Korea (2018) Dir. Kim Jin-yu
Feeling on the outside of your family is something many of us experience at least once in our lives, usually because of our own teenage stroppiness rebelling against the guidance of our parents. Sometimes, circumstances might be different and feelings of exclusion are nobody’s fault.
Eleven year-old Na Bo-ri (Kim Ah-song) is a perky, upbeat young girl in a loving family, yet she harbours slight resentment towards her younger brother Jung-woo (Lee Rin-Ha) for the attention he receives from their parents (Kwak Jin-seok and Heo Ji-Na). This isn’t a case of preferential treatment – Bo-ri is the only member of the family who isn’t deaf, therefore is heavily relied upon by them.
During a trip to the fireworks festival, Bo-ri is separated from her family and with no means to contact them is left to turn to the police for help where they are eventually reunited. This experience not only shakes her up but also makes Bo-ri realise not being deaf sets her apart from the rest of the family, so she prays each day that she loses her hearing. With the encouragement of her friend Eun-Jeong (Hwang Yoo Rim) embarks on a reckless mission to damage her hearing.
Bori reads like a perversely distorted tale of a callow mind looking to reconcile a problem via extreme measures, but is in fact a touching, coming-of-age story of a familial bond which is stronger than it looks, hampered by rather different set of communication issues. Even with this premise, the idea that deafness is treated as a tragedy is not on director Kim Jin-yu’s agenda, nor is trying to engender sympathy for the deaf through wrought melodrama.
Kim actually leaves the few scenes of heartless ignorance until later in the film, clearly not considering it a priority in his narrative prior to this, making them harder to watch. Dictated by the development of Bo-ri’s plight to make herself deaf they only arise at this point because there was no need before hand, but it doesn’t mean this issue isn’t swept under the carpet just because this is a wholesome film with something important to inculcate.
Along with two very different films featuring deaf people, the Ukraine’s The Tribe and France’s La Famille Bélier – the latter closer to Bori than the former – Kim has chosen to make this about the hearing impaired yet showing them as fully functional people like you and me despite their condition. The twist is that he uses Bo-ri as his conduit from both sides of the hearing spectrum to explore the high and lows of being deaf.
The Na family are just like any other insofar as being loving and close, with friends in the community, and the father working a job as a fisherman. Their only difference is that they communicate via sign language, whilst Bo-ri is the bridge between their silence and the outside world. It is because of this Bo-ri feels she is missing out the fun Jung-woo is allowed to have whilst she adopts the role of pseudo-housekeeper, making her wiser beyond her years.
Jung-woo doesn’t have it all good though – he may be the best football player in his year but his impairment means he is relegated the subs bench since he can’t hear the other players. He also feels left out of conversations with his friends thus spends more time alone, explaining why he cherishes his family’s company so much. It would appear the Na family are alone with this condition hence the lack of special school for Jung-woo.
When Eun-Jeong’s idea of playing music via MP3 player at full volume fails to do any damage Bo-ri sees a TV report on a diver whose eardrums burst and promptly throws herself into the sea. Luckily, dad was fishing nearby and saved Bo-ri but her stunt seems to have done the trick and she can no longer hear. Her mother is distraught and takes a while to acclimatise to this change; her father says deaf or not, Bo-ri is still his daughter, and Jung-woo misses the food Bo-ri used to order for them.
No, Jung-woo is not being heartless because Bo-ri misses the same thing, plus he is much younger so he would rationalise things differently, but instead of reaping the benefits of being closer to her family, Bo-ri has to learn to navigate the world as they do as well as sacrifice many important things in her life. Was it worth it? Bo-ri begins to wonder and constantly questions her family as to whether they are happy now she is like them, and is shocked by her mother’s response.
Perspective is the key to both the film and Bo-ri’s life affirming journey, one which is complicated in many different ways which I won’t spoil here, though it isn’t a huge shock but is handled in a way that is intelligent, compassionate, sincere, yet provocative. Kim wants us to understand what life is like without being able to hear – as I’ve mentioned many times on this site my own hearing is declining though I am far from being deaf – but refuses to be didactic by positing the family as helpless victims.
Instead, the message is deaf or not, it doesn’t matter nor does it make anybody any less of a person. Curiously, only Kwak Jin-seok is an established actor therefore not actually deaf, but I assume as first timers, Heo Ji-Na and Lee Rin-Ha are genuinely impaired. However, Kim Ah-song, also making her debut, deserves every plaudit coming to her, not just for her wonderful performance as Bo-ri but for taking on so much in this role, like learning sign language, at such a young age.
More films like Bori need to be made – not just to raise awareness about disabilities but also to portray the impaired in a positive light. A truly delightful, heart-warming, and powerfully empathetic opus, this is one hell of a debut for Kim Jin-yu.