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Festival Film Review: Ode to My Father

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The time is the present. Yoon Deok-su, a grandfather living in Busan but born in South Hamgyong province in North Korea, looks back at his life of hardship which has coincided exactly with the life of the Republic of Korea. Surrounded by his grandchildren, he has managed to raise his family from nothing to relative prosperity, and throughout his life his family has owned a small shop in Busan’s International Market (국제 시장) which gives the film its Korean title.

As Deok-su reminisces, the movie flashes back to four major episodes in his life and South Korea’s history over the past 70 years:

  1. The Korean War – and specifically the evacuation of North Korean civilians from Hungnam Port on the East Coast in December 1950, soon after the Chinese intervened on the North Korean side. Deok-su escapes to Busan but loses both his younger sister and father in the chaos – losses that shape his future. He now bears the responsibility of being head of the family at the tender age of five years old. We see scenes from his early experiences in Busan where even in the chaos of war his mother and aunt make sure he attends school.
  2. The call by Germany for Korean labourers to work in their coal mines and nurses to work in their hospitals. Deok-su responds to the call to give his family some much-needed income.
  3. The Vietnam War, in which South Korea sent troops to fight on the side of the US. Again, Deok-su responds. The scenes in Vietnam allow the film to make the point as to how far South Korea has come in 20 years. During the Korean war it was the Korean children chasing US soldiers for chocolate handouts. Two decades later it’s the Koreans handing out chocolate to the Vietnamese.
  4. The reunions in 1983 which aimed to bring together families living in South Korea who had been separated by the war. (This episode was the subject of Im Kwon-taek’s masterpiece Gilsotteum).

Each flashback features hardship and heroism in the face of adversity, and if you are hard-hearted enough not to have had tears welling up in the first three chapters you should nevertheless be in floods of tears during the fourth.

In the Q&A which followed the screening, JK Youn explained he wanted an occasional bit of humour to lighten the emotional and dramatic tone of the movie. He realised that having the main characters introduce the humorous elements would not work dramatically, and so he introduced some light-hearted real-world references. A pretentious and very camp young (Andre) Kim Bong-nam visits the family stall to get ideas as to contemporary fabrics. A young Mr Chung discusses his dreams for making ships as he drives off in his small Hyundai pick-up. A young captain in the Vietnam War is in fact the singer Nam Jin, to whose songs Duk-soo remains fanatically loyal for the rest of his life. And there must be countless other contemporary references at which those who have lived through the period will nod knowingly (Was that Yu Hyun-mok’s Daughters of Pharmacy Kim screening in the background in one scene? And what were the movies being advertised at the local cinema?)

The production budget looked expensive, with shooting in Czechoslovakia (standing in for 1960s Germany) and Thailand (standing in for Vietnam), while the Hungnam evacuation was heavy with CGI. Hwang Jung-min stars as Deok-su in the present and chapters 2-4, and he is supported throughout by his best friend Dal-gu played by Oh Dal-soo – the ubiquitous actor who was the first Korean actor to generate 100 million box office admissions.

As an overview of some of the key episodes which have formed modern Korea, and a lecture in the virtues of dedication, hard work and loyalty to the family, it’s reasonably easy to see why this film was so popular in Korea particularly when packed with such drama and strong performances from key members of the cast. But those same elements also make it a compelling viewing experience to foreign audiences.

Yoon Je-kyoon (윤제균) Ode to My Father (국제시장, 2014) score-2score-2score-2score-2score-0

One thought on “Festival Film Review: Ode to My Father

    • Stephen Epstein: I finally got to see this on a plane the other night, and I was…um… distinctly unimpressed, maybe even more so for having had high expectations for it as a recent must see film. I don’t want to be too cynical, but I personally found it overwrought, manipulative and not so well acted, and the Andre Kim bit was outright embarrassing. The similarities with Peppermint Candy (historical explanation to justify why a man has become so bitter, series of flashbacks, even a leg wound with important thematic implications) just served to highlight what a masterpiece the latter film is. Anyway, I don’t write this to take away from your review, which is more in line with other opinions I’ve heard, but just to say (especially for other Koreanist friends who might be wondering about the film) that, as always, your mileage may vary……10 November at 07:06
    • Bette Davis: I really enjoyed this film. It reminded me a lot of my own ancestral history in many ways so that’s where the film got me. Plus the fact that I understood that Deoksu’s character was kind of an avatar in a way, because he was used to show the struggles of a lot of people as opposed to one person. Interacting with a lot of old people in Korea made me realise that they are all Deoksu in a way. Overall I really enjoyed the film and Hwang Jung-Min is a great actor (and very sweet in real life!)· 10 November at 08:03
    • Stephen Epstein: Just as another data point, I should add that I had a very similar reaction to Forrest Gump, a film that Ode to My Father is also pretty clearly referencing as well. Bette, if you haven’t seen Peppermint Candy, I can’t recommend it highly enough, though it is very different in tone and approach despite all the thematic similarity. I guess what I’d also say is that Ode to My Father has a really Hollywood sensibility, which is not a preference either.· 10 November at 08:11
    • Bette Davis: Yeah I did my own review of it where I compared it to Forest Gump. I’ll check out peppermint candy too· 10 November at 08:13
    • Andrew Salmon: Stephen: RE: “overwrought, manipulative and not so well acted” – doh! Korean film + historical subject = the above. Was speaking to an elderly and very smart Korean who lived through the colonial period on Sat and he was excoriating the fantasy of so-called historical drama “Amsal” – “Gunfights in Seoul against the Japanese? And this was meant to be a historical film?!?”· 11 November at 02:33
    • Stephen Epstein: Andrew, I don’t think that that conclusion is a given at all. Lots of great films from the 1998-2005. Peppermint Candy and Memories of Murder, e.g., both treat historical subjects and are both subtle, thoughtful and brilliantly acted. The last decade has seen a drop in quality, but for a while Korea was putting out some of the best cinema in the world on such themes, I’d say. 11 November at 02:38 ·
    • 앤서방: I too was disappointed by the film, especially since my favoutite actor Hwang Jung Min was in it and he gave a great performance. My main objection is that, through showing real events in Korea’s recent past, it manages a distortion of history that is very favourable to the Park Cheung Hee dictatorship, negates the struggle of students and workers in bringing about democracy and a share in prosperity, and mentions nothing of US attrocities against Korean people before and during the Korean War, or SK / US ones in Vietnam. Even the Chaebols are made to look cute.

      As the late great Prof Howard Zinn said, ‘distortion of history is rarely done through lying, rather it is acheived through omission of some facts and exaggeration of others’. At a time when Park Geun Hye’s government has just passed controversial legislation to only allow government produced history textbooks in schools, to teach what they sinisterly term ‘correct history’, ‘Ode to My Father’ is a depressing glimpse at what ‘correct’ history could look like. And the most damning criticism of all is that Park Geun Hye reportedly enjoyed the film.

      100% agree about ‘Peppermint Candy’!!· 22 hrs

    • Stephen Epstein: Very good points. I was already put off early on in the Hungnam evacuation when we had the noble Korean remonstrating with the (apparently hard-hearted) American general, who, unlike in The Host has a change of heart. All the interactions with the outside world were fairly embarrassing: the caricature bullying of the S. Asian immigrant, put down by the protagonist (handled far more adroitly in Banga, Banga; Where’s Ronny, Bandhobi); the (again) noble Koreans who remonstrate with the (again) hard-hearted German director of the mine; the (again) noble Koreans working to save a besieged Vietnamese village or distributing chocolates to VN kids–it was the single biggest whitewash of Korean involvement in VN that I’ve seen in film…21 hrs ·

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