If you’re looking for a cultural work of film that will tug incessantly at your heartstrings, look no further than the 2014 Korean movie, “Ode to My Father.” Directed by Yoon Je-kyoon, who directed Korea’s first official disaster film “Tidal Wave,” “Ode to My Father” is a well crafted story about one man’s life of sacrifice and dedication for his family as he lives through some of South Korea’s most historic events. The premise of the movie is rather simple. Deok-soo, a old, cranky curmudgeon can’t help but feel unfulfilled with his life as the world around him changes with the times. He runs an imported-goods store that is in danger of going out of business but explodes in anger whenever anyone mentions the idea of selling it. One day, while looking after his grandchildren, Deok-soo goes through a series of vivid flashbacks, from his childhood during the Korean War to serving in the military in war-torn Vietnam, that piece together the reason why his outdated shop means so much to him.
This film, which has become the second-highest grossing film in the history of Korean cinema, can be best described as South Korea’s “Forrest Gump.” Actor Hwang Jung-min as the young Deok-soo does a fantastic job representing the Korean everyman from the 1950s to present day. Hwang successfully brings out Deok-soo’s most admirable characteristic: his devotion for his family. Numerous instances that show Deok-soo’s determination and willpower to give up his happiness in exchange for his family’s well-being, which rallies the audience to his support. Continuing the parallels with Robert Zemeckis’ American classic, it makes countless references to historically significant people and events.
However, there were times when the film felt too forcefully dramatic and shamelessly sappy. Some of the many emotional scenes in this movie felt exaggerated and manipulative for the sake of drama. There were times during the tearjerker scenes when I could pinpoint the exact moment the director cued the sad violins to accompany the weeping. There is no subtlety. There are clear, distinct moments when the audience is told to laugh and when to cry. Additionally, this movie falls victim to several overused tropes and clichés such as the bumbling comedic side-kick and the love-at-first-sight female lead. While harmless, these can cause some eye-rolling. Yet, despite all these faults, none of it seems remotely important in the end as even the most cynical critic will become invested in this family-focused story. The emotionally-gripping narrative slowly draws you in when you least expect it, and by the time you notice, you can’t help but care about the issues that Deok-soo faces and the hardships that he endures. Even if it could be cliché at times, the film still remains enjoyable during those cheesy moments.
Another noteworthy thing to mention is the production value. The film was primarily shot in the Korean city of Busan, the hometown of Director Yoon, but other filming locations include the Czech Republic for the scenes of the German coal mines and Thailand, which stood in for the untamed jungles of Vietnam. It was also the first Korean blockbuster film to enforce a standard labor contract with the film and production crew. In Korea, it is common for labor laws and regulations to be brushed off and for young staff members to be overworked with little pay. While not the first Korean movie to have a standard labor contract, this film actually enforce the contract during pre-production and distributed bonuses equally Due to this, production costs rose to $300 million. But the film topped the box office with a total of 1.5 million viewers in the first five days. According to Director Yoon, the cost was worth it. He stated to korea joongang daily, “people worked harder and more willingly, which ended up elevating the quality of the work.”
Surprisingly, what I found important in the film was its relevance to modern issues. With a series of flashbacks, it creates a visual contrast between the flashback events and the observations of Deok-soo. This style forces the audience to compare the past and the present. For example, in one extremely emotional flashback, the five year-old Deok-soo and his family, as well as thousands of fleeing Koreans, were saved just in time by the U.S. Navy from the bombings during the Korean War but ultimately became unwelcome, harassed refugees in the south. When it eventually fades back to the present, Deok-soo sees a group of present day teenagers verbally assault a family of immigrants and label them as unwanted, dark-skinned outsiders, which promptly causes the elderly Deok-soo to burst in anger and publicly scold and beat the reprehensible teenagers. Scenes such as these struck me as powerful as it seemed like the movie used them to point out the various social issues in Korea today.
As a final note, I must reflect upon the film’s strange nature of being both unrealistic yet realistic. It has its unrealistic moments when the drama is overly embellished and the scene carries out like a soap opera, but at the same time, the movie is genuine when it touches on the issues of family, sacrifice and the changes accompanied by the unending flow of time. Despite its clichés, the movie did not end with the perfect happy ending as I expected. Instead, it concludes on a bittersweet note that perfectly encapsulates the feelings of peace and memories of regret that comes with old age. It’s no surprise that many viewers in Korea saw it as a nostalgic journey down memory lane as well as a solemn tribute to those who carried the burden so that others didn’t have to.