'Ode to My Father' ('Gukje Shijang'): Berlin Review
JK Youn's Korean decade-spanning family drama arrives at the Berlinale after a record-breaking run at home and a limited release in the U.S.
The title of JK Youn's latest blockbuster is an understatement: boasting an epic timespan, Park Soo-jin's relentless tear-jerking screenplay and Lee Byeong-woo's overwhelming musical score, Ode to My Father resembles more a symphony than a sonnet.
Revolving around a man's struggle to keep his family together and afloat through perilous ventures at home and abroad - a journey bringing him from Korean backalleys to Southeast Asian warzones, via a spell in a German coal mine - Youn's high-octane aesthetics would easily make Steven Spielberg a minimalist.
Just as the film's two lead characters managed to pass a job interview by a bravura show of patriotism, Ode to My Father triumphs in sentimentality than either style or substance. Relying heavily on its domestic audience's familiarity with the simplistic, mythical narrative about South Korea's post-war passage to prosperity, the film has mesmerized Korean viewers - a whopping 10 million of them - into forgiving its flaws, such as the haphazard handling of details (an undereducated laborer coining the English term of "timing" in the 1960s; Czech signs in a street scene supposedly set in Germany), the episodic narrative (with its characters shoved from one historical landmark to another) and a jumpy style of storytelling (as overwrought tragedy abruptly gives way to wacky comedy, with both sometimes appearing at once).
While still featuring some awe-inspiring special effects here and there - the whirling scene depicting the wave of refugees sweeping across cities and beaches fleeing the arriving Chinese army in 1950, or the bomb explosions in a sequence set in wartime Saigon - Ode To My Father doesn't speak the universal genre language which brought his previous tsunami hit, Haeundae, some niche traction outside Asia. Belying its original title - which translates to "International Market", a reference to the location of the lead characters' imported-goods shop in Busan - Ode's appearance in Berlin as a Panorama Special title, a month after its limited release in the U.S., is perhaps its final international hoorah before its release in markets closer to home.
As its title suggests, Ode to My Father is Youn's tribute to the steeled will of survival of his parents' generation. The epitome of all this lies in Doo-suk (Hwang Jin-min, New World), a Korean equivalent of Forrest Gump seen as navigating the breakup of his family during the mass exodus of northern families to the US-controlled south during the Korean War in 1950, stints working in German coal-faces in the 1960s and in markets in war-torn Vietnam in the 1970s, and finally his tortuous mission of finding his lost father and sister in the 1980s.
Armed with bombastic music, Youn doesn't waste a single opportunity in exploiting these scenarios for all its melodramatic worth. Ode to My Father doesn't operate with nuances anyway, as it turns away from many a turbulent and omnipresent issue in 20th century Korean history, and regresses towards the reactionary characterizations of yore: on one side, bumbling but responsible men; on the other, long-suffering wives and screeching waifs (with Lost alumnus Kim Yun-jin's role of Doo-suk's wife alternating between the two).
It's perhaps telling by exploring the representations of two real-life historical characters in the story: despite his company now seen as one of the many conglomerates having excessive control over the Korean economy, Chung Yu-jung and his company Hyundai are portrayed as benign and innovative; meanwhile, the late fashion designer André Kim appears as disturbingly camp during his brief visit to Doo-suk's shop, his nonsensical mix of English and Korean and his idea of shattering gender roles played up as a joke. Ode To My Father is all about the evocation of a beautiful past in the most brutal of ways.
Production companies: JK Film
Cast: Hwang Jung-min, Kim Yun-jin, Oh Da-sul, Jang Young-nam, Jung Jin-young
Director: JK Youn
Screenwriter: Park Soo-jin
Producers: JK Youn, Park Ji-sung, Lee Sang-zik, Lee Chang-hyun, Kim Yang-youn
Executive producers: Jeong Tae-sung, Michelle Kwon
Directors of photography: Choi Young-hwan, Kim Hyung-seok
Production designer: Ryu Seong-hie
Costume designers: Kwon Yoo-jin, Rim Seung-hee
Editor: Lee Jin
Music: Lee Byeong-woo
International Sales: CJ Entertainment
In Korean, German, English and Vietnamese
No rating; 126 minutes