Ode To My Father (Gukjesijang)

Korea (2014) Dir. Yoon Je-Kyun

The second highest grossing film in Korean cinema history is a multi-decade, country-hopping tale of loyalty, patriotism and heartbreak on an epic scale which will make some Hollywood heavy hitters envious of his grand vision.

The central character is Yoon Deok-Soo (Hwang Jung-Min) an elderly patriarch with a large family but a short fuse who, as the flashback story reveals, has lived through it all. While looking after his grandchildren while his sons and daughters enjoy a trip away with their respective spouses, Deok-Soo finds a cause to reminisce through little incidents of his daily life. The origins for this take us back to the Hungnam Evacuation of 1950 when the Chinese attacked what is now North Korea.

Deok-Soo was just a young boy (Uhm Ji-seong) when he lost his sister Mak-Soon (Shin Rin-Ah) as the family were one of many trying to board a US warship which would take them to the safety of the South. Deok-Soo’s father (Jung Jin-young) told his son to stay with his mother (Jang Young-Nam) while his finds his sister and if he doesn’t return, he is to be the man of the family. It is this promise which fuels Doek-Soo as he enters into a world of responsibility from a young age.

Comparisons have been made between Ode To My Father and Hollywood favourite Forrest Gump because of the similar decade jumping nostalgia and unabashed sentimentality, both hoping to make the viewer have a good weep or ten. Naturally the Korean slant makes all the difference even with the superficial parallels but Yoon has stated this film was simply a way for him to thank his late father.

When it comes to tugging at our heartstrings, Yoon lays it on with a shovel and then some, resorting to some tried and tested conventions and contrivances to ensure the audience keeps Kleenex in business. Kicking off with the impressively staged and highly dramatic evacuation scene, one would find it hard to believe that this isn’t the start of a series of personal tragedies to befall the family and that there is plenty of levity and an overarching feel good vibe present.

As someone brought up to show respect, Deok-Soo finds the lack of manners among today’s young a personal anathema, while his own family fail to understand why he holds certain facets of his life so close to his heart, resulting in a refusal to move forwards. Through flashbacks – which even include flashbacks of their own – this is duly explained and naturally makes sense, the vow to his father being the central conceit.

Deok-Soo’s story sees him experiencing prejudice as a small child when arriving in Busan in the South but soon makes a lifelong friend in Dal-Goo (Oh Dal-Su). Together they stumble through their education then take a mining job in Germany which is where Deok-Soo meets nurse Oh Young-Ja (Kim Yun-jin). Their budding romance is endearingly awkward, providing some of the aforementioned humour, set to the rocking sounds of the swinging 60’s.

A mining disaster which saw Deok-Soo and Dal-Goo barely escape death is one of the more deliberately manipulating scenes of the film. A teary Young-Ja begs with a dogmatic German mine foreman to rescue the two friends, the rest of the Koreans standing back with tears rolling down their faces as a touching overture plays in the background.

It may sound hideously cheesy and shallow but the performances at least suggest Yoon was being earnest with this development, although it is a portent of things to come as he manages to deliver an even more lachrymose semi-final act of epic saccharine proportions that could make a statue cry. And that comes after a tense and literally explosive trip to Vietnam in which Deok-Soo again flirts with death!

Yoon tells a densely packed story with memories interwoven with more memories that is the proverbial rollercoaster, charting many highs and lows – one usually begets the other – and maintains a steady balance between humour and drama. To foreign eyes this is a chance to take a warm-hearted look into the indomitable spirit of our Asian neighbours and their respect for tradition and heritage, aside from the many homegrown references which will pass over our heads.

In Korea the film courted some controversy when Yoon was accused of painting too much of a glossy picture of South Korea’s past which others deny, recognising the period as Yoon’s suggests. Cinema goers were less fussed as the film became Yoon’s second to draw over ten million admissions, making him the only director to have two films achieve this, the first being his disaster flick Tidal Wave (Haeundae).

The patriotism depicted was also criticised, driven home by two key moments – when Deok-Soo and Dal-Goo pass the interview for the Germany job with an impromptu singing of the national anthem; later when Deok-Soo and Young-Ja are arguing they stop to honour the national anthem playing over an outdoor PA system. Not quite as cloying as Hollywood’s flag waving antics but close enough.

At 126 minutes Yoon knows how to deliver an epic film that doesn’t seem so long, choosing a reliable cast, even if the characters are safely drawn Korean stereotypes. Hwang Jung-Min has a face for comedy but shows an adept dramatic side here, supported by Oh Dal-Su, who shares similar traits. Kim Yun-jin – known to western audiences from US TV show Lost – demonstrates the screen presence she possesses for major stardom if she stays in Korea.

Ode To My Father is a touching love letter from a son to his father with a positive message about being industrious and true to one’s family. This may get lost among some of the politically charged scenes and the overwrought sentimentality, but as an epic slice of pure and evocative nostalgic big screen entertainment it delivers in spades and shines brightly like a warm summer sun.