ODE TO MY FATHER (2014)
Historically poignant but excessively mawkish, the heart-breaking trials of a man unfold in tandem with the Korea’s country-defining events
A ticket-stub selling tour de force in South Korea, Ode to My Father is a vital demonstration of the major events which are weaved into the country’s fabric.
It is also important to note that its characteristically melodramatic vision has not always travelled quite so well into Western markets. This is perhaps of scant concern to the filmmakers who set-out to produce a seminal historical portrayal of Korea.
That portrayal is achieved by following Yoon Deok-soo, played superbly by the always-brilliant Hwang Jung-min (The Wailing, New World) in his adult years (including a slightly laughable makeover as an elderly man).
We meet him as a grumpy fist-shaking old man, but leap back to the during the Hungnam Evacuation of 1950 in the Korean War when he was a young boy. Attempting to scramble onto a US Navy boat, he loses grip of his little sister Mak-soon while his father is left behind looking for her.
The male head of his family now, as a young man he opts to travel over to Germany for mining work to pay for his brother’s tuition at Seoul National University. The work proves perilous, but he does fall in love with a fellow migrant worker, nurse Young-ja.
Deok-soo is then embroiled in other landmark events such as the Vietnam War, before his new family return to South Korea while maintaining hope of one day finding his long-lost father and little sister.
The issue with Ode to My Father – which it still a deeply engaging film regardless of where you are – is its universal film craft is too often unsubtle and overplayed. As if characters are mere vessels for the next tear-jerking super slow-mo set-up.
Its apologists insist it is a film made for Koreans (one Korean journalist has written a defence stating exactly this) and there is nothing wrong with that at all. However, some technical filmmaking decisions are nothing to do with that.
One scene that seems to illustrate the unsubtle nature of the film is when Deok-soo receives a letter to state he has secured a university place. With his dream of being a ship captain edging closer, he opts to buy a store which is meaningful to him instead. The implication that his education must be sacrificed is clear, but we are further shown him crying outside the store, university acceptance letter in hand, when the letter flies up into the air and towards the camera. The only thing missing was a voiceover saying ‘his chance at education is flying away, you know’.
There is also a forerunner to Ode to My Father that attempts a similar narrative structure and succeeds at every turn – Lee Chang-dong’s masterpiece Peppermint Candy. It was praised globally for its ability to combine the major events in Korean history with a man’s plight.
Ode to My Father is still deeply engaging and vitally important, regardless of where you are located. A fine way to honour the many major events which have coloured the history of Korea.