[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Namesake"
By William Schwartz | Published on
Ryeon-hee (played by Lee Sang-hee-IV) is an older middle-aged woman who works the miserable night shift at a convenience store. Ryeon-hee is very cold emotionally, and her behavior hints at an unhappy backstory. But then, we can tell right away that Ryeon-hee is a North Korean defector because her name is written according to North Korean spelling conventions- it would be rendered in South Korean spelling conventions as Yeon-hee.
Incidentally, Yeon-hee (played by Yoon Eun-ji) is a teenage runaway who takes to hanging around Ryeon-hee's workplace. While Yeon-hee is a very bright and cheerful young woman, she's also a bit of an idiot. In spite of being homeless and having the relevant survival skills necessary to pick up a free meal when necessary, Yeon-hee is shockingly na´ve. Ryeon-hee initially feels annoyance, then pity, then discomfort, and finally love for Yeon-hee.
Literally "The Namesake" is a story about the lonely life of a North Korean defector. It's accurate to this extent principally because the story eschews politics. Ryeon-hee's reasons for leaving North Korea were entirely pragmatic. Ryeon-hee already didn't have a life there anymore, but now that her reason for defecting is gone, Ryeon-hee doesn't have a life in South Korea either. The country is a very sad, disconnected, lonely place to Ryeon-hee, where people will pick fights with each other over the most petty and despicable reasons.
This is the context through which Ryeon-hee initially interprets Yeon-hee's existence. Yeon-hee is just one more pathetic, abandoned soul in South Korea, a country of apparently limitless wealth which is somehow incapable of providing for its most desperate citizens in need. Ryeon-hee watches on in disinterested helplessness at everything that happens, believing that this is simply the way life has to be for her as a citizen of this country.
Through sisterly romance Ryeon-hee starts to see her younger namesake as a person, and this inspires Ryeon-hee to try and make more of an effort. The reality of daily life is no easier, yet Ryeon-hee can genuinely go about it with a smile on her face, and an eye to show compassion to those who need it and to stand up for herself when necessary. It's easier for Ryeon-hee to visualize herself acting this way when all she has to think about is whether she would put up with someone being thatámean to Yeon-hee, or passively bullying Yeon-hee in such a way and realizing that no, this is not right.
"The Namesake" is very much a Christmas story, even if Christmas itself is never directly discussed. The movie takes a genuinely bleak situation and manages to mostly fix it with an attitude adjustment. Do Ryeon-hee and Yeon-hee have a stable life by the end? Well, not really, especially considering that Ryeon-hee had already been forced at one point to show Yeon-hee some serious tough love in order to make a very necessary point on the younger woman about boundaries. But the point is, they're trying. Whatever ambiguous result the future may hold, they have to at least try.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a substack at williamschwartz.substack.com where he discusses the South Korean film industry in broader terms and takes suggestions for future movies to review.