WAY BACK HOME (2013)
Disconsolate and powerful, Jeon Do-yeon provides another dramaturgy tour de force based on the true story of a Korean housewife imprisoned overseas for drugs smuggling
For a film so focused on the personal angst of the central character, the star-turn performance was always going to measure the success of this real-life drama transferred to screen.
Jeon Do-yeon, who reached a zenith when landing the Best Actress award for Secret Sunshine (2007) at the 60th Cannes Film Festival, manages to again plumb the depth of emotional acting which is both powerful yet sincere.
Here Jeon plays an everyday Korean housewife embroiled in inadvertent drug smuggling, requiring a performance which makes us comprehend her desperation and vulnerability, but to also emphasise with her perilous actions.
Crafted by Bang Eun-jin, previously best known for her on-screen performances in Park Chul-soo’s 301, 302 (1995) and Kim Ki-duk’s Address Unknown (2001), but an established modern film maker now by following up Princess Aurora (2005) and Perfect Number (2012) with her finest film to date here.
Jeong-yeon (Jeon) is happily married to Jong-bae (Go Soo) who are raising their young daughter. Their world is rocked when one of Jong-bae’s friends commits suicide over his unpaid debts and having acted as a guarantor, the pair now have the arrears placed on their laps.
As hopelessness sets in, Jeong-yeon agrees to transport some diamonds for a seedy acquaintance, but rather than her legal cargo, it transpires that she was carrying several kilograms of cocaine.
Arrested in Paris, Jeong-yeon is thrown into a French jail. As Jong-bae attempts to get help from a hapless Korean embassy in France, Jeong-yeon is transferred to a ruthless prison on the island of Martinique, a French territory in the Caribbean.
Barely able to communicate, she starts the long wait for a trial in France, despite developments in Korea which may signal a chance of freedom, or at least transportation back home.
Jeon Do-yeon cuts a fragile figure as Jeong-yeon, her slight figure appearing otherworldly compared to the burly criminals, often screaming at her in a foreign tongue and stealing her food.
The first time a Korean film was shot in the Caribbean, a not particularly surprising side-fact, it also featured actual prison guards and inmates as supporting characters.
The film does a fine job of allowing the audience to comprehend the frustration that Jeong-yeon and Jong-bae increasingly feel, and considering much of this comes from the slightly dry concept of bureaucratic incompetence, doing this in an engaging way.
The drug trafficking gone awry notion is commonplace in other cinematic regions and Bang Eun-jin successfully shifts this to Korean shores, perhaps enhancing the fish-out-of-water feel of the entire film in doing so.
It is still an inescapable reality that all road of praise lead back to Jeon Do-yeon and her jaw-dropping performance. She certain comes out of film better than the Korean embassy in France, where audiences will feel a surge of pure indignation towards this otherwise obscure pocket of paper-pushing officialdom.