Family Ties (가족의 탄생, Kim Tae-yong, 2006)

What is it that binds a “family”, bonds or blood, and do you really have a choice when it comes to being in one? Those are all questions which might have greater import in societies in which the concept of family is clearly defined and deeply entrenched, but even so the answers may be in a state of flux in the face of rapid social change which perhaps dangles the possibilities of greater personal freedom while in other ways remaining rigidly conservative. 

More literally translated as the birth of a family, Kim Tae-yong’s Family Ties (가족의 탄생, Gajokeui tansaeng) explores these changing connections through three interconnected stories, the first two occurring roughly contemporaneously and the third around a decade later. The heroine of the opening chapter, Mira (Moon So-ri), is a reserved young woman running a small cafe mostly catering to noisy teens. Originally excited to receive a phone call from her younger brother Hyung-chul (Uhm Tae-woong) whom she hasn’t seen for five years letting her know he’ll be coming home for a visit, Mira’s enthusiasm for the reunion dwindles when he turns up with a new wife, Mu-shin (Go Doo-shim), who appears to be much older than him. Mira is understandably put out. Firstly, he obviously didn’t invite her to his wedding, in fact he didn’t even bother to share the news he’d got married, and secondly it’s quite inconsiderate not to have warned her there would be an extra guest in tow especially as they’ve not met before. 

On the other hand, perhaps seeing him again merely reminds her of all the reasons they haven’t stayed in touch. In a quiet moment, Hyung-chul reveals he wants to open a shop selling traditional hanbok nearby, which is a surprise, but Mira instantly realises he’s probably come for money and repeatedly tells him she doesn’t have any. When everyone’s asleep, she makes a point of putting her bank book in a locked box inside the safe just to be sure he won’t abscond with it in the night. With Hyung-chul picking a fight with her fiancé and a random child turning up who turns out to be Mu-shin’s unwanted stepdaughter from several relationships ago, Mira’s patience begins to come to an end. She suggests that perhaps they’ve outstayed their welcome, but then evidently thinks better of it only to be let down once again by her irresponsible brother who claims he can take care of everyone, but predictably does not follow through. 

Family becomes a burden left to women to bear while acting as a safety net for men who view their role as protector yet largely can’t look after themselves. Sun-kyung (Gong Hyo-jin), the slightly younger protagonist of the second story, is frustrated by this same self sacrificing quality in her mother who has been continually deceived by useless lovers all her life including the most recent, a married man who won’t leave his wife and children. She also resents the presence of her much younger brother, still an elementary student doted on by the mother from whom she feels increasingly disconnected. Having run away from home to become a singer, Sun-kyung now has her sights set only on escaping abroad and is currently working as a guide for Japanese tourists only to end up bumping into her ex-boyfriend on a day out with his new partner. For her family is little more than a trap, her boyfriend apparently breaking up with her for being too selfish while she eventually pays a visit to the home of her mother’s lover to confront him and ask if “love” is really worth the price of sneaking around living a lie. Yet bonding with her brother and discovering what was in the mysterious suitcase her mother insisted on leaving at her apartment perhaps reconnects her with her childhood self and a more positive take on family bonds, even if that means in a sense regaining one dream only to abandon another. 

In any case, the anxieties of the first two sequences are visited in the third through the story of a young couple we first meet sitting next to each other on a train. So familiar with each other are they that we assume they are already involved, but they are in fact strangers meeting for the first time. Flashing forward a little, however, we can see their relationship is strained. Kyung-seok (Bong Tae-gyu), the young man, has inherited a sense of male insecurity, flying into jealous rages ostensibly because his girlfriend Chae-hyeon (Jung Yu-mi), is simply too nice or more to the point she’s nice to everyone and not just to him. He is frustrated by her because he feels she allows herself to be taken advantage of, often lending money to people who won’t see the need to pay her back because she’s too “nice” to bring it up. The last straw comes when he feels she’s embarrassed him by not showing up for a family dinner because she got involved in the search for a missing child. 

