'Dedicated to grandmothers everywhere', "The Way Home (Jibeuro)" could easily be called the best Korean film of 2002. Detailing the travails of a spoiled 7-year old boy who is left in the care of his 77-year old grandmother in the countryside, "The Way Home" is writer/director Lee Jung-hyang's simple yet touching follow-up to "Art Museum by the Zoo (Misulgwan yup dongmulwon)". Made on a paltry budget of $1.2 million US, this quiet drama was a welcome antidote to the high-profile blockbuster flops that littered the Korean moviegoing landscape that year.
The film begins with Sang-woo (Yu Seung-ho) being dropped off at the rural hovel of his deaf-and-mute grandmother (Kim Eul-bun) so that his mother (Dong Hyo-heui) can go job-hunting unfettered in Seoul. Unfortunately, Sang-woo does not adapt well to his new surroundings. His grandmother is unable to speak and has diminished mental faculties, making communication difficult. Furthermore, the country lifestyle, without the modern conveniences of television or running water, comes as a bit of shock to the videogame-playing Sang-woo. Frustrated by his new home, Sang-woo begins to lash out, which includes calling his grandmother a 'retard'.
But despite her grandson's bratty and disrespectful behavior, the grandmother displays the patience of a saint as she quietly goes about her business of cooking his meals, washing his clothes, and gathering his drinking water from the local well. Over time, her persistence eventually pays off, as a maturing Sang-woo slowly comes to appreciate the sacrifices that have been made to give him a home.
With "The Way Home", director Lee skilfully mines the dramatic potential between her two main characters. Most of the film's emotional pull comes from Sang-woo being completely oblivious to the consequences of his selfish actions, as well as from his grandmother's tireless efforts to care for him. This dichotomy is most apparent in two of the film's most moving scenes. In the first, Sang-woo freaks out after his grandmother boils him chicken after having shown her a picture of Kentucky Fried Chicken-- unfortunately, the effort that went into such an act of maternal love, which includes a trek into town through pouring rain, is completely lost on Sang-woo. The second is a bus trip into town where the grandmother is almost reduced to begging to sell her vegetables on the street in order to buy Sang-woo a new pair of shoes-- but as usual, Sang-woo ends up snubbing his grandmother on the bus ride home to hang out with a girl he likes (Yim Eun-kyung).
Aside from the most literal interpretation, "The Way Home" could also be considered an examination of the gap between South Korea's older generation, which has witnessed the painful emergence of the country's democracy, and its youth, who have grown up in a world of cell phones, Internet access, and music videos. Like Sang-woo, it is sometimes easy to forget that today's "Take Care of My Cat" generation owes much of their liberties and luxuries to the sacrifices made by their "Peppermint Candy" predecessors.
In addition to the well-paced and well-told story, the performances that Lee brings out of her two leads are both stirring and credible. Kim, who plays the grandmother, is not a professional actress, and she was actually brought on board after being spotted in a small country village. Without the benefit of dialogue, Kim's weathered face and simple expressions give her character an air of quiet dignity, stoic determination, and unwavering love. Yu, who is one the film's only professional actor, is also excellent as the bratty Sang-woo, who eventually comes to appreciate and care for his grandmother. Together, these two actors form an uncommon cinematic pairing that hooks the audience in, and make reaching for the Kleenex in the third act inevitable.
After being released in its native South Korea, "The Way Home" quickly made its way into the hearts of the nation's moviegoers, and by year's end, it had become the second-highest grossing homegrown production for 2002 (behind "Marrying the Mafia"). "The Way Home" has also found its way onto movie screens around the world, including becoming the second-most successful North American release of a Korean film (behind "Chunhyang"), and will also be receiving a North American DVD release this May. After watching "The Way Home", it is not difficult to see why the film has had such a profound impact-- after all, I am sure that at one time or another, we have all been as impatient and self-absorbed as Sang-woo, and it was only through the patience and wisdom of our parents and grandparents that have made us for the better.