Way Back Home: Berlin Review

CJ Entertainment
Compelling if slightly predictable legal saga almost goes for the socio-political throat but ultimately settles on family sentiment.

Pang Eun-jin and Jeon Do-yeon team up for a high profile recreation of a harrowing true story.

When Schapelle Corby, the Australian woman arrested and jailed in Indonesia for drug trafficking, was recently paroled it served as a stark reminder just how intolerant many jurisdictions are to drug crimes, and also reminded us that drug laws are applied to all -- residents or otherwise. In the latest film by Korea’s answer to Kathryn Bigelow, Pang Eun-jin recounts the true story of a Korean housewife busted for smuggling in France and jailed in Martinique for two years, largely due to gross neglect by the Korean Embassy.

Though the emphasis in Way Back Home is more concentrated on the plight of a mother ripped away from her (continually wailing) daughter and husband rather than bureaucratic ineptitude and/or apathy and the utter collapse of the mechanisms that are ostensibly there to protect us in crises, it manages a level of empathy that should connect with audiences anywhere. Star Jeon Do-yeon (Secret Sunshine) turns in one of her career best performances as an average housewife who made a stupid mistake, and should ensure the film release across Asia and perhaps limited overseas markets.

Jeong-yeon (Jeon) and Jong-bae (Ko Soo), a young couple with a daughter and budding auto body business, are plunged into debt when a friend of Jong-bae’s defaults on a loan he didn’t even know he guaranteed. Broke, Jeong-yeon agrees to a scheme to mule some “gems” from France for yet another of Jong-bae’s shady friends, Mundo (Choi Min-chul), which turn out to be cocaine. She’s arrested at Orly for trafficking and begins a two-year ordeal in French custody, first in Fresnes and later on Martinique. For most of the time, Jong-bae is unaware of where she is, Jeong-yeon has no idea what’s going on due to a language barrier, and the embassy does nothing to help her, legally, until the media get involved.

Pang and writer Yoon Jin-ho have a fundamentally dramatic and activist story on their hands, in which Pang once again finds herself building a film that pivots on a fully realized female character, still a rarity in Korean cinema. And Pang understands mainstream genre storytelling having perfected the process with Princess Aurora and Perfect Number, and though she reduces much of the story to so-called feminine anguish (separation from her family, demonstrated in her numerous, philosophical letters home), there is an angry undercurrent that informs the narrative. Jeong-yeon is never painted as an angel -- she makes a boneheaded decision for quick cash -- but Pang and Yoon paint the self-serving, spineless consular staff and uncaring public defenders as the real villains.

Gripping, and infuriatingly tragic, as the case may be, a narrative conventionality lingers in Way Back Home’s construction. Pang doesn’t miss a genre beat: she gets plenty of help from Kim Jun-seong’s alternately soaring and saccharine score, hysterics come on cue and the women’s prison segment could have been snatched from one of Roger Corman’s classier efforts, but there’s no denying Jeon’s appeal and her ability to make Jeong-yeon’s ordeal vividly relatable. Ko has the unfortunate task of playing the less glamorous husband stuck in Korea with few options and fewer resources, but he performs admirably and with only a modicum of histrionics. This is a CJ Entertainment film, and so production quality is impeccable, with Lee Mo-gae’s cinematography standing out forcreating a garish, oversaturated aesthetic for Martinique that serves as a visual distillation of Jeong-yeon’s nightmare.

Producer: Seo Young-hee

Director: Pang Eun-jin

Cast: Jeon Do-yeon, Ko Soo, Bae Sung-woo, Choi Min-chul

Screenwriter: Yoon Jin-ho

Executive producer: Jeong Tae-sung

Director of Photography: Lee Mo-gae

Music: Kim Jun-seong

Costume designer: Chae Gyeong-hwa

Editor: Kim Sun-min

No rating, 131 minutes

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