“When I’m with you I’m dying of loneliness” he somewhat dramatically announces as part of a breakup speech, annoyed that Chae-hyeon does not devote herself entirely to him as perhaps he expects a woman to do, but defiantly carries on being indiscriminately nice to everyone. He describes his mother as “pathetic” for having been overly attached to unreliable men, only to be corrected by his sister who reminds him that she merely had a big heart, something he’s perhaps lacking in his broody neediness. Yet through meeting Chae-hyeon’s family we get a sense of something different and new in which two women have raised a child unrelated to them by blood who came into their lives by chance as the result of a man’s irresponsible behaviour, an unnecessary throwaway reference to separate bedrooms perhaps undermining the boldly progressive introduction of Chae-hyeon’s two mothers to the extremely confused Kyung-seok. Nevertheless what we see in this last family, born as it was through a series of accidental meetings, is the first instance of a warm and loving home built on mutual support and affection rather than simply on blood or obligation. Having reclaimed the nature of family for themselves perhaps gives the women the courage and conviction to firmly close the door on those who might seek to misuse or corrupt it with their own sense of selfish entitlement, blood relation or not. 


Family Ties streamed as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Yim Soon-rye, 2008)

forever the moment posterSports is one of society’s acceptable obsessions. Devotion to a football team, intense knowledge of baseball stats, and idolatry of athletes is not only respected, it is often required for any kind cultural fluency in the society in which one lives. Sportsmen and women, however, can become a disposable commodity. This is after all why the pay for sports stars is so high – the career is temporary. A brief moment in the spotlight can earn a top athlete a multitude of promotional contracts and role model status to hundreds of sporty kids, but when the music stops everyone loses interest. The heroes of Yim Soon-rye’s Forever the Moment (우리 생애 최고의 순간, Woori Saengae Chwegoui Soongan) achieved their 15 seconds of fame when the Korean women’s handball team won a couple of gold medals in the ‘90s before the sport returned to relative obscurity. Despite being gold medal winners, the women are in a precarious position, left without professional team contracts and lacking the necessary qualifications and experience to find well paid work outside of the sports world.

Yim frames her story around the 2004 Olympic Games in which the Korean women’s handball team came back from a disastrous slump to reach the final only to go home with silver after a penalty shootout defeat to Denmark. Mi-sook (Moon So-ri) was part of the gold medal winning 1992 team and is now a wife and mother. Her financial circumstances, however, are strained. When the supermarket handball team she’s been playing for is disbanded, Mi-sook counts herself lucky to get a job on the shop floor. Her husband (Sung Ji-ru), formerly a top male handball player, has been conned out of all his money by an unscrupulous business partner and is currently on the run from debt collectors leaving her a virtual single parent and desperate for money.

Money is the reason she eventually decides to come back to the Korean Women’s Olympic handball team. Mi-sook’s one time rival, Hye-kyeong (Kim Jung-eun), has been parachuted in to coach the Korean Olympic hopefuls after a successful run coaching in Japan. The team is in a sorry state – filled with inexperienced youngsters, it will need serious work to even qualify for the upcoming games let alone reach the podium. Hye-kyeong decides to get some of her old medal winning team-mates back to bring some strength to the ranks even if they’re all a little past their prime. Despite her best efforts, Hye-kyeong is soon sidelined for male coach (and old flame) Ahn Pil-seung (Uhm Tae-woong) who decides to junk the “Korean method” which uses speed as a weapon against the taller European challengers, and embark on a “science-based” European training regimen.

Yim deliberately moves away from the classic sports movie formula, eschewing the training montage and including only one lengthy match at the film’s climax. Forever the Moment prefers to concentrate on the internal struggles of its scrappy, underdog team the best hopes of which are middle-aged women with children whom society often writes off. Hye-kyeong is an earnest, driven woman who’s made a successful life for herself as a sports professional after her court life has come to a natural end, but she still loses out because she got divorced – the bigwigs are nervous about the proposition of a “divorced” woman occupying a “public” position, something that would hardly come up if she were a man. Made “acting coach”, Hye-kyeong is given hardly any time at all to prove herself before the experiment of “allowing” a woman to coach women is ruled unsuccessful and a man with little experience given full budgetary backing to replace her.

Hye-kyeong’s battles with Ahn may eventually take on the expected romantic dimension but it’s the relationships between the other players which become the film’s spine. Mi-sook has always made a point of distancing herself from handball, regarding it simply as a paycheck rather than a vocation – something which seems all the more relevant thanks to her ongoing troubles with her absent husband who is rapidly sinking into a breakdown over his humiliation and inability to support his wife and child. Struggling through adversity and working hard to achieve a physical goal, the teammates discover new strengths, growing as people and as athletes in their quest to be ready for the all important Athens games.

