A middle-aged Singaporean woman begins to rediscover her sense of self after making an unexpected solo trip to Korea in He Shuming’s heartwarming dramedy, Ajoomma (아줌마). “Ajoomma” is the generic term for an older woman in Korean, and even in her native Singapore, the heroine Bee Hwa (Hong Hui Fang) is known largely as “Auntie” no longer possessing much of a name or identity and obsessed with Korean TV dramas in thrall to their larger than life emotions just hoping to feel something again in the midst of her loneliness.
Bee Hwa has a grown-up son, Sam (Shane Pow), but he remains somewhat distant towards her. “He never shares anything with me” she later complains to a mother and daughter duo on the Korean tour together after a few drinks. Sam was supposed to come on the trip with her, but he got an interview for a big job in America and tried to get her to cancel. Bee Hwa would rather Sam didn’t go abroad, but her sense of loneliness is only deepened with the dawning realisation that Sam may be gay and has chosen not to share that part of himself with her. When she realises the tour is not refundable as Sam said it would be, she makes a bold decision to go on her own despite never having travelled alone before. Her confusion at the airport is palpable as she’s suddenly confronted with unexpected bureaucracy, trying to fill in landing cards and find her way to the tour group which turns out to be led by a handsome man with the look of a K-drama star but a defeated and cynical air unsuited to his role as a tour guide.
Just as Bee Hwa longs for a closer relationship with her son, Kwon-woo (Kang Hyung-seok) is desperately trying to win back his wife and daughter who have moved in with his disapproving mother-in-law following his difficulties with employment and subsequent debts to loansharks. Kwon-woo wants to show them that he can be a responsible husband and father by holding on to his tour guide job and making enough to pay off the debts so they can get an apartment of their own, but is also his own worst enemy and prone to making mistakes not least the one leaving Bee Hwa behind after failing to make sure everyone was back on the bus before it left.
It’s only thanks to sympathetic security guard Jung Su (Jung Dong-hwan), himself a lonely widower whose sons live far away, that Bee Hwa doesn’t freeze to death in the middle of Seoul. Just like Bee Hwa, he’s lonely even with his beloved pet dog Dookie and mainly bides his time carving figures of animals out of wood. He helps her because he doesn’t know what else to do and despite the language barrier, Bee Hwa only understands the kind of words that come up a lot in Korean drama and he doesn’t know Mandarin or much English, the pair quickly find a sense of mutual solidarity bonding in their shared sense of loss mixed with mild disappointment in life’s ordinariness. Kwon-woo asks Bee Hwa if she regrets the choices that she made that left her little room for herself, and she says she doesn’t but does perhaps hanker for something more in her life than just being a faceless ajoomma who likes Korean dramas but has lost sight of herself.
The trip to Korea reminds her that she can do things on her own and doesn’t necessarily need Sam there to help her, finally buying something nice just for herself rather than getting it someone else. As she dances in the snow she realises that she can still have new experiences and feel childlike joy, even if she is “an auntie” she has plenty of time in front of her to do whatever she wants with no longer subject to social expectations, patriarchal husbands, or judgemental sons. Billed as the first co-production between Singapore and South Korea, He’s heartwarming drama celebrates not only the simple power of human kindness but the resilience of women like Bee Hwa seizing the freedom of age and resolving to live the rest of her life on her own terms.
Ajoomma screens in Chicago March 25 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
Original trailer (English subtitles)