Korea (2011) Dir. Sang-woo Lee
Soon-young (Kim Sae-Ron) may be a young girl but she is the nominal head of her family, having to look after her mentally handicapped father Mang-Woo (Jo Yong-Suk) and her sickly younger sister Soon-Ja (Kim Ah-Ron) as well as keeping their very tiny guest house alive. Adding further strain to Soon-young’s life are the bullying ways of her uncle Mang-Taek (Lee Chun-Hee) who arrives one day with an American named Steve (Earl Jackson) and his daughter Barbie (Cat Tebow). Steve is looking to adopt Soon-young and take her back to the US but Soon-young doesn’t want to go, believing her place is looking after her family. However Barbie doll obsessed Soon-ja wasn’t to go to America, unlikely due to her poor health, so she sets out to usurp Soon-young’s place in Steve’s affections. But it seems Steve may have an ulterior motive other than adoption for the young girls.
This is quite a hard film to watch in that it sets the viewer up to think the worst of the situations only to pull the rug from under their feet but hit them with a swerve that isn’t much better. It’s a story about families and sticking by them. No matter how noble or how unscrupulous the actions are the central motive is out of concern for the family. At least that is how the characters see it and this is how writer/director Sang-woo Lee presents his distorted tale of filial piety with a divisive moral undercurrent.
It is made clear from the onset that Soon-young is living a hard life following the death of her mother and having a mentally handicapped father, a sickly but bratty younger sister and the abusive presence of uncle Mang-Taek to contend with. However she seems to have had an industrious work ethic instilled in her (presumably by her mother) that sees her take charge of everything around their mere shack of a home/guest house. To that end she is reluctant to leave as she fears there would be no-one to look after her family. Even the arrival of Barbie, with whom she bonds quickly after chasing a group of curious Korean boys away from the American visitor with a slingshot, can’t persuade Soon-young to up sticks yet daydreaming Soon-Ja and Mang-Taek are unable to hide their intentions to leave their impoverished life behind.
The latter is clearly not a nice guy, demonstrated by his insincere, unctuous greeting of Steve and Barbie before shuttling them about in a clapped out motor. He is also prone to acts of violence to Mang-Woo and aggressive behaviour towards the two girls, looking forward to his pay off once Soon-young is on the plane to the US of A. When Soon-Ja makes her intentions know to replace her sister in the adoption program she is immediately shot down by Mang-Taek due to her illness. Then a snag is hit when Barbie and Soon-young become friends which angers Steve for reasons which he refuses to explain. The clandestine and ambiguous chats Steve and Mang-Taek have along with the suspect behaviour of the former lets us know that Steve is not interested in adopting Soon-young after all. What could he have in mind?
This is where Sang-woo Lee effectively slaps us all in the face for thinking the worst but doesn’t let us off the hook as he reveals that Steve does have unsavoury plans for Soon-young but not what you think. What Lee achieves is to change the complexion of his story while keeping the central premise and moral dilemma intact – a rare trick if you can pull it off. The beauty is that Soon-young’s life in Korea is depicted as such hardship that she’d be mad not to take the chance to go to the US, but Steve’s secretive and creepy persona suggest the poor girl is trapped between a rock and hard place.
Similarly caught in the middle is Barbie, who is oblivious to her father’s true motives but spoils his plans by connecting so quickly with Soon-young – despite the language barrier – while despising the false, try hard Soon-ja, thus jeopardising the whole deal. It begs the question why Steve took his daughter with him to Korea is she wasn’t to know the true reason for the adoption deal in the first place. However she too is put in an awkward position when the truth is finally out, and being so young she is not in a position to influence the outcome to favour any party.
It seems that despite his disability, the only one who truly cares about the girls is Mang-woo but he sadly can’t express it properly. Lee is careful to ensure Mang-woo is neither a figure of fun nor for mockery either. He’s not even portrayed for cheap sympathy either which is a rarity. Mang-woo is very much a “real” character in that his actions are just as significant and arguably more honest than his able minded counterparts. Likewise the two sisters, played by real life siblings Sae-Ron and Ah-Ron Kim, are diametrically opposed in both attitude and demeanour, the younger being the selfish one while the elder forced into playing mother so early in life and thus the more selfless and realistic of the two.
Barbie is not a feel good film but it is one that raises significant moral questions that forces the viewer to wonder what they would do in the same situation. Emotional without being soppy, stark but not dreary this is a sublime slice of Korean cinema.