Two characters, worlds apart, find a ‘Way Home’ together
Director Lee Jeong-hyang’s 2002 sophomore effort, “The Way Home” is a quiet, deftly simple drama that made a huge impact upon its release nine years ago.
Set in a tiny mountain village, the film portrays the relationship between a 77-year-old mute, illiterate grandma (Kim Eul-boon) and her bratty 7-year-old grandson (Yu Seung-ho) from Seoul. In the vein of Italian neorealist films, “The Way Home” uses non-actors to portray the contrasting but intertwining lives of impoverished people living in the countryside and the urban working class.
Besides the class distinction, the contrast between this odd pair is vast - so vast that the two become the story. The director wisely acknowledges this and relies on conflicting metaphors that are at once humorous and heartbreaking to tell the story.
It all begins badly, when Sang-woo’s mother dumps him at his grandmother’s mountain village home for two months in order to find a new job in Seoul after her business fails. The first thing that the spoiled kid does in his temporary home is pee on his grandmother’s shoes. Upon taking a look at her face and hands, covered in wrinkles and dark age spots, Sang-woo yells out “Gross!” and calls her a retard when he realizes she is mute.
His grandmother in turn, is almost a saint. Through Sang-woo’s temper tantrums, her dedication to taking care of her grandson is unfaltering. But however loving and exquisitely generous, grandma’s efforts to please Sang-woo are old-fashioned and alienate him even more.
Like most kids from the city, Sang-woo is heavily influenced by Western culture. He brings along Coca-Cola, Spam, robot figurines and a Game Boy as his survival kit for the shabby hut where his grandma lives.
In one memorable scene, Sang-woo whines to Grandma that he wants to eat “Kentucky chicken.” She understands the chicken part and goes out in the rain, down the twisted mountainous roads to fetch a live chicken and labors in the kitchen to make a bowl of samgyetang (a traditional soup with a whole chicken) for him. “I said Kentucky fried chicken! Not one that’s dunked in water!” Sang-woo screams, bursting into tears.
Without the utterly natural portrayal of the grandma by Kim Eul-boon, who is not an actress and was cast by the director after being spotted in a rural village, the film would have easily lost its aura of authenticity. In fact, it’s this authenticity, along with the touches of humor, that balances its sweetness.
Witnessing his grandmother’s steadfast, patient love for him, Sang-woo starts to see the error of his ways. It might feel formulaic, but Lee Jeong-hyang makes it work.
“Dedicated to all the grandmothers in the world,” “The Way Home” displays Lee’s masterful balancing of the sweet, sad and comic in delivering a sentimental film that wears its heart, unapologetically, on its sleeve.
By Cho Jae-eun [email@example.com]