It used to be that the only Korean films to be seen in the U.S. were somber art-house films such as Jeong Ji-Yeong's White Badge or veteran Im Kwon-Taek's Chunhyang and Sopyonje. But as South Korea has developed a more technically sophisticated commercial film industry, these have been joined by such hard-edged, crowd-pleasing action flicks as Shiri, Tell Me Something, and Nowhere to Hide.
Lee Jeong-Hyang's The Way Home fits either both or neither of these categories. That is, it presents, sadly, the worst of both worlds -- the pacing of the driest art film and the lowest-common-denominator appeal of the most pandering Hollywood formula. (It is reportedly the highest-grossing Korean production in history.)
The story is simplicity itself: Loathsome spoiled brat learns the meaning of love from ever-patient Granny. The end.
A single mother (Dong Hyo-Hee) loses her job and realizes she can't look after her seven-year-old son while searching for work. Despite having long since cut off contact with her ancient mother (Kim Eul-Boon), she decides to dump the kid on Granny until she's back on her feet again.
The kid, Sang-Woo (Yoo Seung-Ho), is your basic Gameboy-playing, fast-food-eating urban type, so he's none too happy about being transplanted to Granny's house. "House" is actually inaccurate: The old lady lives in a tiny shack . . . at the top of a winding rocky path . . . above the last stop on a barely extant bus line . . . No indoor plumbing. No electricity. Sheer hell for a city kid.
But wait! That's not all! Grandma is also mute and illiterate, so there is no way to communicate with her, except through crude hand signals. And Grandma is . . . well . . . she's mentally backward. Lee goes out of her way to show us a scene of Granny playing with Sang-Woo's toys and being unable to figure out that the round peg doesn't go in the square hole. The inclusion of this unnecessary bit of business only makes sense as Lee's way of driving home that the old girl really is retarded.
One can hardly expect a seven-year-old to deal with such a situation gracefully, but it is a sign of how utterly rotten a kid Sang-Woo is that it's impossible to feel any sympathy for him. He is petulant, demanding, and cruel to the old lady.
Granny devotes herself to the spoiled kid, and for her to perform even the simplest task is quite an accomplishment: She is permanently bent over at a 90-degree angle and has to walk at a snail's pace. But no matter what she does, his response is to throw a tantrum and lambaste her as a "dummy." Yet Granny is a lovely, loving soul -- something that, for most of the film, is quite beyond Chang-Woo's ken. And then . . . suddenly . . . He realizes he loves her.
What effects this change? Not much. And therein lies the film's central problem. It's a dishonest tear-jerker -- one that manipulates the stock elements: Cute waif. Loving old woman. Bad behavior. Reformation. Learning how to love. These are things that would wring a bit of weeping from the most cynical viewers. But they'd hate themselves in the morning, and they'd be right to.