I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크, Kim Hyun-seok, 2017)

I Can Speak posterGenre in Korean cinema has always been a more fluid affair than it might be elsewhere, but careering from zany generational comedy to affecting historical drama is perhaps a bold choice. I Can Speak (아이 캔 스피크) is, in many ways, the story of an old woman’s personal revolution as she finds herself repurposing her “Goblin Granny” credentials to pursue justice for a great evil she spent a lifetime hiding from, but it’s also an unabashedly political attack on a legacy of unresolved national trauma. Nevertheless, despite its slightly awkward straddling of cheeky comedy and heartrending melodrama, I Can Speak does at least manage to lay bare a series of entrenched social problems affecting all areas of modern Korean society while also making a fairly uncontroversial (at home at least) political point.

Park Min-jae (Lee Je-hoon) has just transferred to the local council offices in a rundown area of Seoul. Seeing as he’s new and very by the book, he doesn’t know that everyone in the office is terrified of “Goblin Granny” (Na Moon-hee)  – an old woman who turns up every single day with a list of complaints and things around the neighbourhood that could do with being fixed. Min-jae, unaware of Goblin Granny’s fortitude, attempts to deal with her complaints in a bureaucratic manner. He is no match for Ok-boon’s bloodymindedness, but his straightforward approach eventually earns her respect.

Ok-boon is the sort of old woman familiar to many municipal offices in that she is essentially lonely and comes in to complain about things just to make her presence felt. She does have a few friends, however – one being the lady who runs the local convenience store, and the other a woman of around her own age who can speak fluent English. Ok-boon decides she ought to learn English too and enrols in an expensive cram school but is abruptly kicked out of the class which is almost entirely filled with youngsters because of her old lady ways. On the way out, however, she runs into Min-jae who was there to check that his extremely high TOEIC scores were still valid. Ok-boon manages to talk Min-jae into giving her English lessons in return for decreasing the burden on the municipal offices by making fewer complaints.

I Can Speak begins firmly in the realms of bureaucratic comedy as the council workers find themselves cowering in front of Goblin Granny while simultaneously enjoying their cushy jobs for life which require almost no effort in their daily activities. Some in the community assume Ok-boon is a horrible old busybody who likes making trouble and pulling other people up on their various social failings but her community patrols come from a good place. The woman who runs a small stall in the market assumes Ok-boon reported her to the police for selling alcohol to a minor but that’s not the sort of thing that Ok-boon would think worth reporting, which is why she doesn’t think much of breaking city regulations to enjoy a drink outside her friend’s shop. Everything she reports is because she genuinely worries someone may get hurt and her main area of concern is with the strange goings on around the market which is earmarked for “regeneration”. Her concerns are not unfounded as she discovers when she overhears some of the council workers talking about taking backhanders to push the redevelopment through while making use of “external labour” in the form of shady gangsters tasked with clearing the area so the ordinary people who live in the old fashioned neighbourhood will consent to quietly move away. Perhaps because no one ever stood up for her, or because she’s sick of being pushed around, Ok-boon is not going to go quietly nor is she going to allow any of her friends to be taken away without a fight.

Ok-boon is perhaps attempting to fight something else, something she has been afraid to revisit for most of her life. The fact is that Ok-boon was one of many Korean women forcibly abducted by the Japanese army at the end of the Second World War and subjected to heinous, inhuman treatment as sex slave in one of the many “comfort woman stations” which existed throughout Japanese occupied territory. After the war, she was disowned by her family who saw only shame in her suffering and insisted she tell no one what had happened in fear of damaging her family’s reputation. One of the reasons Ok-boon wants to learn English is to be able to talk to her little brother again who she has not seen since they were children and has apparently forgotten how to speak Korean after spending a lifetime in the US.

English does however give her back something that she’d lost in the form of a familial relationship with the otherwise closed off Min-jae who is also raising a teenage brother (Sung Yoo-bin) following the death of their parents. It is true enough that it is sometimes easier to talk about painful things in a second language – something Min-jae demonstrates when he shifts into English to talk about his mother’s death. Abandoning Korean allows Ok-boon to begin dismantling the internalised shaming which has kept her a prisoner all these years, too afraid to talk about what happened in the war in case she be rejected all over again. Her worst fears seem to have come true when her old friends learn about her past, but what they feel for her is empathy rather than shame, hurt that Ok-boon was never able to confide in them and unsure what it is they should say to her now.

