The Way Home
Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei
Korean Title: Jibeuro
Director: Lee Jeong-hyang
Cast: Kim Eul-boon, Yu Seung-ho, Dong Hyo-hee
Country: South Korea
Year released: 2002
Runtime: 80 min
Rating: *** ½ (out of four stars)
The Way Home is without a doubt one of the best films to come out of Asia this year - and yet, it boasts no special effects, no big name actors, no frenetic action, no camera effects, and no tricky editing. The Way Home is filmmaking at its purest - telling a story - and this it does very well. Featuring a very simple story, of a city-bred brat sent to the countryside to stay with his mute grandmother for a few months, writer-director Lee Jung-hyang manages to create a film that is accessible to a wide range of audiences, even to a jaded moviegoer like myself. Charming, heartwarming and moving, without being cloyingly sentimental, its little wonder that The Way Home was the winner of Best Picutre at the 2002 Golden Bells (the South Korean equivalent of the Oscars).
Sang Woo (Yoo Seung-ho) is a terribly spoilt city kid, used to indulging in the luxuries of life. However, times are bad, and one summer, Sang Woos mother has no choice but to leave him in the care of his mute grandmother (Kim Eul-boon) in order to look for a job. Sang Woos grandmother lives in a desolate mountain town, and all of a sudden, Sang Woo is deprived of almost all the indulgences in his life - there is no TV, no fast food, and after a while, even his electronic handheld game runs out of batteries. Forced to adapt very quickly to an extremely rural lifestyle, Sang Woo is very resentful of his grandmother at first, and makes things difficult for her at every turn.
However, Sang Woos grandmother is both patient and forgiving, and continually makes little sacrifices for her very spoilt grandson. Sang Woo is also forced to try and forge friendships with his grandmothers neighbors, and as he gradually loses the haughtiness of a city kid, he finds new friends in his surroundings. He also realizes the unconditional love that his grandmother has been dishing out to him, and Sang Woo finally bridges the gap and forges a strong bond with her.
What makes The Way Home head and shoulders above most Asian films this year? Firstly, the slice of life story is easily believable, and hence readily accepted by most audiences - many children these days have indeed become spoilt brats, and although Sang Woos behavior borders on the extreme, it doesnt require much suspension of disbelief to imagine a child performing such dastardly deeds. The generation gap between grandmother and grandson is also captured in very imaginative ways - for example, when Sang Woo craves for Kentucky Fried Chicken, his grandmother goes out of her way to obtain a chicken, but she serves it boiled to Sang Woo, who of course kicks up a huge fuss. Yet, its the attention to these small details that help flesh out the story, and kudos must go to Lee and her eye for detail.
The first act of The Way Home is also its strongest - the grandmother is mute, and Sang Woo is still reluctant to utter anything more than short sentences, leading to long stretches of silences in the film. Yet, due to no small part the good performances put forth by both actors, this first act is the most emotive part of the show, and consequently the most interesting. Although Yoo Seung-ho is above average, Kim Eul-boon is particularly amazing, as she puts forth a remarkably feisty performance despite her age and physical condition. The other actors in the film are mostly real villagers in the North Chungchong province, and thus come across as rather realistic portrayals of rural folk - they are, after all, playing themselves.
Only in the final reel does The Way Home falter a bit - it almost falls into the Asian Melodrama trap, loading on the sentimentality and unabashedly using the soundtrack to milk the audiences emotions. Its a little bit manipulative, but the final denouement thankfully does not take things too far down the melodramatic route. Its a heartwarming conclusion to a simple little movie, and if this is the route Lee is taking her films along, its going to be a promising ride.
Final Word: Extremely charming movie that manages to get just about everything right. Essential viewing for families with children.