Sunday, May 3, 2015

Movie Review: Ode to My Father

WARNING: The following blog post contains a lot of spoilers. If you have not yet seen Ode to My Father and wish to do so without having the plot given away, then do not read this.

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I did not watch Ode to My Father in the theater when it was released in December last year. I watched The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies instead; much to my utter disappointment. But that's another review for another day.

I watched Ode to My Father for the first time at home yesterday when I saw that it was on VOD. Before having watched it, I refused to read any review or plot summary of the movie. I read the first paragraph of a review once accidentally, where I learned that some have described the movie as Korea's version of Forrest Gump. Anyway, I was very grateful that I watched it at home because for most of the movie's running time, I was either on the verge of tears or I was actually bawling. The movie unashamedly uses cranked-up melodrama and string-heavy musical scores to squeeze as many teardrops as possible from its viewers.

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Let's back up a bit and breeze through the plot. The movie starts with the Hungnam Evacuation. The Yoon family, like countless other families, are fleeing North Korea. In a dramatic scene when the family climbs up a rope net to board a ship that would take them away from North Korea, the story's protagonist, a young boy named Deok-soo loses his younger sister whom he was carrying on his back. His father gets off the ship to find his daughter but not before telling his son that Deok-soo will have to be the head of the family until he comes back. He tells Deok-soo to go to his aunt's house in South Korea where she is running a shop and that he would meet them there later.

After arriving at his aunt's house/shop, Deok-soo keeps the promise that he made to his father and assumes the role of the family's breadwinner. When he grows up, Deok-soo (played by Hwang Jung-min) heads to West Germany to work in a coal mine in order to pay for his younger brother's college tuition. While in West Germany, he meets his future wife, Young-ja (played by Kim Yun-jin). A few years later, Deok-soo heads over to South Vietnam to work as a private contractor (it is never specified what kind of work he does) during the Vietnam War in order to pay for his younger sister's wedding (a different sister) and in order to buy his aunt's shop from her drunkard husband – the same shop that Deok-soo's father told him to wait for him at.

In 1983, Deok-soo manages to find his long-lost sister (played by Stella Choewhom he had lost in Hungnam through a television program, which helped to reunite family members who had lost each other during the tumultuous days of the Korean War. It turned out that his now grown-up sister had been adopted by an American family after she was found by an American soldier in Hungnam and shipped off to an orphanage in Busan.

The movie then fast forwards to the present-day when an aged Deok-soo (in rather unconvincing makeup) who is now in his twilight years tells his wife that perhaps the time had come to sell his shop, the same one that he and his family fled to all those years ago. The movie ends as Deok-soo wistfully says that his father probably won't be able to come to see him at the shop now because he is too old.

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The Absence of Foreign Devils

One of the things that I really appreciated about this movie is the absence of foreign devils. In a movie that starts out with the Korean War, it would have been easy to portray American soldiers as snarling warmongers, as was the case in Welcome to Dongmakgol.

Instead, the movie showcases an American major general who chooses to dump weapons and supplies into the sea so that there would be more room for refugees to board the ship to safety. This unnamed major general was actually based on Leonard LaRue, the skipper of the SS Meredith Victory, a United States Merchant Marine cargo freighter.

In a different scene, a German manager prevents Korean coal miners from attempting to rescue their co-workers from a collapsed mine, not because it is not worth saving those workers, but because it is unsafe to do so. Of course, the miners refuse to heed the manager's warning.

More importantly, however, during a scene in present-day Korea when a group of Korean juveniles hurl racist epithets at South Asian immigrants living in Korea, the aged Deok-soo comes to their defense as he knows just how difficult it is to live as a working class immigrant in a foreign country.

I spent the first twenty-eight years of my life as an immigrant in foreign countries as well. I could not help but feel moved when I saw that scene. Considering the fact that Korea is one of the least welcoming countries to foreigners, I thought that this was an important scene for all Koreans to see.

Not that Americans didn't have much of a PR nightmare...
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The Forrest Gump Comparison

The movie begins with a fluttering butterfly that flies around Seoul before landing close to an aged Deok-soo. And the movie ends with the butterfly fluttering away. It was clearly a homage to Forrest Gump's opening and closing scenes.

Also, through several twists of fate that can only exist on the silver screen, Deok-soo gets to meet several historically important Korean figures such as Chung Ju-yung, Andre Kim, Lee Man-ki, and, Nam Jin.

However, this is where the similarities to Forrest Gump end. When it comes to addressing historical facts, though it was certainly done in a lighthearted and comical manner, Forrest Gump did not shy away from America's darker past. For instance, the movie does not try to brush aside the Ku Klux Klan, the immorality of segregation, the hypocrisy of some in the anti-war movement, or the drug abuse that existed within the counterculture movement. The movie also did not shy away from the corrupt politicians of that era – in particular Kennedy's philandering ways (or the fact that he and his brother, Robert, were assassinated) and Nixon's Watergate scandal (and his subsequent resignation).

