Review: ‘Road’

Seventeenth movie by veteran writer-director Bae Chang-ho returns to the figures-in-a-landscape style of "My Heart" (1999) in the yarn of an itinerant, ornery old blacksmith who -- through a chance encounter -- finally lays to rest a two-decade old misunderstanding. Festival exposure should generate niche sales, especially to cable.

A mellow poem to traditional values such as trust and kinship, “Road” takes a path less traveled in harder-hitting, contempo Korean cinema but one well worth the ride for auds responsive to well-honed, unflashy filmmaking. Seventeenth movie by veteran writer-director Bae Chang-ho returns to the figures-in-a-landscape style of “My Heart” (1999) in the yarn of an itinerant, ornery old blacksmith who — through a chance encounter — finally lays to rest a two-decade old misunderstanding. Festival exposure should generate niche sales, especially to cable outlets.

The time is the mid-’70s, when South Korea was under the firm grip of a military-supported, right-wing government; but none of that has any impact on the life of Kim Tae-seok (played with taciturn grumpiness by Bae himself), who lives the life of a semi-vagrant blacksmith, tramping the country roads with his anvil and box of tools strapped to his back.

In conversation with an eatery-owner, Mrs. Jinju (Kim Ji-ye), Tae-seok recalls his friendship with childhood pal Kim Deok-su (Gweon Beom-taek), which ended badly and set him on his current path.

Back story, which starts in 1956, is parceled out in flashbacks throughout the pic, outlining Tae-seok’s life with his wife, Gwi-ok (Seol Weon-jeong), who’d like him to settle down, and young child, Yeong-shik. When Deok-su asks Tae-seok for a loan to start a new business selling dyed silk, Tae-seok entrusts him with the deeds to his own house to raise the money.

However, Deok-su loses the deeds gambling and lands Tae-seok in prison when the latter tries to protect his friend from gangsters. When he exits stir, Tae-seok has a further surprise awaiting him which makes him take to the road in disgust.

Flashbacks are intercut with the main story, a mini-road movie in which Tae-seok happens upon a young woman, Shin-yeong (Kang Gi-hwa), who’s on her way to her father’s funeral. Thrown together several times by circumstances, Tae-seok realizes her dad is, in fact, his former friend.

Bae and d.p. Lee Gyu-min create a striking tapestry of life on the road, from small inns and hotels to snowy landscapes, bleak plains and richly wooded hills. Though he’s less convincing as the younger Tae-seok, Bae is fine as the irascible old guy, who’s learnt not to get involved in other’s problems but can stand up for himself when called to. Chemistry with Kang is nicely edgy, with the younger thesp bringing an offbeat, determined flavor to Shin-yeong, who can be just as stubborn as the old blacksmith.

With its convenient coincidences, and compressed style, pic has the feel of a cinematic short story, and ends as casually as it begins, with the sound of a bell ringing in the protag’s hometown — a quasi-religious note which seems out of kilter with the film’s general humanistic flavor. Though the movie can be read as a metaphor for Bae’s own filmmaking career — from a popular director in the ’80s who’s since traveled his own path — there’s no heavy laying on of messages.

Technically, film is very smooth, with no hint of its small budget.

Road

South Korea

Production

A Lee San Prod. production. (International sales: Mirovision, Seoul.) Produced by Kang Cheong-gu. Executive producers, Jeong Sun-shik, Ahn Chung-rak, Ahn Bong-rak. Directed, written by Bae Chang-ho.

Crew

Camera (color), Lee Gyu-min; editor, Lee Eun-su; music, Lee Sung-jae, Lee Sung-woo; art director, Jo Nam-hyeok; costumes, Jeong Gyeong-heui; sound (Dolby Digital), Lee Yeong-gil. Reviewed on videocassette, London, May 8, 2004. (In Cannes Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Bae Chang-ho, Kang Gi-hwa, Seol Weon-jeong, Gweon Beom-taek, Kim Ji-ye, Park Jung-sun.
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