Keys To The Heart (Geugeotmani Nae Sesang)

Korea (2018) Dir. Choi Sung-Hyun 

Families. We all need them even if we think we don’t. Some of us are lucky to have one, other aren’t, while some people seem to go out of their way to wreck theirs because the lines of communication are seldom open. It is a shame when families fall apart but there are occasions where a second chance is given to put this right.

Kim Jo-Ha (Lee Byung-Hun) is a former champion boxer now struggling to make a living handing out flyers and taking sparring jobs. One night he enters a diner to find one of the waitresses is his estranged mother Oh In-Sook (Youn Yuh-Jung) who Jo-Ha hasn’t seen in over a decade since he left to do his national service. The two have a fraught conversation which ends with Jo-Ha accepting In-Sook’s invitation to stay with her.

Jo-Ha also learns he has an Autistic younger brother, Oh Jin-Tae (Park Jung-Min), a real handful but a skilled piano player. Bringing the two siblings together is hard as Jo-Ha is reluctant to play happy families, planning on moving out as soon as he gets some money together, but In-Sook has an ulterior motive which she keeps secret from her sons.

Screenwriter Choi Sung-Hyun follows in the footsteps of many before him to make the jump from scribe to director with this shameless weepy, although that isn’t meant in a derogatory way, it is clear the intention is to make the audience grab their hankies en masse by the end.

Keys To The Heart is actually a punirific title rather than the sort of soppy effort one might expect from Mills & Boon et al, the pun being a reference to the piano keys which act as Jin-Tae’s gateway to interacting with the world, and of course help him connect with his alpha male brother. A gentle pianist and a pig headed pugilist aren’t exactly common or ideal bed partners (explored quite literally here) but it is a dichotomy that helps quickly establish the attitudes of the two brothers.    

Not that Jin-Tae has much of an attitude towards anything, besides wanting to play the piano or play video games from having “Level 2” Autism. I don’t wish to impugn Choi’s knowledge or research into Autism as Jin-Tae is presented as an awkward simpleton unable to dress himself yet has extraordinary skills elsewhere, which are traits of Level 2 Autism but this type of savant has been portrayed on film before without the Autism tag.

Minor personal concern out of the way, Jin-Tae is the comic relief and emotional conceit of the story as the barometer of Jo-Ha’s road to redemption and reconnection with his family. The back-story is typically unpleasant with his alcoholic father beating both him and In-Sook, the latter forced to run away in desperation and leave Jo-Ha behind. This is the root of Jo-Ha’s resentment towards his mother, which is understandable but based on singular facts.  

So far, so every dysfunctional family drama you’ve ever seen. What is different here though is Jo-Ha’s assimilation into the role of big brother is exponential, his tolerance, caring and understanding taking a while to surface and grow. The reality is Jo-Ha wants money and a piano competition with a $5000 prize that Jin-Tae could win sees Jo-ha step up his brotherly duties.  

In the meantime, In-Sook has to work in Busan leaving the brothers alone together, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out this is all a front from something more serious, otherwise we wouldn’t have a heart warming climax to look forward to. Choi’s story really does follow the genre path from A to Z and it would not be unkind to suggest that viewers could tick off the conventions and plot beats from the checklist as they come.

However, there is a sneaky detour that ties in with the title arriving in the form of a bait and switch subplot that begins with Jo-Ha being knocked over one rainy night. The driver is rich girl Han Ga-Yul (Han Ji-Min) who offers to pay Jo-Ha off as compensation for his accident. At first it looks like we will have a clash of the social classes and Jo-Ha will be the prim Ga-Yul’s bit of rough, but Choi swerves us with a completely different outcome.

Another subplot involving In-Sook’s snooty landlady Mrs. Hong (Kim Sung-Ryoung) evicting In-Sook from her home goes nowhere, undermined by the fact Hong’s daughter Soo-Jung (Choi Ri) is Jin-Tae’s friend and practically one of the family. This mother-daughter relationship is also frosty but never explored, but So-Jung is an amusing comic sidekick.  

Choi’s first outing in the director’s chair is competent but unadventurous in terms of bringing something new to a safe genre as the weepy drama, whilst his script throws in too many subplots and extraneous ideas that seldom bear fruit or feel relevant. But, given the A-list cast at his disposal, something appealed to them and Choi didn’t shy away from coaxing the most suitable performances from them.

Lee Byung-Hun is usually the action/thriller lead who has crossed over to Hollywood making this way out of his comfort zone, but Jo-Ha has the most shades of grey to him, which Lee’s brooding testosterone is well suited to. Youn Yuh-Jung is the veteran enjoying a renaissance of late with such heavy roles as The Bacchus Lady but can still outclass everyone else in the matriarch role.

Unquestionably, the film belongs to Park Jung-Min, ably transforming himself to convey the physical and mental quirks of Jin-Tae’s condition, staying true to every one of these characteristics under every circumstance, rather than letting the situation change him. Whilst one might question the veracity of the Autism label Park’s performance is amazing to behold.

The wheel is not being reinvented with Keys To The Heart but if it is a simple, affecting tearjerker with an uplifting message you are after, this one hits all the right notes.