A Boy and Sungreen (보희와 녹양, Ahn Ju-young, 2018)

A boy and sungreen poster 1Figuring out who you are is a normal part of growing up, but if you start to suspect that parts of the puzzle have been kept from you it can become an even more complicated business. The hero of Ahn Ju-young’s delightfully charming debut A Boy and Sungreen (보희와 녹양, Boheewa Nokyang) thought he was doing OK. Maybe he worried that he was a little bit weedy and resented being picked on by the snooty kids at school, but he always had his good friend Nok-yang (Kim Ju-a) to hide behind and she always had his back. Realising that his mum (Shin Dong-mi) may have a new romance on the cards entirely destabilises his worldview, sends his anxiety into overdrive, and reawakens a series of as yet unresolved abandonment issues resulting from losing his father at a young age.

What Bo-hee (Ahn Ji-ho) discovers on “running away” to visit a woman he kind of remembers might be his half-sister, is that his mother might have lied to him and the father he thought was dead might actually still be alive. Together with his best friend Nok-yang, he resolves to investigate and find out if his father is still out there somewhere, if he still thinks of him, what sort of man he might be, and, crucially, why he chose to abandon his son. Still upset with his mother and childishly resentful, Bo-hee avoids going home and installs himself at his “half-sister” Nam-hee’s (Kim So-ra), an air hostess who turns out to be a cousin temporarily taken in by Bo-hee’s mum when she ran away from home as a teenager, where is he is cared for by her surprisingly supportive boyfriend Sung-wook (Seo Hyun-woo).

Tellingly, Sung-wook is also an orphan with no family, raised in an orphanage with no parental models yet easily slipping into a positive paternal role. Both Bo-hee and Nok-yang are being raised in single parent families, Bo-hee believing until recently that his father had died, while Nok-yang lost her mother in childbirth and lives with her salty grandma and distant father. In conservative Korean society they each experience a degree of stigma for not having the “full” complement of parents with some of the snooty kids at school even assuming that’s why they’re friends, but the pair largely rejoice in each other’s company and have learned to pay them no mind.

Meanwhile, Bo-hee is experiencing strange anxiety-like attacks which eventually turn out to be something more serious, but neatly underline his intense adolescent confusion. Finding out his mother has a boyfriend not only forces him to confront his father’s absence, but also deepens the sense of anxious rootlessness he feels as someone without an extended family network. As Nok-yang somewhat insensitively puts it, what if the boyfriend turns out to be an “evil stepmother” and pushes him out of his family home, where will he go then? That kind of thinking is what leads him to track down Nam-hee, “certain” that she won’t turn him away because, he believes, they share the same father.

Despite maintaining an intense belief in the power of blood connection, Bo-hee remains distrustful of the idea of family and uncertain in his own identity. Even his name, which is really just “Boy” like the unnamed protagonist of a young adult novel, bothers him in that is uncomfortably close to slightly rude word, not to mention being somewhat unusual. Nok-yang has an unusual name too, but hers has a lovely, if sad, story behind it about her dad seeing rays of sunshine through the trees on the way home from the hospital and deciding to name her after that, whereas Bo-hee’s seems to be random. Thanks to his quest to track down his dad, Bo-hee finally comes to understand the meaning behind his name and accept himself for himself rather than longing to be just like everyone else.

Like all small children, Bo-hee thought everything that happened in his life was somehow his fault, that his dad left because of something he did or that there was just something wrong with him that his dad couldn’t love. What he realises is that his father’s decision was his father’s and nothing to do with him. It wasn’t his fault that his father left and there is nothing about him that means anyone else in his life is likely to leave without warning. In a roundabout way, looking for his dad helps to rebuild a sense of the family he didn’t think he had, becoming more secure in his relationship with his mother, bonding with Sung-wook and Nam-hee, and remembering that whatever happens he and Nok-yang will always be there for each other.


A Boy and Sungreen was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The House of Us (우리집, Yoon Ga-eun, 2019)

The world of us poster 2“People should eat with their families” a little girl points out dutifully declining an invitation to dinner, only to return home and dine alone. Hana (Kim Na-yeon), the heroine of Yoon Ga-eun’s The House of Us (우리집, Ulijib), is still young enough to think she can bend the world to her will but is about to discover that some things can’t, or perhaps shouldn’t, be changed only accepted. Meditating on the meaning of family in a changing society, Yoon’s World of Us followup finds its earnest heroine trying to escape familial disappointment through forging a home of her own but eventually realising home is not a house.

11-year-old Hana has just won the best classmate prize, but no one at home seems to be very excited for her, nor (perhaps strangely) does she seem to have many friends. In fact, despite her caring nature, she’s feeling intensely insecure because her family life is in disarray. Mum and dad are both busy and rarely home, but when they are they’re having blazing rows about how dissatisfying they each are as spouses while even going so far as to have retroactive arguments about the decision to have children while their kids are still in earshot. Hana can see her mum’s busy and she wants to help so she offers to do some of the cooking as part of her summer holiday “recipe book” project, but is flatly refused. Fearing that her parents are on the brink of divorce and longing to return to happier days, she pesters them about going on a trip, believing that would be enough to repair her fracturing family.

Wistfully staring at happy families wherever she goes, Hana ends up running into two little girls, nine-year-old Yoo-mi (Kim Shi-a) and her sister seven-year-old Yoo-jin (Joo Ye-rim), who are living more or less on their own while their parents are working away (an uncle checks in on them every now and then). Lonely as she is, Hana starts hanging out with the equally lonely sisters but takes on an oddly maternal rather than sisterly role, delighting in cooking for them the way her mother rarely does for her and would not allow her to do for their family. Generating an easy bond, the girls decide to build “the house of us” out of discarded cardboard boxes, declaring they’ll build it as high as they can.

Yet Hana, still a child herself, struggles with what it means to assume a parental role. She does to Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin the exact things that she most resented about her own parents – withholding information and making decisions which affect everyone without consulting anyone. Having moved around a lot, Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin are most anxious that their landlady says they’ll be moving but their parents haven’t told them anything. Hana vows to help them save their house while protecting her own home, but in reality she can do neither. The girls resort to a series of childish tricks to prevent prospective tenants from choosing to rent Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin’s apartment in the belief that that they could stay if no one wanted to move in, approaching the problem with innocent logic that makes perfect sense to a child but is little more than silliness to an adult.

Meanwhile, Hana struggles with twin discoveries of parental betrayal in finding her mother’s application for a transfer to Germany, and accidentally answering a call from a woman on her father’s phone that perhaps embarrasses her as she realises despite her young age that he has done something potentially destructive to their family. The less control she has in her family home, the more time she spends with Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin making a new one and trying to do it better. The sisters begin to look up to her as a little more than a big sister figure, allowing her to lead and expecting that she will know what to do even when she fails them.

Through her own failures, Hana begins to realise that her parents aren’t perfect and adults don’t always know what to do either. The girls accept that they belong to different families and can’t stay together, but discover that the “house” wasn’t what was important and that they’ll always be connected even if they’re far apart. No longer so insecure, Hana steps into herself and understands that her parents’ marriage is something they’ll sort out for themselves and if the family is scattered it’ll still be her family. A warm and empathetic, if melancholy, exploration of coming to terms with life’s disappointments, The House of Us finds serenity in the act of letting go as its heroine finds the strength to look forward rather than back towards a happy independence supported but not constrained by imperfect family.


The House of Us was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)