On the other hand, Ode to My Father deliberately makes no mention of any of Korea's darker past. There is no mention of the corrupt Syngman Rhee government, the student protest movement, the Park Chung-hee dictatorship, the Chun Doo-hwan junta government or the Gwangju Uprising. The movie treats Korean history as though none of those things ever happened.

It's true that the movie does not pretend that life was happier under the authoritarian regimes of the past. No one can watch the scene where blackened and grimy Korean migrant workers toil away in coal mines and then think that people's lives were being portrayed overly idealistically. That being said, however, those are some pretty big chunks of history to gloss over.

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Philosophical Objection

Before Deok-soo leaves for Vietnam, his wife Young-ja angrily objects to his decision. When Deok-soo tells his wife that he is obligated to head to Vietnam to earn more money for the family because it's his role to play as the eldest son, Young-ja asks him why he seems to be the only one who seems to be making sacrifices. She tells him to stop living for others and to live his own life. She asks him rhetorically why he seems to be absent from his own life.

However, as soon as she says that, the national anthem plays for the day's flag-lowering ceremony and everyone has to stand at attention and place their hands on their hearts while looking at their closest flag. While the flag is lowered, a speaker plays the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, which states:

나는 자랑스런 태극기 앞에 조국과 민족의 무궁한 영광을 위하여 몸과 마음을 바쳐 충성을 다할 것을 굳게 다짐합니다.

It translates to: “I pledge, in front of the proud Taegeukgi (the name of the Korean flag), to devote my body and soul for the eternal glory of our country and our people.”

Koreans had to participate in a nationwide flag-raising ceremony twice every day until the mid-1980s.

During the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, as Deok-soo dutifully makes his pledge, Young-ja refuses to stand until she notices a random stranger glaring at her disapprovingly for her lack of patriotism.

Young-ja then reluctantly stands up and also pledges her fealty to the flag, the country, and her compatriots; thus answering her question as to why Deok-soo cannot seem to stop living for others and start living his own life.

In part, this scene was reminiscent of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, whereby the protagonist, Gregor, slowly turns into a cockroach after he has spent many years working at a job that he hates because he feels obligated to pay off his father’s debt and care for his family (although it turns out that his family members are more than capable of taking care of themselves after it is revealed that Gregor's mysterious and unexplained condition prevents him from working).

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I was also reminded of Ayn Rand's quote from Philosophy: Who Needs It.

Now there is one word – a single word – which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand – the word: “Why?” Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There is no earthly reason for it – and, ladies and gentlemen, in the whole history of philosophy no earthly reason has ever been given.

It is only mysticism that can permit moralists to get away with it. It was mysticism, the unearthly, the supernatural, the irrational that has always been called upon to justify it – or, to be exact, to escape the necessity of justification. One does not justify the irrational, one just takes it on faith. What most moralists – and few of their victims – realize is that reason and altruism are incompatible.

This brief scene encapsulated all the things that I detest about Koreans' belief system – the collectivist nature of 우리 (our or us) – the subjugation of the individual to the group. It is the morality that states that the only meaning and value that an individual possesses is only insofar as he is able to serve the collective; that the group may sacrifice him at its own whim to its own interests.

It is a poisonous philosophy that I learned to reject a long time ago, a philosophy that I think that the Korean people have been marinated in for far too long.

What is absolutely true is that this philosophy has been part of the Korean people's worldview for a very long time. It would have been dishonest to pretend that it has never existed. And to be fair, I think the director, Yoon Je-kyoon, leaves just enough room to let viewers decide for themselves whether living for others is the proper way to live one's own life.

However, what is also true is that all forms of art are selective recreations of reality as perceived by the artist. It is the artist's way of expressing his own metaphysical value-judgments. Yoon Je-kyoon does his best to obfuscate his own personal views in this movie.

Regardless of his view, taking the middle-of-the-road approach, especially in regards to something as profoundly important as an entire people's philosophical approach to life seems like it was more of a disservice.

It is my view that the Korean people need to have a soul-searching discussion about what it means to live for others and to live for oneself. Though there is no guarantee whatsoever that people on my side of the debate will win, if this movie helps to nudge people toward having that discussion, then I think the movie would have succeeded in more ways than just box office returns.

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I highly recommend this movie for those who are looking for a good cathartic release that can only come with crying. However, it isn't just tears. The movie manipulates your emotions by taking you on a roller coaster ride full of laughs and tears, even if the laugh is made uncomfortable by the fact that there is one scene that makes light of male rape.

If that is what you are looking for, this movie will deliver in spades.

However, if you are looking for something that is more historically accurate, or if you are looking for something that treats philosophy more seriously, this movie might not be for you.

I give it three-and-a-half out of five stars.

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