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It used to be that the only Korean films to be seen in the U.S. were somber art-house films like Jeong Ji-yeong's White Badge or veteran Im Kwon-Taek's Chunhyang and Sopyonje. But as South Korea has developed a more technically sophisticated commercial film industry, these have been joined by hard-edged, crowd-pleasing action flicks like Shiri, Tell Me Something and Nowhere to Hide.
Lee Jeong-hyang's new The Way Home fits either both or neither of these categories. That is, it has, sadly, the worst of both worlds – the pacing of the driest art film and the lowest-common-denominator appeal of the most pandering Hollywood formula. (It is reportedly the highest-grossing Korean production in history.)
The story is simplicity itself: Loathsome spoiled brat learns the meaning of love from ever-patient granny. The end. For those with any interest in details beyond that, well, pour yourself a strong cup o' joe, and we'll try to fill in the rest as interestingly as possible.
A single mother (Dong Hyo-Hee) loses her job and realizes she can't look after her 7-year-old son while searching for work. Despite having long since cut off contact with her ancient mother (Kim Eul-Boon), she decides to dump the kid on granny until she's back on her feet again.
The kid, Sang-Woo (Yoo Seung-Ho), is your basic GameBoy-playing, fast-food-eating urban type, so he's none too happy about being transplanted to granny's house. "House" is actually inaccurate: The old lady lives in a tiny shack . . . at the top of a winding rocky path . . . above the last stop on a barely extant bus line . . . that only goes to a tiny nearby town. No indoor plumbing. No electricity. In short: sheer hell for a city kid.
But wait! That's not all! Grandma is also mute and illiterate, so there is no way to communicate with her except through crude hand signals. And even those are more than usually unreliable, because grandma is . . . well . . . she's mentally backward. At first we might just think that her apparent slowness is a result of her muteness or of her obvious lack of educational advantages. But Lee goes out of her way to show us a scene of granny playing with Sang-Woo's toys and being unable to figure out that the round peg doesn't go in the square hole. It's an otherwise unnecessary bit of business, so its inclusion only makes sense as Lee's way of driving home that the old girl really is retarded.
One can hardly expect a 7-year-old to deal with such a situation gracefully, but it is a sign of how utterly rotten a kid Sang-Woo is that it's impossible to feel any sympathy for him. From the beginning, he is petulant, demanding and cruel to the old lady and to Cheol-See (Min Kyung-Hoon), the only other boy in the 'hood. Lee does everything she can to make Sang-Woo unappealing. She even pulls out the oldest chestnut in the book: She has the brat gratuitously kick Cheol-See's adorable dog.
Granny devotes herself to providing for the spoiled kid, and for her to do even the simplest task is quite an accomplishment: She is permanently bent over at a 90-degree angle and has to walk at a snail's pace. But no matter what she does or what sacrifices she makes, Sang-Woo's response is to throw a tantrum and lambaste her as a "dummy," and otherwise behave in a manner that would go a long way toward convincing the staunchest liberal to embrace the death penalty.
Sure, Granny is not the most intellectually stimulating companion, but she is a lovely, loving soul – something that, for most of the film, is quite beyond Sang-Woo's ken. And then . . . suddenly . . . he comes around. He realizes he loves her. What effects this change?
Not much. And therein lies the film's central problem. There is nothing wrong with a good, honest tear-jerker that earns its tears. But there is something wrong with a dishonest tear-jerker – one that manipulates stock elements, sure to prime the lachrymal glands. Which is what Lee has done here.
Cute waif. Loving old woman. Bad behavior. Reformation. Sudden admission of emotion. Learning how to love. These are things that would wring a bit of weeping from the most cynical viewers. But they'd hate themselves in the morning, and they'd be right to.
The instructive comparison might be with Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D, which was recently reissued to theaters. It's another shameless weepie, but one that has a social context and much more complex emotions. (For that matter, Love Story had more complex emotions.) The Way Home is a particularly artless, even annoying, example of the genre.
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