This review was amended on June 12, 2002.
Utterly unsentimental but profoundly moving, “The Way Home” is a tiny gem from South Korea that has proved the unexpected hit of the year so far, nabbing an incredible 4 million admissions (more than “Lord of the Rings”) since release in early April. The simplest of tales, about a spoiled boy and his aged grandmother passing an uneasy summer in the countryside together, this sophomore outing by writer-director Lee Jung-hyang should readily settle into festival berths, and even theatrical distribution in some territories, once word gets out.
Lee’s first feature, the odd-couple romancer “Art Museum by the Zoo” (1998), was also a local hit but proved too soft and prettified for foreign tastes, despite a couple of interesting lead performances. In contrast, what’s notable about “Way Home” is its visual and emotional restraint, plus the complete control at all levels of the production. The last was partly evident in “Art Museum” but not in the rigorous way here.
Plot could be written on the back of a postage stamp: A bratty 7-year-old boy is left with his mute grandmother in the countryside for some months, and gradually the two develop a kind of rapprochement. But you have to go back some 35 years, to European cinema and Claude Berri’s “The Old Man and the Boy” (1967), to find a comparable movie of such simplicity and emotional clout.
Without any set-up, the picture begins with Sang-woo (Yu Seung-ho) crammed in a hot and noisy bus with his strung-out mom (Dong Hyo-heui) as they bump through the remote countryside somewhere outside Seoul. As the mother leaves Sang-woo with his bent-over, crone-like grandma (Kim Eul-bun), we’re not told why or for how long; in fact, the only info given the viewer is that the kid’s mom and dad split up a long time ago.
As grandma is a mute, conversation between the two is one-sided in the small, traditional cottage that hugs the side of a hill in the remote community. Sang-woo brazenly calls the old woman a “retard,” prefers his mom’s Spam to grandma’s homemade kimchi and, as the TV is on the fritz, endlessly fools around with his portable videogame player.
When the player’s batteries run out, he sets off down to the village on his own in search of new ones, but gets hopelessly lost on the way back. Here, as elsewhere, the perky chamber score maintains a light tone, even when events would seem to tip the pic toward melodrama.
Other characters gradually enter, including a peasant kid, Cheol-yee (Min Kyung-hun), and a girl, Hae-yeon (Yim Eun-kyung), to whom Sang-woo takes a fancy. Sang-woo’s expression of joy, when he finally learns she reciprocates his liking, is one of the movie’s treasured moments.
Main thrust of the film, however, is the relationship of Sang-woo and the old woman, which starts to mellow when she boils him a fresh chicken in response to him showing her an illustration of his favorite food, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Humorous and touching, the sequence leads to another temper tantrum by the kid but ends with him clandestinely wolfing down of the food later.
However, it’s with a trip to the market that the movie really starts to deliver emotionally, as the old woman makes more attempts to win the boy’s affection and he, half-grudgingly, starts to reciprocate. By the time the mother comes to collect her son at the end, the hardest-hearted viewer will be reaching for the Kleenex.
Shot over six months, largely in sequence, in Yeongdong, Cheongbuk province, pic has an acute sense of place and detail, beautifully caught by d.p. Yun Hong-shik’s sharp, full-bodied camerawork. Early scenes, showing the minutiae of the old woman’s daily grind (cleaning house, carrying water), alternate tight closeups of small details with longer shots placing the bent old woman in the landscape. The use of local non-pros in all roles except that of the boy contributes to the rounded portrait of a world a universe away from the big city.
None of this would work without the remarkable casting of Kim (a 77-year-old villager) and Yu (with some TV experience) as the grandma and boy. Aside from their natural chemistry, the film cleverly plays on the audience’s desire for them to get together, as the old woman doggedly refuses to be put off by the boy’s selfishness and the latter clearly realizes he needs a friend after all. It’s one of the unlikeliest but most remarkable pairings in recent cinema, separated by a mere 70 years in age.