The Way Home
"This film is dedicated to all the grandmothers." So notes the epilogue to Lee Jeong-hyang's Jibeuro ("The Way Home"), the first South Korean film to gain a theatrical release from a major American studio. A popular title on the film-festival circuit (where it picked up a clutch of awards), Lee's story is a simple fable told in a quiet, non-provocative manner. Young Sang-woo (Yu Seung-ho) enjoys the same simple pleasures as any seven-year-old Seoul resident: video games, toys, and junk food. But when his single mother (Dong Hyo-hee) finds that she can't look after her boy while she's out of work and deeply in debt, she temporarily deposits him with her mother (Kim Eul-boon) in a rural area of Korea far from the big city, where the agrarian folk live in shacks with no electricity or plumbing and must take a long bus ride just to reach the nearest town. The sullen Sang-woo is upset at first, and it soon becomes clear that he's a troubled boy who has difficulty interacting with others, often lashing out in violent temper-tantrums (we are given some indications that his self-centered mother may be responsible for his own arrogance). And if he doesn't care for life in a rural district, he certainly has no sympathy for his grandmother a 78-year-old woman who's mute, mentally handicapped, and so stricken with osteoporosis that she walks hunched, with only a crude stick to guide her unhurried gait. But over the course of his visit, Sang-woo learns that his choices can come with consequences; he's also shamed by the fact that his grandmother, whom he treats so cruelly, only responds with simple, unconditional love. Fundamentally a two-character film, The Way Home is a reed-slender affair with barely any hint of plot and a thoroughly predictable conclusion. But it creates value in several small vignettes we are shocked by just how vicious Sang-woo can be to his elder, scrawling "retard" on a wall next to a crude image of the hunched woman, stealing a pin from her hair (which she carefully looks after), and shouting at the top of his lungs when he can't have his way. But even more moving are his grandmother's actions and reactions. When Sang-woo asks for "Kentucky Chicken," she travels to the local market and trades produce for a fresh fowl, butchering it herself and hoping the boy will enjoy the boiled poultry (he does not). Needing batteries for his hand-held video game, she slips her precious money in his pocket. Hoping to impress a girl, Sang-woo asks his grandmother to cut his hair (and is unhappy with the results). The Way Home is a small, moving story of personal sacrifice, made even more remarkable by the leading performance of Kim Eul-boon, an elderly Korean woman who had never before appeared on film. Her tender gestures, and Lee Jeong-hyang's script, suggest that love does not require mental effort, but merely a natural need to look after others. And when it comes to grandmothers, the need to care for their grandchildren approaches an immutable instinct. Paramount's DVD release features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a very good source-print, with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. No extras, keep-case.