There’s a certain class of film — “The Champ” and “Shadowlands” come to mind — for which the term ‘weepie’ hardly seems an adequate descriptor. They’re melodramas, of course, but they tend not to be exclusively about romantic, star crossed love, portraying other dimensions of sentimentality too: familial loyalty, parental bonds, self-sacrifice, terminal illness, memory, regret, redemption. And above all, the characters must pine.
“Canola,” the third feature from mono-monikered Korean director Chang, fills out the entire sentimentality guidebook, as it follows an aging grandmother whose beatifically simple, community-based life as a diver in a small island village is blighted when her adorable, doted-upon little granddaughter — her only surviving family member — disappears from her side one day at the market. Twelve years later, the girl turns up, now a teenager hardened by a life of petty crime on the mean streets of Seoul, and the two are reunited. In the weapons-grade warmth of her grandmother’s unswerving devotion, the girl gradually thaws back to some semblance of the sunny, sweet creature she once was. With two outstanding central performances that invest even its most mawkish and manipulative turns with real heart, “Canola” could well be the result of a conspiracy co-sponsored by the tissue and waterproof mascara industries: This is not so much a weepie as a full-on sobbie.
Before the real plot kicks in, though, the narrative threatens to be unbearable. Chang’s first film, “Death Bell” was an inventive but splashy, and ultimately unsatisfying, high school-set thriller, while his remake of “Point Blank,” titled “The Target” felt like an unnecessarily generic and noisy diminishment of an original known for its lean, taciturn cool. “Canola,” while it marks an admirable shift in register, for a time seems as if it might be dogged by a similar lack of subtlety.
The extended prologue shows Gye-choon (Hong Sang-soo and Im Sang-soo regular Youn Yuh-jung) bringing the little moppet Hye-ji to the waterfront with her, where the child watches granny, a respected and beloved member of this close-knit community, earn her status as the best diver in town. The action is accompanied by swells of schmaltzy music and belabored close-ups of grandmother and granddaughter twinkling at each other. But as soon as little Hye-ji disappears (in a scene further marred by overwrought, dramatic slow motion) the excesses mostly abate, and the capable performers are given the room to stealthily creep up on your feelings and wallop you right in the gut.
There are plenty of wild, soap-operatic twists concerning Hye-ji’s disappearance that are revealed later on, but for the most part, the film follows the return of the teenage Hye-ji (an excellent Kim Go-eun, sympathetic even when sullen and suspicious) to the bosom of her grandmother who, she claims, she’d been told was dead. Gye-choon, though, had never given up hope of finding her granddaughter, even refusing to sell her rustic house to a developer for fear the girl would return and not recognize it.
Hye-ji enrolls at the local school, where a fresh-faced boy (Choi Min-ho of K-pop band Shinee) takes a wholesome liking to her despite her prickliness, and where a scruffily dedicated art teacher (Yang Ik-joon) teases out her nascent artistic talent with tough love. Hye-ji starts to relax into Gye-choon’s little world, populated by chatty, goodhearted, supportive neighbors, especially Suk-ho, a close family friend played with sun-crinkled kindness by Kim Hee-won. But shady figures from Hye-ji’s past resurface, and we start to wonder about the girl’s agenda.
If the “big city bad, small village good” binary is simplistic, it’s also extremely effective, with Youn’s gently miraculous turn bringing a real sense of authenticity to Gye-choon’s lifestyle, in which encroaching old age scarcely seems to put the slightest crimp in her energy and grace. Whether she’s climbing into her wetsuit or getting excited that a change in the wind means it’s time to dive again, or laying out kelp to dry in the sun, or dredging up ladles full of bright red fermented paste from the massive clay tureens in her garden, there is an attention to the business of her everyday life that may be guilded but is also seductively fascinating. It’s also apt. Because chaste though it is, “Canola” is essentially a story of seduction — of Hye-ji being seduced into a sense of self-worth and decency by nothing more devious than her grandmother’s radiant goodness and love of life (neither of which prevents the old woman from being snippy and downright irascible at times).
But perhaps the sweetest thing about the movie is also the most surprising: For a film ostensibly about blood being thicker than water, it comes to rest on the conclusion that family is not something you’re born into, necessarily; rather it’s something you earn with the care you pay back to those who care for you. And sometimes that can even mean propping up a deception, or compounding a lie — because a lie kindly meant can be better than the truth in this cruel world.
By the time “Canola” gets the finish, it’s hard to know if it’s the cruelty of the truth or the beautiful intention of the lie or the loveliness of the performances despite all these machinations that is the movie’s most moving aspect, but taken together, they provoke cataracts of emotion. “Which is bigger, the sea or the sky?” goes the riddle set out a few times during the picture, and though Gye-choon’s chuckling, counterintuitive assertion that the sea is larger makes little intellectual sense, who are any of us to deny it when we’re practically drowning in an ocean of saltwater of our own making.