Familyhood (Gutbai singgeul)

Korea (2016) Dir. Kim Tae-Gon

There is a common misconception that fame and fortune equates to having everything in life, including love and happiness. But showbiz being the fickle industry it is this isn’t as guaranteed as the myth propagated in the gossip pages of the toadying media.

Ko Joo-yeon (Kim Hye-soo) is a conceited TV actress in her 40’s who has it all – money, fame, a busy career, and her pick of handsome – and mostly younger, lovers. She is currently in a relationship with Kang Ji-Hoon (Kwak Si-Yang), an up and coming actor 12 years her junior until she learns that Ji-Hoon has been using her and has a girlfriend his own age leading to a bitter break up.

Feeling unloved, Joo-yeon decides having a baby will change this, but discovers she has reached menopause. Fortunately, she meets pregnant teenager Kim Dan-ji (Kim Hyun-soo) at the hospital for an abortion, and offers to buy the baby from her, letting Dan-ji move in with her until the baby is born. But the rumour of the pregnancy spreads and now Joo-yeon has to pretend she is pregnant in public.

It’s a good thing Familyhood is a comedy drama otherwise the sordid sounding plot might read as a cynical tale of greed and exploitation. Not that this doesn’t excuse the askew morality Joo-yeon displays, but if anyone is being targeted here, it is the vanity and superficiality of the entertainment industry and egos of those desperate for attention and adoration.

Also under scrutiny is the stigma attached to teen pregnancies, at least in the final act as part of Joo-yeon’s inevitable road to redemption, preferring instead to focus on how the unborn baby is seen as a commodity for sale, and as the answer to and cause of many problems for the cast. This applies mostly to Joo-yeon but greedy and selfish people can be found in all places.

Joo-yeon’s unabashed solipsism is initially portrayed as comical – slightly ditzy, obsessed with her appearance and putting herself on a pedestal. As a product of an industry where youth is king, we see Joo-yeon sneaking off to get a cosmetic touching up and injections in her bottom lip, leaving her with an unsightly, humorous pout that comes in handy when she fails to win an award.

Like most celebs, Joo-yeon has a long-suffering agency team at her beck and call – PA and fashion advisor Pyung-goo (Ma Dong-Seok), rotund driver Mi-Rae (Hwang Mi-Young) and beleaguered boss CEO Kim (Kim Yong-Geon) – whose loyalty is very much tested to the hilt during this scenario. Pyung-goo in particular bears the brunt of it to the chagrin of his wife Sang-Mi (Seo Hyun-Jin).

To illustrate Joo-yeon’s haughty delusions, she turns down the role of a mother in a high profile historical drama Ji-Hoon is starring in because she feels nobody would believe Ji-hoon could be her son; meanwhile the director of the show doesn’t want to offer Joo-yeon the role for the same reason because of all the surgery she has had done to make herself look younger.

Dan-ji’s arrival into her life is serendipitous of them both – the orphaned artist lives with her older sister and her boyfriend but they have no time for her, which is why she keeps the pregnancy from them. Now with an offer of millions of won to set her up Dan-ji has a contract drawn up to ensure all sides are on the same level – but is Dan-ji’s planning something else?

Much of the story direction runs on familiar terrain, with Dan-ji and Joo-yeon bonding over their time together until Joo-yeon playing up to the charade of the pregnancy sees work offers flood in as being a mother now gives her cachet hitherto unavailable to her. But being busy means less time for Dan-ji who is back to being scared and alone about her impending motherhood.

Korean comedies have a history of starting with amiable laughs before morphing into a heart tugging drama ahead of a feel good ending. Familyhood is no different but unlike others, it feels it has something to say, rather than simply be an exercise in toying with the audience’s emotions. There are naturally elements of this but not before Joo-yeon’s character implodes by her own actions while Dan-ji is forced to face some harsh realities of her own.

Joo-yeon’s route is an interesting one to follow for the audience since she is seldom in a position to be pitied until the predictable heartfelt and character defining speech in the third act. She is very much a caricature of the modern day celeb with her age defying looks, immature, self-absorbed attitude and capricious behaviour, there to be mocked but just a she seems to turn a corner she reverts to type.

Struggling to sympathise with Joo-yeon when it all comes crashing down is probably not the intent but this is how it feels once the comedy ebbs away and there is little to laugh at in her actions. Yet, to emphasise the message that fame is fickle and liars never prosper posits Joo-yeon as a suitable totem, an architect of her own demise. There is a parallel with Dan-ji since their arrangement was illegal, but the desperation of both is worlds apart.

This is by-the-numbers affair from director Kim Tae-Gon is elevated by the strong turns from the cast. Kim Hye-soo has plenty of charisma and the right look to pull off the hubristic side of Joo-yeon and engage in her serious moments. Kim Hyun-soo, 16 at the time, is as much a standout as Dan-ji, a role that show her very capable of cheeky teen comedy and heavy adult drama, just as Ma Dong-Seok going against his usual tough guy/thug type as Pyong-goo is also a revelation.

Familyhood runs on themes far deeper than its accessible presentation suggests, avoiding the obvious scope for satire but as a slice of light fluff, it is a pleasant enough watch.