Sunday, March 22, 2015
The Way Home
The Way Home (2002) is an 88 minute Korean film "dedicated to all Grandmothers". This is the movie's closing title and, perhaps unfortunately, it is sincere. The picture is well-meaning, precisely observed, and shot in an unobtrusive, if pretty, manner. The two protagonists are effectively portrayed -- a selfish, bratty seven-year-old, Sang-Woon, and his 75 year old grandmother. Korean movies have a unique sensibility -- they commingle extreme violence and savagery with the most saccharine sentimentality. In this respect, The Way Home, although very mild and PG-rated, is characteristic: the movie is predictably sentimental, although in a very hard-headed manner that does not stint on representations of cockroaches, defecation, and rural poverty. The premise of the movie is slight: a 38 year-old career woman from Seoul, apparently down on her luck, brings her seven-year old son to the country to live with her elderly grandmother. The old woman is shockingly crippled -- she walks with a cane and has a ninety-degree angle in the center of her spine. The ancient crone seems far too old to be the cute career girl's mother -- rather, she seems like a figure from an immemorial, ancient past, something like the hag with the hoe who comes to the forefront of the mob of villagers to hack to death one of the captured bandits in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, a living memento mori figure. The old lady moves very, very slowly, her difficulties aggravated by the fact that she resides in a ramshackle log cabin at the very top of a rugged mountain. To reach her shack, she has to navigate a steep, rocky trail with many switchbacks. The old woman's house seems to have no electricity and no running water. She carries water up the mountain, two buckets on a yoke that she bears on her hunched shoulders. Of course, the little boy is horrified by the poverty and isolation. When he begs her for "Kentucky chicken", she kills a rooster and boils it -- the little boy is appalled by the greasy-looking stark white meat floating in a pot. "It's supposed to be fried," he whines. Worse, the old lady is mute -- although she can apparently hear, she communicates by pantomime. The career girl leaves the boy with about 20 cans of Spam, something that the child apparently enjoys, and vanishes on one of the ramshackle buses that serve the hillbillies in their picturesque, vertical slum. The rest of the film is predictable enough. The little boy despises his grandmother, at first, but, then, comes to love her. It's a Walt Disney premise, although played out with characteristically Korean harshness -- the little boy's mother pummels him when he talks back to her and the kid revenges himself on his granny by stealing her shoes (we see that her feet are mangled with toes sticking out in all directions) and breaking the one luxury item that she owns, a beautiful pottery vase. There is a "crazy cow' that chases the local kids up a path and the little boy, Disney-style is, even, given a love interest, a similarly young girl that he tries to impress. The film maker seems to have studied Bresson, particularly the French director's images of rural poverty in films like Mouchette, and much of the movie consists of silent, long takes showing people engaged in quotidian activities. There's more to the movie than meets the eye and, as I summarize the film here, I recall a number of scenes more effective in retrospect than in actual duration on the screen. There are all sorts of incongruities in the film -- first, I imagine South Korea to be technologically advanced and so the rural poverty that the film shows is startling: the old woman might be living in a film set among peasants in the 14th century. Second, the relationship between the old crone and her daughter is hard to explain: the two women seem to come from completely different worlds. In fact, the career woman looks entirely unlike the fat, red-faced peasants, a group of Brueghel-like grotesques who seem to comprise a race and species very different from the svelte girl from Seoul. Finally, the film's structure and form is weirdly inconsistent: a Disney-influenced odd couple comedy is presented in an austere, minimalist style. (For instance, the film's last image is a long shot of the old lady all alone and bent-double and laboriously climbing the rubble-strewn switchbacks to her shack, "the way home" of the film's title). I would like to suggest this picture to my readers. But, in fact, the movie is dull, at least thirty minutes too long for its slight premise, and, more or less, pointless.