Ok-boon learns that she “can speak” – not only English but that she has the right to talk about all the things that happened to her and the long-lasting effect they have had on her life, that she has nothing to be ashamed of and has a responsibility to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. English becomes a bridge not only between her past and future, but across cultures and eras as she finds herself bonding with a Dutch woman giving a testimony much similar to her own and receiving the same kind of ignorant, offensive questions from the American law makers as well as cruel taunts from a very undiplomatic Japanese delegation. Undoubtedly, the final sequence is a very pointed, almost propagandistic attack on persistent Japanese intransigence but then its central tenet is hard to argue with. Tonally uneven, and perhaps guilty of exploiting such a sensitive issue for what is otherwise a standard old lady regains her mojo comedy, I Can Speak is an affecting, if strange affair, which nevertheless makes a virtue of learning to find the strength to stand up for others even if it causes personal pain.


I Can Speak screens at the New York Asian Film Festival on 12th July, 6.30pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles/captions)

Miss Granny (수상한 그녀, Hwang Dong-hyeok, 2014)

131212-001_1401140436597Review of Hwang Dong-hyeok’s age swap comedy Miss Granny (수상한 그녀, Soosanghan Geunyeo) up at UK Anime Network.


Miss Granny is something of a departure for Korean director Hwang Dong-hyeok whose previous two films have both explored fairly weighty subjects firstly in The Father which, based on a true story, features an American adoptee looking for his father only to find him languishing on death row, and more recently in Silenced (also known as The Crucible) which depicted the harrowing, and again true, events that occurred at the Gwangju Inhwa School for the Deaf in which pupils were routinely abused by teachers and staff. So far as we know, Miss Granny is not based on a true story and is a more mainstream comedy in which a “difficult” old lady suddenly finds herself transformed into her 20 year old self.

At the beginning of the film, Oh Mal-soon is a bad tempered 74 year old woman who terrorises everyone around her into submission including her middle aged daughter-in-law who eventually lands up in the hospital with a heart condition that may in part have been brought on by Mal-soon’s constant criticism. Mal-soon’s son faces an impossible choice, ship his mother off to a home and give his wife some peace or risk losing either his marriage or his wife by keeping his mother around. Heartbroken at the thought her son maybe about to abandon her, Mal-soon wanders around the city before deciding to enter a mysterious portrait photographers and dolling herself up for a “funeral photo”. However, when she emerges she’s mysteriously transformed into a lithe and pretty 20 year old! Suddenly young again with potentially a whole life in front of her, what sort of choices will Mal-soon make this time around?

Much of the comedy of Miss Granny centres around the young Mal-soon, renamed Oh Doo-ri after her favourite actress, Audrey Hepburn, speaking and acting as if she really really were a 74 year old woman with all of the freedoms (and the invisibilities) that age grants you. Snapping away in her thick rural dialect and handing out unsolicited advice in the way only a nosy old woman can, Doo-ri is a very strange, and perhaps a slightly frightening, young woman. Undoubtedly, as we find out, Mal-soon has had a difficult life – starting out as an upperclass woman before becoming a young, penniless single mother dependent on the kindness of others and doing everything in her power to ensure that her son will grow up a fine man. Life has made her hard and in turn she makes things hard for all around her.

As a young woman she’s initially much the same yet comes to understand something of who she was and who she is. In her younger days she dreamed of being a singer and even as an old woman was well known for her fine voice. After unexpectedly jumping up to sing at a senior’s event in order to best another old lady rival, she’s “discovered” by a producer who’s tired of all the soulless idol stars who walk across his stage. Doo-ri is exactly what he’s been looking for, a young and pretty face with a voice that’s full of a lifetime’s heartbreak. Here is the real coup of the film – the younger actress, Shim Eun-kyung, reinterprets these classic pop songs from 40 years ago beautifully with exactly the right levels of pain and regret perfectly matching the montage flashbacks to Mal-soon’s youth. Becoming young again, experiencing everything again as if for the first time – opportunity, romance, friendship, Mal-soon finally begins to soften as if some of the harsh years of her original young life had been smoothed away.

Of course, nothing lasts forever and Mal-soon eventually has to make a choice between her newly returned youth and something else precious to her. She comes to understand that however hard it was she’d do it the same all over again because the same things would always have been the most important to her. Though it’s far from original and drags a little in the middle, Miss Granny still proves a warm and funny tale that walks the difficult line between serious and funny with ease and throws in a pretty catchy soundtrack to boot.


Reviewed at the London Korean Film Festival 2015.

Also here is one of the musical sequences in the film – I think this is a famous song from the ’70s (?) called White Butterfly. ‘Tis quite beautiful (mild spoilers for the film as it includes a montage of Mal-soon’s youth in the ’60s).