A LETTER FROM KYOTO (2022)
A fractured family find a common purpose as three sisters unearth their mother’s Japanese heritage
Trevor Treharne, Busan International Film Festival 2022
With the first Korean film from Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda also being screened at Busan this year, this Kore-eda-like family drama seems a fitting piece of further programming.
Perhaps most like his 2015 masterpiece 'Our Little Sister', debut director Kim Min-ju also uses three sisters’ lives to unpack the complications of the family unit here.
While their father has passed away, the sisters and mother share blood, but little else. Their ambitions and view of the world clash and splinter. Hye-young (Han Seon-hwa) wants to be a writer and has moved to Seoul to chase her dream. She returns home to Yeongdo, a harbour-side suburb in Busan, as her fortunes in the capital sour.
The mother of the three sisters (Cha Mi-kyung) was born in Kyoto, Japan, but spent most of her life in Yeongdo with the eldest daughter Hye-jin (Han Chae-ah) who has assumed the majority of responsibility of caring for their deteriorating mother and the youngest sister, Hye-joo (Song Ji-hyun), who is approaches high school graduation.
While Hye-young licks her wounds from rejection, Hye-jin targets her for leaving the family. When Hye-young learns that her mother has early-stage dementia, her concerns are met by anger from a Hye-jin already aware of their mother’s state. The wide-eyed Hye-joo is instead secretly chasing a dream of her own as a professional dancer.
The discovery of a letter written in Japanese by their grandmother gives the sisters a project that can offer their mother connection with the past, and a similar association for the sisters in the present.
The various family ages seem to signify the stages of angst in life and eventual deterioration. The youngest is full of optimism as she chases a dream dance career. Hye-young has reached the realisation that own dream of being a writer might be fiction itself. Hye-jin is the old head who has become too weighted by duty to even dream anymore. Their mother is clinging to the last of her memory, while the father has already passed on – the final bleak stage for us all.
There is a slightly unmoored diversion when Hye-jin becomes embroiled with a Polish man, the pair seemingly able to heartily communicate despite not having a common language to share.
The film highlights how poor communication and unnecessary secrets can soon derail a family. It also portrays ambition as a means for disappointment, as we see by Hye-joo’s reluctance to announce her dance dreams after Hye-young was so chastised for her writing ones.
For a debut it shows genuine promise. Kim is not Kore-eda yet – no-one is – but that knack for effecting family drama is certainly present here.