Ode To My Father

Ode To My Father
Directed by JK Youn
Starring Hwang Jung-min, Kim Yunjin

Ode To My Father – this year’s LKFF opening gala movie – is, with over fourteen million tickets sold, the second highest grossing Korean movie of all time. It’s cinema on a massive scale, with a huge, international cast spread across several countries, and set over several decades. A stirring epic of love and life; the history of an entire nation.

It’s also not very good.

But let’s start at the beginning: Ode To My Father is the life story of Duk-soo, played by the always watchable Hwang Jung-min – this year’s KFF spotlight actor – forced to sadly spend a lot of this film in truly dreadful ‘old man’ makeup. We follow him through his many trials; evacuating his home as a child at the outbreak of the Korean War, working in the coal mines of West Germany during the mass migration of the 1960’s, serving in Vietnam… it could be (crudely, but somewhat accurately) summed up as the “Korean Forrest Gump”, a one man journey through the struggles of a generation, a touching tale of triumph over adversity.

Except that Ode To My Father is a clumsy affair, rife with naff comedy, highly-strung performances and inappropriately cheesy action music playing over scenes of vast human tragedy. For what is an expensive movie – from its stirring, war-torn introduction, to its lavish recreations of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s – Ode To My Father can often feel cheap; closer to a TV soap than the grand piece of cinema it attests to be, filled with cartoonish emotion and a central romantic thread that is off-puttingly slapstick.

Especially unfortunate for Western viewers is its frequent use of English and German speaking background characters – all of whom are clearly not actors – delivering outright hilarious non-performances during scenes of important drama. It’s a reoccurring problem in Asian cinema that attempts to be international in scope, the argument presumably being that the domestic audience won’t notice how poor the acting is in languages they cannot speak. But it’s a problem that is starting to matter more: as Asian cinema tries to appeal to a wider audience, how outright amateurish scenes like this can come across will cause serious harm. As anyone who saw Japan’s big budget rendition of Lupin III last year can attest, poor use of an international cast can render a film unwatchably laughable.

But there are some moments of joy to be had. As a Western viewer, many of the events depicted were utterly unknown to me, and proved impactful simply as a history lesson if nothing else. The section focusing on the “Reuniting Separated Families” TV specials of the early 80’s is extraordinary, a story well worth reading in to, creating easily the most powerful moments of the film without the film itself really having to do anything.
But these scenes are the exceptions rather than the rule. A majority of the film’s depictions of historical events tends to spoil the innate drama, burying it beneath piles of mawkish melodrama.

So what this leaves you with is a film that feels thoroughly lightweight: well-meaning and likeable enough, but little more than a low-grade tear jerker, uncomfortable in its multi-million dollar finery.


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