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Festival Film Review: This Road Called Life

Following on from the success of their feature-length animation Green Days, Studio MWP worked with Korean TV broadcaster EBS to produce a trio of short films which adapt three familiar short stories which are studied by most Koreans in high school: Yi Hyo-seok’s Buckwheat Season, Kim Yu-jeong’s Spring, Spring, and A Lucky Day by Hyun Jin-geon. The collection has been given the title This Road Called Life for the international market (in Korea the film goes by the name Buckwheat Season, Spring, Spring and A Lucky Day), a title which highlights the fact that the three segments focus on the hardships and pleasures of the different stages of a man’s life.

Buckwheat flowers gently waving in the moonlit breeze
Buckwheat flowers gently waving in the moonlit breeze opens the set of three films

Probably the most famous of the stories is Yi Hyo-seok’s Buckwheat Season, that opens the trilogy. To anyone who knows the story (simple as it is) the opening scenes of buckwheat flowers blowing gently in the wind is likely to bring a tear to the eye even before the narrative has started. You are immediately reassured, and know that you are in safe hands with directors An Jae-hoon and Han Hye-jin.

The journey during which the secret comes out
The journey during which the secret comes out

The story-telling follows the original closely. We start with a scene at Bongpyeong market, where two elderly pedlars, Huh Saengwon and Cho Sondal, aren’t doing much business and decide to have a quick drink at the local tavern before setting off on the long walk to the next market. Huh reprimands a young pedlar for womanising in the tavern, and then is surprised that the younger man alerts him to the fact that his donkey is being taunted by some young urchins. A flashback tells us of the long bond between man and beast, and then the three pedlars set off on the road together as the older man reminisces about a one-night stand with a charming bar girl. The revelation at the end of the story is sensitively done. Some who have never read the story can see the punchline coming – as indeed can people who read the story for the first time. But even if you know what is coming, the way that the son is momentarily made to look like the mother can again bring a tear to the eye of a sensitive soul. The revelation is then perhaps unnecessarily reinforced by focusing on the shared left-handedness of father and son. The segment is a visual treat which allows you to wallow in a homely, possibly very familiar, story and just enjoy yourself.

The narrator in Spring, Spring pretends to have a stomach ache
The narrator in Spring, Spring pretends to have a stomach ache to get out of rice planting

The second segment, Kim Yu-jeong’s Spring, Spring, is perhaps more challenging to adapt to the screen. The original story is a first-person narrative and tells of the narrator’s various frustrations at being exploited by his prospective father-in-law, who tells him he can’t marry his under-sized daughter until she has grown a little. The problem of how to convey the narrator’s inner thoughts without resorting to a rather tedious voiceover is neatly solved by having much of the first-person narrative told by a pansori-style sound-track, which manages to convey the volume of thoughts and frustrations which occupy the young man in an entertaining way. The growing interest of the girl in her potential husband is deftly done, as is the growing resistance in the narrator.Again, the pastoral setting is a visual treat, and the fight between son-in-law and father-in-law that finally secures the wedding date is suitably entertaining.

Trying to get custom outside the city gates
A Lucky Day: Trying to get custom outside the city gates

The final section is an adaptation of the rather depressing A Lucky Day by Hyun Jin-geon, and suitably the colour palette used is full of dark shades of brown. This is a story I have never learned to love, both because it is a miserable tale, with the title heavily ironic (a rickshaw driver has a record day’s worth of fares, and decides to stay out drinking while his wife dies in the hovel that they call home), and because the central character is so unsympathetic in the way he addresses his wife. The animations catches it all – the rainy streets of Seoul in the 1930s, the depressing lifestyle of the impoverished coolie, and his elation at getting a string of profitable fares. But because of its ending, which rounds off the collection, it leaves the viewer feeling on a down – not the way you want to emerge from a theatre.

Urban Seoul in the 1930s in A Lucky Day
Urban Seoul in the 1930s in A Lucky Day

In the miserable ending, though, it is totally faithful to the original, and there has been no attempt to make the story prettier than the text on which it is based. In fact, throughout all three films the directors show a deep respect the original tales, and it is hard to imagine a better adaptation.

This Road Called Life screened on Wednesday afternoon, 12 November, as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2014.

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