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Itís an odd thing when a page from a history book thatís been floating in your head since childhood comes to life on the big screen.  So it is with cinematic renderings of stories of war and its aftermath.  The incidents may have happened decades, or even centuries ago, but a well-written, captivating film can transport a viewer right into the heart of it, at least as a spectator.

So it is with Ode to My Father, a tale of a Korean man nearing the end of his life, looking back on the things he endured and wondering at his place in it all.  In his 70th decade, Deok-su is known for his stubborn ownership of the ďimported goodsĒ shop in the market and his fierce temper.  This is revealed when agents come to persuade Deok-su to sell the store to developers.  That he is keeping the entire market from selling out makes no difference to him; itís his store and theyíll have to pry it out of his cold, dead hand to get it.  This tenacious grip on the things that mean much to Deok-su began early in life.  Weíre transported to the year 1950, in the North Korean port city of Hungnam.  Deok-suís family, including his parents, two infant siblings and toddler sister are preparing to flee for their lives.  The Chinese army is ready to invade and the only hope of the townspeople lies with the US Navy freighters ready to depart for their troopsí safety.  As they run for the sea, Deok-su is reminded over and over not to let go of his sisterís hand by his parents, whoíve packed all they own onto their backs.  Trying to stick together in the stampede of people on the brink of rescue, the inevitable occurs and the little boy is left with nothing more than the hem of his sisterís dress in his hands.  Before their father goes back to look for her, knowing he might not return, he charges Deok-su to act as the head of the household in his place and to always put their family first.

Having made it to their auntís Gukje Market store in Busan, the family lives the hardscrabble existence of poor refugees.  The guilt and responsibility for what happened during their escape haunts Deok-su all his young life, as we watch time pass and his hard efforts and sacrifices to keep his family, not only together, but thriving.  When his younger brotherís scholastic achievements gain him acceptance into a good university, Deok-su takes a dangerous tour overseas, labouring in a German coal mine to pay for the tuition.  The conditions are miserable and hazardous, but a chance encounter with Yeong-ja, a Korean student nurse, changes his life.  Back home with a bride and growing family of his own, Deok-su cannot rest until all his siblings are settled and when his younger sister complains of being unable to make a good marriage because of their poverty, Deok-su takes work in the middle of war-torn Vietnam, a decision that terrifies his wife, who cannot understand his constant sacrifices or the ghosts that drive him.  All Deok-su knows is his promise to his father so many years ago and the heartache of not being able to save his little sister.  Like so many separated during the Korean War, Deok-suís family never gave up hope that they might somehow be reunited with their missing father and sister.  Deok-suís family, one of millions of separated refugees in search of their loved ones, prays that a television show dedicated to reconciling those broken families, might finally bring them all together.

Ode to My Father is an epic odyssey that feels so personal, it is impossible not to be engrossed in the emotion of the story.  Even if the finer points of the historical aspects arenít as well-known to western eyes, it is universally moving.  Yet, for all its inherent melodrama, director Yoon Je-kyun {Sex is Zero, Haeundae, Dancing Queen} and writer Park Soo-jin (Dancing Queen) manage to fill the script with so much humour, intelligence and likeability, that Ode to My Father feels less of a manipulative or contrived tearjerker and far more genuine and organic.  Add to that the filmís excellent pacing and thrilling renderings of historical events; the 1950 Hungnam Evacuation, the German recruitment of Korean coal miners in the 1960s, and the Fall of Saigon viewed from Deok-suís Forrest Gump-ish ďyou were thereĒ perspective.  There are also clever inserts; like our discovery of the reason why older Deok-su is singer Nam Jinís biggest fanboy, a perplexing shoe shine with future Hyundai car magnate, Jung Ju-young, a run-in with an eccentric fabric seeker, Koreaís first male fashion designer, Andre Kim {Kim Bong-nam}, and teaching young ssireum wrestler, Lee Man-gi {Man-ki} to respect his elders.  Now while I said this was not a manipulative tearjerker, that doesnít mean one should attend Ode to My Father without a Costco-sized pack of Kleenex.  Director Yoon Je-kyun chooses his moments when it comes to turning on the waterworks and occasionally there are floods.  In some cases, he practically telegraphs whatís going to happen (as in the case of the parents constantly reminding little Deok-su to hold tight to his sisterís hand) and one might even call it predictable, but Yoon has invested so much in making us feel for and enjoy the characters, thereís no shame in the lack of surprises or the mass of sniffles.

So much of that likability and the steadiness of the high level of emotion comes from the filmís excellent cast, led by Hwang Jung-min (The Unjust, Dancing Queen) as Deok-su.  Hwang gives his best portrayal yet as the nose-to-the-grindstone youth with the weight of the world on his shoulders, who grows into a true and sturdy patriarch, and eventually into a crusty, ďget-off-my-lawnĒ-type grandfather who delights in the teaching his little grandchildren scandalous things to shock their parents.  Everything about the performance is on point, from his youthful brashness and determination when the chance to go to the coal mines is offered, to the shyness of Deok-suís first love, where simply shaking his ladyís hand is enough to send him whooping through the air.  We believe his refusal to give up when it comes to doing for his family, no matter what the risk, and yet he does so with a good nature and no regrets; itís merely what he must do as the head of the household, as his father wouldíve done.  Hwang Jung-min seems to have such a great time as the older Deok-su; relishing the lack of restraint that seniority gives the elderly, and his posture and movements as the septuagenarian are completely convincing (despite the sometimes foam-rubbery ageing prosthetics).  In other films, Iíve sometimes felt thereís a laid-back affect to Hwang Jung-minís acting that keeps me from truly enjoying his work, but thereís none of that here and he is completely given over to the role in effort and energy. 

Kim Yunjin, best known as Sun from TVís Lost, also does some time travelling as Yeong-ja; from the lonely young nurse in Germany, to the tough mother trying to protect her family, and finally as the loving mate of her cranky old man in their twilight years.  There is a moment early in her role that could have easily been lost to the schmaltz as she pleads for Deok-suĎs life in the coal mines, but Kim is so compelling to watch that she elevates what really was a pretty cheesy scene.  She is a match for Hwang Jung-min and one feels they push each other toward excellence in their scenes together.  I also very much enjoyed Oh Dal-su as Deok-suís best pal and partner through the crazy adventures of their lives.  Oh is given the broader comedy to run with and heís got the perfect level on it; from the evolving hairdos of the times, to his dream-come-true turned nightmare encounter with a zaftig German matron; we understand why he and Deok-su are still sitting on the bench, teasing each other after so many years.

Schmaltzy? Maybe.  Predictable? Could be.  Sentimental? Unabashedly.  Yet I could not find not fault with any of those things, because Ode to My Father does much more than just tug at the heartstrings.  Its perspective on the events of a not-long-ago history and how it still affects people with us today, is an eye-opener.  I appreciated learning - even in this fictional arena - about the lives of Koreans who mightíve shared similar experiences as Deok-suís family and their challenges during that very turbulent time.  Yet those points were made with so much humour and amiability that the film never felt like a harangue or lecture.

Immensely entertaining, heartfelt and brilliantly acted, Ode to My Father is a great start to this new movie viewing year.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

January 9th, 2015

 

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