“Even when life is hard…if someone’s on your side, it’s possible to go on” the selfless grandmother at the centre of Chang’s heartrending familial melodrama Canola (계춘할망, Gyechun Halmang) imparts, just something she learnt naturally in the course of her life. Partly a tale of familial disruption, dislocation, and the corrupting influences of modernity, Chang’s eventually uplifting tale is also one of interpersonal salvation in which gentle support from a welcoming community can overcome personal trauma and allow those who feared they’d never recover to become a more authentic version of themselves.
Granny Gye-chun (Youn Yuh-jung) is an ageing Haenyo diver on picturesque Jeju island currently raising her young granddaughter Hey-ji following the death of her son, his wife having left sometime previously. Clearly devoted to each other, tragedy strikes when the pair leave for the city to attend a wedding only to become separated in a crowded marketplace. Gye-chun frantically searches for Hye-ji, but is unable to find her. 12 years later, she’s still pasting missing child flyers all over town while refusing offers to sell her traditional home, which has no indoor plumbing, because she is afraid that Hye-ji may some day return and find her gone. And then a miracle occurs, a young woman (Kim Go-eun) telephones the missing hotline after seeing a picture on a milk carton and claims to be Gye-chun’s missing granddaughter, explaining that her birth mother abducted her from the marketplace and had her adopted by her step-father so she had a different name. Her mother later died and the step-father then callously placed her in an orphanage after which she ended up on the streets.
Gye-chun is so happy to have her granddaughter back that she perhaps does not fully process the full implications of the situation, taking each of Hye-ji’s claims at face value while struggling to separate the idea of the child she lost with the young woman who has returned. On a shopping trip she buys her a colourful ribbon bow hair clip not entirely appropriate for someone of Hye-ji’s age while confused that she no longer needs her help to go to the outhouse in the dark and locks the door while having a bath. Nevertheless she also seems to worry about what her life might have been like during the time they spent apart, irritated by the other villagers’ disapproval in reminding them that they all reassured her Hye-ji was probably “fine’ when the evidence suggests that fine is something she hasn’t been for a long time.
The fishing village is indeed a little more conservative than the city, many scandalised by Hye-ji’s short skirts and by the fact that she smokes, instantly labelling her a “delinquent” and possible troublemaker. There is then something uncomfortable in their insistence that she lead a “good life” needing to be guided back towards a more socially conservative path as if her fashion sense and minor rebelliousness make her a “bad person”, while only Gye-chun seems to appreciate that Hye-ji may have come back with trauma from which she will need love and support to recover while short skirts and smoking aren’t really much to worry about in the grand scheme of things. Letting Hye-ji know that she is always on her side, she tries to give her the gentle love and encouragement she needs to become her best self while Hye-ji both begins to feel a genuine connection to the older woman and consequently intense guilt for having kept something from her and perhaps unfairly taking advantage of her kindness.
Nevertheless, in this more positive environment Hye-ji begins to blossom while Gye-chun begins to put the past to rest, the two of them finding in each other the means for salvation in which it ultimately no longer matters if they share a blood relation or not. Contrasting the beautiful Jeju landscape with its brilliant fields of yellow canola flowers, with the darkness of Hye-ji’s city life, Canola is keen to suggest the difference an environment can make to a quality of life while quietly stressing that in the end it’s people and the bonds between them that matter, just something you learn naturally as you grow.
Canola screens 6th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.
Original trailer (English / Korean subtitles)