Forever the Moment is another in the long line of Korean films which celebrate the achievements Koreans can make when they come together and work hard to achieve their goal. As in real life, the Korean Women’s Olympic Handball Team are robbed of their final victory by circumstance and accident, but coming second becomes a victory in itself because of everything it took to get there. Less a sports movie than a subversive comment on the way women are often cast aside or underestimated, Forever the Moment is a tribute to the power of hard work and team spirit which becomes its own reward even when one falls short of the goal.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sunny (님은 먼곳에, Lee Joon-ik, 2008)

Sunny 2008 posterLove, apparently, makes people do stupid things. So, apparently, does the absence of love. Lee Joon-ik’s Sunny (님은 먼곳에, Nimeun Meongotyi) takes another roundabout look at the recent past through the medium of music in the unlikely tale of a poor village girl married off to a resentful man whose love for another has sent him reeling off into a foreign war. While it’s nice to see this familiar story from the often neglected point of view of the unwanted wife, Lee’s tale is more one of male folly and the various ways a woman’s life is dictated by patriarchal values than it is of love and determination in the face of extreme danger.

Soon-yi (Soo Ae) sings a plaintive love song by contemporary singing star Kim Chu-ja for her fellow housewives in a small village, but her moment of reverie is broken when her domineering mother-in-law (Lee Joo-sil) arrives and orders everyone back to work. Victim of an arranged marriage, Soon-yi has been abandoned by her husband Sang-il (Uhm Tae-woong) who ran off to join the army right after the wedding. A letter he receives in the barracks tells us that he had a love in Seoul whom he was (presumably) forced to give up on in order to submit to his mother’s chosen bride (why he did this is never explained). Nevertheless, Sang-il’s mum is desperate for an heir from her only son and packs Soon-yi off for a conjugal visit every month. Sang-il, however, refuses any intimacy with his new wife, coldly rolling over as he tells Soon-yi to stop coming, wondering if she really has any idea what “love” is seeing as she’s obviously so blind to his emotional pain.

The next time Soon-yi tries to visit Sang-il she finds out he’s got himself sent to Vietnam – a source of panic to his devoted mother who blames her daughter-in-law for alienating her son so badly he’s decided to go off and get himself killed on a foreign battlefield rather than endure married life at home. Kicked out from her marital household and disowned by her birth family, Soon-yi decides to track Sang-il down in war-torn Vietnam, teaming up with a shady con-artist/musician (Jung Jin-young) as her only passage out of the country. 

The central problem is that Soon-yi does not love Sang-il. How could she, she barely knows him and their only on screen meeting is one filled with awkwardness, contempt, and resentment. Yet Soon-yi suddenly becomes bold, leaves her village, and refuses to back down until she finds Sang-il and convinces him to accept her as his wife. Given that he’s gone all the way to Vietnam in order to avoid her, it’s unclear what Soon-yi hopes to achieve in this – is her great gesture of sacrifice and perseverance supposed to make Sang-il suddenly abandon his resentment at his personal powerlessness and submit himself to inescapable (accidentally female) forces of social oppression?

Nevertheless, Soon-yi’s pureheartedness wins over all as they become unwilling allies in her quest. The innocence of the enterprise is soon stained with blood as Lee gives way to the bloody unpleasantness of the battlefield reality which our merry band of chancers are ultimately unable to escape. Eventually captured by the Viet Cong, they discover a mini society forged in underground tunnels complete with schools for the many children living in the dark. The Americans, by contrast, are cold and unyielding, cruelly executing the enemy and refusing to help Soon-yi in her quest until she makes a considerable sacrifice of her own.

Soon-yi, rechristened Sunny for her onstage persona, quickly becomes a pawn looking for a foothold in the midst of male squabbling. While Soon-yi’s determination to find Sang-il might have achieved melodramatic weight if it had been a real love story rather than a petty quest to remind an errant, weak willed man of his social obligations, it strains belief that she would really go this far just to save a man who can’t stand her (or really, cannot stomach the representation of his own moral cowardice), let alone that both the Korean and US armies would eventually allow a near silent young woman anywhere near an active battlefield just because she misses her husband. Enlivened by the energetic score of early ‘70s hits, Sunny is entertaining enough but never earns its contrived narrative nor manages to invest its heroine’s quest with any kind of weight or meaning, leaving her a passive presence in the film that bears her name.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kim Chu-ja’s My Love is Far Away