As one who cried over Bambi's mother as a youth, teared up over E.T. as an adult, and drench myself every time I watch Zefferelli's Romero and Juliet or see Meryl Streep's unnerving performance in Sophie's Choice, I'm a prime candidate for a real tear-jerker. I just want the tears to come naturally, however, and not feel blatantly manipulated with conventional fare. I really was hoping that The Way Home (Jibeuro) would make my short list of palatable sentimental cinema treats. We get so few Korean films screened in the U.S., and the fact that non-actor Eul-boon Kim was cast as the grandmother lent much anticipation for an enjoyable evening. Unfortunately, the screenplay is so unsubstantial, relying so much on melodrama and failing to develop its stereotypical characters, that it doesn't hold up to arthouse standards (though it may play well as a double feature with mainstream foreign mush like My Big Fat Greek Wedding).
The film is lightweight enough to screen at the local multi-plex (and actually is much higher quality than the usual pre-Oscar film offerings), but it doesn't have enough action to satisfy that crowd, making me wonder just exactly what audience the film strives to meet. Is the public so shallow that all it demands is mindless formula plots so transparent that you know exactly what the outcome will be within the first five minutes? Has television so overcome filmmaker's creative sensibilities that they must resort to melodrama—practically hanging signs of "Boo the obnoxious spoiled brat" and "Cheer the patient, loving old grandma" as the film plods along familiar paths.
Certainly, American consumerism has corrupted the youth of Korea, as portrayed in The Way Home. Seven-year-old Sang-woo (Seung-ho Yu) is completely absorbed in his Gameboy as his mother (Hyo-hee Dong) accompanies him on the bus to deposit him with his grandmother. She's obviously irritated with her young son, and for good reason. Every word he utters demonstrates self-centeredness and extreme rudeness. In a culture where elders are supposed to be revered, the obnoxious brat kicks his mother and calls his mute grandmother horrible names—"dumb," "stupid," "retard."
After the setup, is there anyone who doesn't anticipate that the kindly grandmother won't transform the incorrigible child into a lovable tyke by movie's end? All the scriptwriter does is come up with scenes that reinforce the same pattern to demonstrate the spoiled kid's disdain for his grandmother's subsistence lifestyle—the Gameboy scenario, roller blading circles inside the shack, throwing a tantrum for Kentucky Fried Chicken. It's a relief to see the kid quivering and using sphincter control before dropping a load into the ceramic bowl—a measure of justice to see him suffer a bit, as well as signal that he just might be human.
The only real reason to watch this film is to see Kim at work. She's the only major character that comes across as a real person, and does this all with her eyes and gestures—she has no dialogue outside of rudimentary sign language. Perhaps a convenient device for a non-actor, but her method of silent communicating effectively makes her more memorable. In fact, the best scene in the entire film pairs Kim with another non-actor—a compassionate elderly shop owner with bad knees. In contrast, most of the scenes with her grandson feel staged and false.
Of course, Kim acts the part of the stereotypical grandmother, who eventually wins the stubborn heart of her grandson through unrequited love, but just one deserved rebuke would make her less like Mother Theresa and more human. We don't see much of Sang-woo's mother, but her disciplinary slaps seem more like peer play than the beatings that her obnoxious child would receive in real life. Director should take a whip to himself for writing such a shallow screenplay and creating such an over the top cartoonishly bad young Sang-woo. Most parents would have dumped this kid off in an orphanage long ago, and his sociopathic behavior would never be instantly quelled with a few acts of kindness.
The Way Home does have saving graces. The photography is very well done—cinematographer Hong-shik Yoon conscientiously frames numerous shots within windows and trees to craft a beautifully composed portraits, many worthy of art gallery display. Korean films are so rarely released into U.S. theaters that people starved for Asian films will enjoy seeing Korean culture on the big screen, and Kim truly is a delight. Besides gaining a rare glimpse at Korean culture, most people who will enjoy this are comforted in conventional heartwarming stories about family—in this case, the way a grandmother's love can heal a cold-hearted urchin from the modern world. Its manipulative tear jerking moments are far too familiar to make Jeong-hyang Lee's film memorable, but it'll play well enough on a small screen when you're in the mood for light melodrama.