LIFE IS LIKE A BOX OF RICE CAKES
During the 1951 Hungnam Evacuation in the Korean War, the Yoon family flees North Korea with thousands of refugees. In the chaos, a young Deok Soo loses track of his sister, Mak Soon, and so his father turns back to search for her. He tells Deok Soo to head to Busan where Deok Soo’s aunt runs a small shop and also reminds Deok Soo that he is now the head of the family as the firstborn male. The film follows Deok Soo (Hwang Jung Min) as he grows up and takes odd jobs in order to support his family with his best friend, Dal Goo (Oh Dal Soo). He eventually meets a young nurse, Young Ja (Kim Yun Jin), who captures his heart. In the midst of supporting his family, he never loses hope of reuniting with his dad and sister again.
The thing that made Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump such a likeable character is because he’s an unremarkable man who experiences extraordinary things. Similarly, Hwang Jung Min’s Deok Soo is ultimately an uneducated man whose love and sense of responsibility for his family drives him to take odds job and inadvertently contribute to the industrialization age of Korea. If you take a look at the older generation of Korean men, I’m sure you’d be able to find a lot of men like Deok Soo who has similar experiences following the Korean War. And perhaps that’s why this film was the hit of late 2014.
Through Deok Soo’s eyes, we get a look at the modern history of Korea. It’s entertaining to watch and pick out the who’s who of Korean from the founder of Hyundai to the wrestler Lee Man Ki to the Trot Singer Nam Jin (Kim Yun Ho). Except all of these Koreans were big dreamers in a way, paving the way to what Korea is now and the movie is not so subtly suggesting that Deok Soo is part of that dream as well.
However, chasing your dreams does not mean that it’s without sacrifice and though the film covers a lot of gloomy periods, I like that the movie is not depressing. The serious and sad moments are interspersed with comedic moments that make the story amusing. Hwang Jung Min and Kim Yun Jin are excellent at bringing out the emotions for the serious scenes but, as excellent actors as they are, they can also balance those emotions with moments of lightness.
On the other hand, Oh Dal Soo and Kim Seul Gi are known for their comedy and they certainly do not disappoint. It’s the entire cast that really does make this film shine and make you feel like you’re watching a close-knit family and friends. Their relatability makes the viewer wants the viewer cry along with them during their pain and sorrows and laugh and cheer for them during their happy moments.
One of the most heartfelt moments is when Deok Soo goes on the television program looking for his dad and sister. Personally, as a child, I recall watching this television program with my grandparents but did not understand the impact of it being in the US. There may have been some who view the reunion scene feeling forced but the reunion scene with Mak Soon (Stella Choe) is an important scene to bring a sense of closure without having to bring the entire film down on a sad note. (And bonus, how awesome is it that Stella Choe is the Korean-American actress known for the viral video What kind of Asian are you?)
The film does an excellent job in bringing the story full circle and it’s a pattern that’s seen throughout. From the adult Deok Soo offering chocolate to a young Vietnamese child during the Vietnam War, risking his life to save a young girl knocked overboard to defending a young Indian immigrant to Korea, Deok Soo’s action as an adult are determined by the experiences he’s had in his youth.
It’s not often that I feel that the English title of the film accurately represents the Korean film but while Ode to My Father is not a direct translation, it is a meaningful title. As the eldest male in the family, Deok Soo had been carrying the burden of his family his whole life as he’s always felt it was his duty. My favorite scene in the film is when the elderly Deok Soo is seen crying in his room and we see that he’s still just that same boy who left his father back on Hungnam Port. Even though Deok Soo has filled his father shoes well over the years, a part of Deok Soo is still that child and it’s quite a big burden.