James Parker (played by Daniel Henney) is in a similar position to many other internationally adopted Koreans. He wants to find out what happened to his birth parents. From the beginning "My Father" does a good job establishing the ambiguity of this goal. The first thing his adoptive family does is worry, and his sister, also adopted from Korea, points out that James may not like what he finds. A father on death row? Yeah, that's trouble.
"My Father" is in the strange place of seeming too preposterous and melodramatic to be plausible, yet as the credits sequence clearly illustrates, the basic outline of events here was in fact based on a true story. An eerily well-documented true story at that. "My Father" exists in a very odd context- any Korean alive at the time was probably at least peripherally aware of what was going on. Whereas for those of us viewing this from the context of a foreign country...
Even the English comes off as really strange. The acting is actually fairly decent, as English speakers in Korean movies go. The Koreans speak imperfectly in an accent. James and the other Americans sound like actors rehearsing lines- but in the context of the film they are actors rehearsing lines. James' first meeting with his father is broadcast on television. And the other American soldiers, while falling into basic roles like bully and bystander, are also in some sense performing. Take one scene at the basketball court, which feels badly scripted in part because it is badly scripted. The characters are trying to prove something, but not really succeeding.
From this kind of backdrop it's hardly surprising that James' relationship with his biological father (played by Kim Young-chul) is so underwhelming. Emotionally speaking James is clearly far more affected by current events in his adopted family than he is with anything going on with Kim Young-chul-I. And yet James wants to have that connection so badly- this results in several awkward scenes where James is clearly angry, but he doesn't seem to be at all sure why.
The ending, too, is such an outrageous pointless cheat that it ends up feeling like the writers just ran out of ideas. And yet, again, this is based on a true story, and the most ridiculous events narrative-wise are the ones that happened in real life. The universe itself seems to be playing a cosmic joke on our two main characters. James' final moment of resolution is deciding not to treat this story like there's going to be some sort of satisfying ending. By the end he knows that isn't going to happen.
As a whole "My Father" almost feels like a movie filmed in the uncanny valley. It's not quite human enough to feel real, even though it is. And honestly, speaking from personal experience, my real life moments of emotional catharsis never really get much better than anything James experiences. Perhaps that's why, for all the various technical misgivings I had about the film, I did feel at least a bit emotional at the end, letting the full weight of the story sink in.
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] "My Father""
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