'I Can Speak': Film Review

An important and timely story that could use a bit more grace and nuance.

Veteran actress Na Moon-hee anchors director Kim Hyun-suk’s critical and popular comedy-drama.

Any discussion of musical comedy C’est Si Bon director Kim Hyun-suk’s I Can Speak is nigh impossible without spoilers (which will inevitably follow). Four years in the making, Kim’s latest pivots from generational comedy to issue-based drama with an awkward mid-point “twist” that walks a tightrope between exposition and exploitation. The film, about a senior citizen, played with gusto and sensitivity by veteran Na Moon-hee (Miss Granny), who goes from bureaucratic nuisance, to language student, to national hero, was a massive holiday hit at home in South Korea, and went on to clean up at the Blue Dragon Awards (Korea’s highest film honors) at the end of 2017. And now the spoilers shall begin.

The subject of Japanese subjugation and the related war crimes lurks just under the surface in any cultural conversation in Korea, and goes a long way to explaining the film’s increasing box-office numbers week-to-week upon release; word of mouth became a major factor as soon as it was clear the main character was based on activist Lee Yong-soo. Beyond Korea’s borders, I Can Speak is blessed with an accidental currency in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, given its real subject matter is indeed power and sexual abuse. The story will resonate in many parts of Asia Pacific, where it should easily find a healthy audience, but its tangential historical connection to recent news could also earn it some traction in overseas urban markets.

I Can Speak begins with Nah Ok-boon, also known as the Goblin Granny (Na), filling out yet another citizen's complaint at her district office. At the moment, she’s doing her best to prove a developer is sabotaging the buildings in her neighborhood in order to speed up redevelopment. The new guy at the office, Kim Min-jae (Lee Je-hoon), agrees to look after her complaints, much to the pleasure of the rest of the office staff. When Ok-boon finds out Min-jae speaks English really well, she browbeats him into teaching her, for reasons he has yet to figure out.

Up to this point, I Can Speak plays out as a generational comedy, wherein the spunky, if lonely, old lady and the fastidious, by-the-book civil servant form an unlikely bond, enter into shenanigans and come out the other side better people. It’s also at this point the film swings wildly into drama territory, when it’s discovered Na’s urgency to learn English stems from her need to fill in for a dying friend at congressional hearings in Washington for (the very real) HR121: the U.S. House of Representatives resolution demanding Japan acknowledge its policy of forced prostitution during World War II.

As intellectually and morally unassailable as it is, I Can Speak, as a film, is emotionally manipulative and narratively schizophrenic. It’s two movies, perhaps three, in one, that could easily perform as a strong 90-minute drama on its own: one about an elderly woman on the side of urbanism and fighting city hall; another a Harold and Maude-ish dramedy about an elderly woman and her young friend; and finally a real examination of the legacy of Japan’s wartime comfort women program in Korea. Instead, Kim and writer You Seung-hee cram all three into the same two hours and wind up setting an ambush with the third act twist that sends Ok-boon on her path to Washington and the viewer down a tonal black hole. There’s something distinctly uncomfortable about the comic elements brushing up so closely to the historical ones (Ok-boon flips the bird at a pair of mustache-twirling Japanese bureaucrats after her testimony), and even more disconcerting about how Kim and You go heavy on sentimentalism. Despite a genuinely moving sequence between Ok-boon and her friend and neighbor Jin-ju (Yeom Hye-ran) as the latter tries to parse how hard it was for Ok-boon to stay silent, they’ve essentially turned a grotesque moment in 20th century history into melodrama — complete with a mad dash to the airport/last minute courtroom heroics.

Still, stilted performances by the English-speaking actors, a poorly realized Min-jae — which is more You’s sloppy characterization than Lee’s performance — and egregiously sneering Japanese villains can't really detract from Na’s turn as Ok-boon, who manages to keep the film mostly dignified. I Can Speak slots in with Kim’s previous work in that it’s technically adept, if unremarkable in its language, but not nearly as nuanced as 2002’s YMCA Baseball Team, which cleverly wrapped a discussion of Japanese imperialism inside a conventional sports film. The pic is a novel spin on a ceaselessly hot-button subject, but it’s not a subject that really demands novelty.

Production company: Seesun Pictures, Myung Film
Cast: Na Moon-hee, Lee Je-hoon, Pak Chul-min, Yeom Hye-ran, Sung Yu-bin, Lee Sang-hee, Kim So-jin, Son Sook
Director: Kim Hyun-suk
Screenwriter: You Seung-hee
Producer: Choi Joo-seob
Executive producer: Jamie Shim, Kang Ji-yeon
Director of photography: Yu Eok
Production designer: Choi Yeon-sik
Costume designer: Shin Ji-young
Editor: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum
Music: Lee Dong-joon
World sales:
Little Big Pictures

In Korean
119 minutes