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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)