Director: Lee Jeong-hyang
Starring: Yoo Seung-ho, Kim Eul-boon
Female director Lee Jeong-hyang released one of the most acclaimed films in South Korean cinema, with 2002’s hit The Way Home. Shot on a small budget in a country village, with a cast of unknowns, it earned rave reviews the world over and garnered many prestigious film awards.
The Way Home’s protagonist, Sang Woo (Yu Seung Ho), is a spoilt and selfish seven-year-old boy who lives in Seoul with his single mother. Used to being pampered and pandered to, Sang Woo is shocked to be dispatched to a rural village to stay temporarily with his mute and deaf grandmother, when his mother experiences financial hardship after a failed business venture and needs time to find alternative employment.
In this alien environment Sang Woo feels like a fish out of water and repeatedly lashes out at his kindly grandmother, who nonetheless tends to his every whim. Over a period of several months, however, Sang Woo starts to appreciate the unselfish love of the benevolent, elderly woman and develops a conscience about his demanding behaviour. By the film’s conclusion, Sang Woo has matured noticeably and even appears reluctant to return to his city life.
Lee directs this coming of age storyline with remarkable ease, in a simple but effective style and with a realism reminiscent of documentaries. In East Asian society the Confucian concept of filial piety, the utmost regard for one’s elders, is hugely important in day to day life and intrinsic to the culture; drawing heavily on this, Lee crafts a heart-wrenching morality tale with an important lesson for selfish members of the younger generation.
Sang Woo gradually adapts to this way of thinking and is ultimately transformed for the better, a dramatic change which child star Yu Seung Ho executes flawlessly. Despite his initially naughty persona, Sang Woo’s lovable cheekiness ensures that the audience always feels sympathy towards his character, even in his most petulant moments.
Perhaps Lee’s most impressive accomplishment, though, is the casting of elderly rural village woman Kim Eul-boon as Sang Woo’s kind hearted grandmother. Living in a strikingly similar fashion to her on screen counterpart, Kim had never acted professionally, or even seen a film, prior to working on The Way Home and rises admirably to the challenge of playing a speech and hearing impaired character, by conveying a myriad of emotions through hand and facial expressions alone.
Filled with many touching and funny moments, The Way Home is also top notch from a technical point of view; the story is perfectly complemented by stunning cinematography of the Korean countryside and the magical background score interprets the film’s emotion, without ever being cheesy or clichéd. The Way Home’s tagline urges the viewer to “discover the magical movie that has captured the heart of a nation” and for me it marked the start of a passion for South Korean cinema, which continues to this day.