The tenth edition of the London Korean Film Festival got under way on Monday night at the British Film Institute with a star-studded gala premiere of JK Youn’s Ode to My Father (2014). Already a gargantuan enormous box office smash back home, it is a sweeping melodrama that grafts the travails of one man onto several defining moments in Korean history over the course of the 20th century’s latter half. It’s by turns tear-jerkingly sentimental and laugh-out-loud hilarious, while also paying tribute to Youn’s own late father.
In a remarkable turn, Hwang Jung-min plays Duk-soo from late adolescent to septuagenarian; a man who spends his life waiting for the return of his own absent father. In the first of several flashbacks from the crotchety, hobbling old man that Duk-soo has become, his father and sister are tragically separated from the rest of the family during the tense and devastating evacuation of Hungnam amid the devastation of the Korean War. The mantle of ‘man of the house’ is passed on and he carries its weight by providing for his mother and other siblings, setting aside his own ambitions, much like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Youn’s script explores these sacrifices through private and personal moments played against large national events, from the export of miners to Germany in the 1960s, to the Vietnam War and the Korean Family Reunion program in the 1980s. It speaks to Youn’s craft as a storyteller that these precise moments never feel disconnected from the fabric of Duk-soo’s life or that of his love, Youngja (Yunjin Kim), or best friend, Dal-gu (Oh Dal-su). Between the epic canvases are woven smaller, intimate moments that provide all manner of light relief. Famous figures, recognisable to Korean audiences more than those abroad, appear in humorous supporting roles – for instance, the eight year-old Duk-soo laughs off the ambitions of one Chung Ju-Yung, who would go on to found Hyundai. Largely, though, the characters in around the Yoon family provide the belly laughs – the apparently effortless physical comedy of Hwang a particular source of delight.
Though for some audiences the resulting tonal see-saw may prove problematic, in actuality the levity endows the moments of feeling with all the more resonance. Korean cinema often deploys such techniques and Youn proves himself adept at this potentially tricky balance, shifting back and forth between heightened sentiment and flat-out slapstick with barely a shudder. Where the script threatens to stray into mawkishness, it is reigned in by Hwang and his co-stars who utter convince even in the more theatrical displays of emotion. Ode to My Father is an unashamed and unabashed melodrama that will have audiences both weeping and rolling in the aisles, and is all the more endearing for it.
The London Korean Film Festival takes place from 2-14 November. koreanfilm.co.uk
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson