Film Review: Make Yourself at Home

BOTTOM LINE: What could have been a promising if modest drama quickly spirals out of control.

Pusan International Film Festival
Gala presentation

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When a Korean woman has her marriage arranged to a Korean-American man, the usual clash of cultures and individual feelings of displacement come to the surface in "Make Yourself at Home," the debut feature by Sohn Soopum. It's familiar territory, and Sohn does little to contribute anything fresh to the canon. Unconvincing performances, characters devoid of empathy and a heavily contrived plot overwhelm some of Sohn's more pointed observations about Korean marriage beliefs, assimilation, identity and superstition.

Had "Home" boasted a modicum of narrative credibility, it could have mined the same limited art house territory as "West 32nd," particularly taking into consideration the film's recognizable face (television star Song Hye-kyo) and mix of Korean and American elements. The film could have a short life in Asia before vanishing into obscurity.

Sookhy (Song) relocates to an affluent New Jersey suburb after marrying Peter (Rob Yang), a successful lawyer. Initially apprehensive about all things American, Sookhy looks to neighbors Julie (Athena Currey) and John (Arno Frisch) for guidance. While trying to fit in to her new surroundings and hold on to her sense of self at the same time, Sookhy also has Peter's domineering mother (June Kyoko Lu) to deal with. A tragic death and rumors regarding Sookhy's latent shamanistic talents lead to misdirected romantic obsession with the requisite tragic finale.

Cursed as it is with stiff performances -- and a one-dimensional one from Song -- silly contrivances (a death by 5-year-old mushroom overdose?) and outright grating archetypes, "Home" falls apart on several levels before it even gets started. Sohn's feeble attempt at a third-act mystery won't fool astute viewers, and makes most of what came before it irrelevant.

There are some pithy comments and subtle jabs aimed at Korean traditions that create a power struggle between mothers- and daughters-in-law, knowing observations of Koreans' seemingly inherently competitive and insular nature, and the beginnings of a clever examination of cultural subjugation. But the film's goofier elements (like the aforementioned mushrooms) and tired rendering of Americans as oversexed hedonists trump its meager strengths.

Cast: Song Hye-kyo, Arno Frisch, Athena Currey, Rob Yang, June Kyoko Lu.
Director/screenwriter/director of photography/editor: Sohn Soopum.
Producers: Sohn Somyung, Eve Annenberg, Sean Meenan.
Executive producer: Jung Sang-hyun.
Production designer: Nam Eun-kyung, Park Choon-Woo.
Costume designer: John McNulty.
Music: Aaron Severini.
Sales agent: Sohn Somyung.
No rating, 86 minutes.
production: Starfish Pictures.