Way Back Home (Jibeuro Ganeun Gil)

Korea (2013) Dir. Pang Eun-jin

Actress turned director Pang Eun-jin returns to behind the camera for this dramatisation of a true story from 2004 that highlights the serious recriminations of smuggling and the devastating effect it has on the family of the perpetrator.

Song Jung-Yeon (Jeon Do-Yeon) and her husband Jong-Bae (Ko Soo) run a small car repair business which doesn’t make much money but is enough for them and their young daughter Hye-Rin (Kang Ji-Woo) to live on. The family are hit with a huge shock when a friend of theirs commits suicide and a loan shark chases Jong-Bae up for a loan he signed guarantor for, demanding extortionate interest on which they can’t afford. They are forced to sell their business and home, moving into a tiny one room flat.

Another friend, Seo Mundo (Choi Min-Chul) says easy money can be made by smuggling small gems into France, which Jong-Bae is tempted by but the job is for women only. Behind her husband’s back, Jung-Yeon takes the job instead, leaving a note for Jong-Bae and Hye-Rin staying she’ll be back soon. Upon arriving in Paris Jung-Yeon is stopped and arrested when, to her horror, the suitcase is shown to be full of cocaine.

We’re all familiar with the expression “it would be funny if it wasn’t true” and while this isn’t a comedy the sheer scale of the scandalous actions and the suffering by the Jung-Yeon character is truly astounding that it sounds too extreme to be true. However the real life situation – as documented in this film – was exposed by a TV documentary so sadly it is true.  

This is more about creating a sympathetic martyr in Jung-Yeon, or indeed to act as a warning against drug smuggling, but a ruthless expose in the mendacious and self-serving obstructive incompetence of the Korean Embassy and Foreign Affairs office. The original TV did the original damage and this film may have re-opened old wounds but under the circumstances this feels quite necessary.

Quite how the situation got out of hand is a lengthy story to summarise succinctly and without spoilers, but some facts need sharing to understand this review. First and foremost, Jung-Yeon was a victim of circumstance on both sides of the world and her duty as a wife and parent drove her to take a risk on a solution to save her family. Her naivety becomes a bigger problem when she is arrested in country where she cannot communicate with anyone and hopes this is just a simple misunderstanding.

The French are just as bad, not seeking the aid of an interpreter while the Korean Embassy are even less help, dismissing Jung-Yeon as a criminal without talking to her and fobbing Jong-Bae off with lies, excuses and complaints of “upsetting the tax payer by aiding a criminal”. Jung-Yeon writes numerous letters to the embassy with the consul (Bae Sung-Woo) ignoring each one.

This isn’t the worst of their appalling behaviour but you’ll have to see it to believe it and it may dent your faith in the Embassy system, Korean or otherwise. Later on, as the drugs were picked up in Guyana, Jung-Yeon is transferred to a jail on the Caribbean island of Martinique, where the Embassy insist no Korean people reside when asked for a interpreter for Jung-Yeon.

One can assume that the head guard of the prison, a brutish dyke by the name of Hellboy (Corinne Masiero) was a creation for the film, possibly along with Jung-Yeon’s cellmate Yalka (Joanna Kulig) to help drive the prison sequences. Back in Korea and Jong-Bae is struggling against police indifference, the lies from the embassy and the lack of money to help his wife out, sending Hye-Rin to live with his sister.

After one letdown too many, Jong-Bae has a breakdown at the Foreign Office which was captured by news cameras, leading to the offer from the TV documentary crew. This begins to open some doors and ruffle some feathers in both countries, especially among the Netizens of Korea whose outrage would expediate the investigation into Jung-Yeon’s case.

With so many tricks and embellishments from the box marked “dramatisation” piled on for good measure, the line between fact and fiction often becomes a little blurred but Pang Eun-jin doesn’t allow the balance to tip over in favour of either. Jung-Yeon has our sympathy almost from the onset and while it seems like it is one thing after another for her, Pang doesn’t overburden the viewer with the desperation of her plight to the point of making it implausible. This is achieved by switching that burden to the inept embassy staff and their equally unhelpful French counterparts, a group of people who will have your blood boiling to the point of conniption.

Jong-Bae and Hye-Rin’s suffering mustn’t be overlooked, their predicaments falling more under the melodrama banner than that of Jung-Yeon. The camerawork and presentation aptly reflects the differing atmospheres of the locations, being glossy and tightly edited in Korea while the mise-en-scene is spacious and gritty in France and Martinique. Incidentally this is the first Korean film shot in the Caribbean, while the prison scenes were filmed in the Dominican Republic using genuine guards and prisoners.

Everyone in the cast makes a good account for themselves, Ko Soo growing before our eyes in stature as Jong-Bae and Kang Ji-Woo is adorable as Hye-Rin when she is not bawling her eyes out on a whim. But this is Jeon Do-Yeon’s film. A respected and reliable actress in her native country, Jeon steps almost too comfortably into Jung-Yeon’s skin and relays the inner turmoil of her suffering with astute and aching conviction, while her physical deterioration and increasing mental and emotional fragility is often too painful to watch.

Unsurprisingly the Korean Foreign Ministry has said that Way Back Home doesn’t tell the whole truth, which usually is an admission of guilt. Pang’s intense dramatisation of this injustice is a hard watch but a compelling and lasting one.

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