Gi-gwang (played by Park Geun-hyung) is an old bus driver. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Gi-gwang's experiences in that theater took a heavy toll on his mental faculties. Gi-gwang plunged into alcoholism, alienating most of his family in the process. It's from this vantage point that Gi-gwang lives a bitter pathetic life, until an unexpected bit of bad news leads him into contact with his granddaughter Bo-ram (played by Go Bo-gyeol), a girl who's had to make her own dirty deals to survive in a sub-optimal environment.
The critical anchor to "Grandfather" is Park Geun-hyung's powerful performance as the disaffected veteran Gi-gwang. He's Rambo in a thirty year post-script- not in the "shooty mckill guy", "somebody wouldn't let us win" way, but in the sense that he was shell-shocked by Vietnam and never really had any way to recover from that. Gi-gwang hates pretty much everyone except his bus, an inaminate object that does its job without complaining. Because that's what Gi-gwang felt like his "duty" was- to be a good non-complaining soldier with no emotions, and he failed.
The central mystery in "Grandfather" revolves around what happened to Gi-gwang's family while he was too blackout drunk to help them, and the main tension preventing Gi-gwang from making an emotional connection to the situation. Gi-gwang can't realistically make up for his failures in life, and he knows it. Even brief moments where it seems like Gi-gwang might be turning over a new leaf quickly prove to be illusory, because Bo-ram has been conditioned to expect that no one will look out for her.
And you know, that's legitimately a really, really horrible worldview for any person to have, let alone a teenage girl. Where "Grandfather" is at its strongest is when it is tackling this cynicism while still acknowledging that there are valid foundations for its existence. Gi-gwang can't simply forget about the fact that he was brutalized and traumatized by the Vietnam War. Even if that much wasn't really his fault, the indisputable evidence of Gi-gwang's failures since then make the ending practically inevitable.
While the whole final sequence is, admittedly, a bit of a genre cliché, I nonetheless found it to be a very effective summation of how war broke Gi-gwang. Whether it was a just war, whether society has done right by Gi-gwang since then, or even the question of who "really" bears responsibility for Bo-ram's miserable position in life is rather besides the point. War taught Gi-gwang exactly one useful skill, so that's what he's stuck with.
This basic sense of utilitarianism is what makes "Grandfather" such a fascinating film. Technically the movie might qualify as a revenge fantasy except that no one, not the viewer and certainly not Gi-gwang is particularly pleased at the progression of events. Life is unfair. A manifest sociopath has an easier time finding confederates than a broken human being who has lost the power to pretend. In "Grandfather" it's not the victory that matters- it's acknowledging that very human element of brokenness.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Grandfather""
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