustrophobic

The mines of West Germany are claustrophobic

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.

Deok-soo's journey to Vietnam acts as a crude parallel to Korea

Deok-soo’s journey to Vietnam acts as a crude parallel to Korea

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.

Whilst working in Germany Deok-soo falls head over heels for nurse Yeong-ja

Whilst working in Germany Deok-soo falls head over heels for nurse Yeong-ja

Verdict:

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.

★★☆☆☆

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