“Ode to My Father” (국제시장)

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By Jae-Ha Kim
jaehakim.com
October 23, 2016

3 stars

Yoon Deok-Su (played by Hwang Jung-Min)
Young-Ja (Yunjin Kim)

My father was just 17 when he became the primary breadwinner for his family. When he was sent away to fight in the front lines during the Korean War, his younger brothers tearfully begged to go with him, saying they would rather die with him, than to survive on their own. When a neighbor, who was being forced to turn in communists, pointed his finger at my father — who wasn’t a communist — my father forgave him.

My smart, talented and industrious father gave up dreams of going to medical school in Tokyo — something that would’ve benefited him in the long run. Because in the short run, who would take care of his elderly parents and younger siblings while he was away?

Some people make choices. Others, like my father, were bound by duty to tackle responsibilities that would have crumpled others.

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In a review that ran in the New York Times, film critic Jeannette Catsoulis gave “Ode to My Father” a big thumbs down for being “syrupy” and for having “packaged pain … likely to leave Western audiences cold.”

While there is no doubt that director Yoo Je-Kyoon would’ve loved for American audiences to embrace his movie, it’s also undeniable that this film was not made with Western moviegoers in mind.

It was made for Koreans.

It wasn’t until I was older that my parents shared with me some of the horrors they lived through during the Korean War, and I can assure Ms. Catsoulis that the “packaged pain” she complains about was all too real. Perhaps she believes it isn’t plausible that the protagonist would give up the opportunity to better his future and that the life he led is worth an “eye roll”; or that the heartbreaking televised reunions between families torn apart by the Korean War are melodramatic. (She might want to read her own paper’s coverage of how Korean families were separated after the Korean Peninsula was divided.)

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The core of the film deals with loss. During the Hungnam Evacuation in the Korean War, Deok-Su is told by his parents that he has to make sure that his baby sister remains with him. Just a child himself, he loses her. Along with his mother and two of his siblings, he is rescued by a U.S. naval carrier. But the family is separated from his father and baby sister.

This loss will haunt him for the rest of his life, as he tries to fulfill the promise he made to his father: that as the oldest son, he will take care of his mother and siblings.

Near the end of the film, Deok-Su tells his wife that he is glad that it was them who suffered so that their children could have easier, better lives. That sentiment was shared by my parents and much of their generation, who in many ways gave up their lives to ensure our future.

Art is often made to be accessible to the general public and, when it isn’t, it can come across as exclusionary.  But for me, “Ode to My Father” is something familiar that evokes memories of sadness, happiness and hope.

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Film release date: December 14, 2014. As of this writing, “Ode to My Father” is the second highest grossing Korean film, behind “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” (“명량”).

Spoiler alert:

Deuk-su never sees his father again. However, he later learns that his baby sister was sent to an orphanage after being separated from her family. She was later adopted by an American family. Deuk-su gets some peace of mind when he is able to reunite her with their mother. Casting directors for the film reached out to Korean American actress Stella Choe to play the grown-up version of the sister. How’d they find her? They saw her viral Youtube video, “What Kind of Asian are You“?

“Ode to My Father” isn’t without its flaws (the rescue scene in the German mine, for instance, was implausible). And I went into nitpicking mode when the long-lost sister was able to not only remember, but repeat her brother’s last words to her … in nearly perfect Korean. As an adoptee who didn’t grow up speaking Korean, she would not have been able to execute this nearly impossible feat.

Ethnocentric reviews: 

What rubbed me the wrong way about this NYT review is that it was too quick to dismiss things the critic didn’t understand. It reminded me a bit of how this NPR book critic dismissed a Korean novel as “kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction.”

Of course, Catsoulis’ review was nowhere near as offensive as Rex Reed’s critique of the South Korean hit, “Oldboy,” in the New York Observer. I was surprised at his review for two reasons:

  1. Honestly, I hadn’t realized that Reed was still alive.
  2. His vitriol was over-the-top, even for him.

Reed didn’t like “Oldboy,” which is his right, of course. But — like the NPR reviewer who didn’t enjoy “Please Look After Mom” — Reed’s critique took a stab at kimchi, of all things.

He dismissed the film as being trash, because, after all, Korea couldn’t possible produce a worthy movie. He wrote, “What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots, dug up from the grave and then served in earthenware pots sold at the Seoul airport as souvenirs?”

It’s one thing to be bitchy in an effort to be clever. But it’s low, Low, LOW to try to malign kimchi. Maybe if he ate some of it, he wouldn’t look a decade older than he actually is. (As of this writing, Reed is 78.)

© 2016 JAE-HA KIM | All Rights Reserved

Comments (5)

  1. deathtoclones says:

    Man, I caught the end of that movie on TV one night, could barely follow the dialogue and I was still bawling like a baby. Packaged pain? Come on. It’s about have basic empathy for the struggles of other people even if you can’t relate to their experiences.

  2. accidentalajumma says:

    Both I, as a foreigner without that experience in my family and my husband, as a Korean too young to have seen most of what is shown, found it a bit ‘worthy’ in places. BUT, it did a great job of showing the kinds of awful choices people were faced with, and my god, the scenes of the reunions may have been overwrought but how could they be anything else??! Its tone may have felt a little cheesy occasionally, but both of us still thought it was well worth seeing

  3. Gina says:

    Completely agree.

  4. Adele Vitale says:

    I am married to a Korean so I may be subconsciously biased, but I LOVE that movie. Too bad Ms Catsoulis missed the beauty of it.

  5. Jenny L. says:

    I thought it was a great movie and cried my eyes out. My parents and many of their friends watched it, and the realities of it deeply resonated with them.

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