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[MOVIE REVIEW] Mysteriously humorous vision of the Korean family

2007/02/22 | 685 views | Permalink | Source

The institution of the family has long been protected and justified in Korea and elsewhere. But the time-honored system is struggling to survive. A common thread, namely the sugarcoated idea (or ideal) of happy family members living together, is disappearing fast. It's time to say goodbye to the glorious family-oriented era. Or is it?

"Shim's Family", directed by Chung Yoon-chul, suggests there are indeed many disheartening developments that deal a lethal, if not final, blow to the family system in Korea. But it also puts forward a new vision that may shed light on where today's trouble-laden family system should go - or sit still and hold onto its shabby place, tooth and nail.

Shim's Family is utterly dysfunctional, if not chaotic. The father (Chun Ho-jin) is a supposedly widely respected school teacher but his everyday life is saddled with suffocating routines. At school, he cannot punish even an unruly student who dares to send text messages during his class.
In this wonderful mobile phone era, such corporal punishment at school can be easily recorded by students armed with camera-equipped mobile phones for possible online exposure of "bad teachers". At night, he sternly and persistently rejects romantic overtures from his wife (Moon Hee-kyung). It's not that he's tired on that particular day, but that he's in such poor condition practically every day in the past few years. When confronted, he just crosses his poor feet together, as if protecting his himself, and comes up with lame excuses.

The wife is far from happy either. She has been terribly tired, as with many of Korean homemakers. All the household chores - cleaning, cooking, washing dishes and all that - are her everyday mission, and she is hitting her limit. She wants to pull out of her dreadful life, but she cannot find a turning point. Instead, she has to struggle with her trouble-making children.

Her son (Yoo Ah-in) often gets corporal punishment (no mobile phone camera in this case) because he skips classes without prior notice or shows up for school hours after the opening bell sounds.

His main concern, in fact, is somewhere else: his previous life. He strongly believes that his previous life has something to do with his current problems, so he continues to seek the truth about the mystery of his true identity.

His temporary conclusion is that he used to be a king in the Joseon Dynasty, and maintained a secret yet tragic relationship with a court lady. The high-school boy associates the court lady with a girl in the neighborhood, and thinks they are predestined to love each other. But the girl (Jung Yu-mi) does not think so.

The boy has a younger sister (Hwang Bo-ra), the film's sole narrator who provides interesting insight. She is not a serious troublemaker, though. She just falls asleep during classes often and does not want to focus on what she has to do as a student.

What interests her most is a mysterious teacher (Park Hae-il), who is temporarily employed teaching filmmaking. In reality, it's very unlikely that a Korean school employs a specialized film teacher, but this film puts much emphasis on "mystery" and why he's employed in the first pace is also a mystery.

The girl's fascination with the teacher is largely based on the element of the unknowable, or at least what's unknown so far. She finds a captivating inspiration from his weird behavior - he founds a school club whose chief mission is to pursue the mysterious things in the world.

There is another family member who lives in the mysterious fantasy world: the wife's sister (Kim Hye-soo). She seems to idle away her time but she's a serious writer. The problem with her occupation is that her work is not available at the usual bookstores since it belongs to a highly specialized genre known as "muhyeop", a cheesy fantasy martial-art fiction that caters mainly to a particular group of men wallowing in hero fantasy set in the old Chinese era.

But ignore the Chinese hero story writer. She has only a minor role here, though the marketing department of the production studio has frontloaded Kim as a main actor because she's now enjoying huge popularity as a movie actress following the success of "Tazza: The High Rollers" ("Tazza: The High Rollers") last year.

Attention should be channeled to the key development that shakes up the already shaky family members altogether. One day, the father sleeps with a school girl at a motel. He doesn't buy sex; he just happens to rescue the girl on the street, but somehow they end up at the motel, and something (other than sex) happens in a way that shocks the entire community.

Director Chung Yoon-chul, who made a successful feature debut with "Marathon", takes his time getting the main plot to take off. Many of the well-crafted scenes are playful, and some of the comic situations border on a blurred area between a social satire and sitcom.

Although Jeong crafts up his take on the struggling Korean family a tad long (running time is 114 minutes), his clever storytelling technique makes up for the overwrought script. Just pay attention to a scene involving barbarians. Why? Ask the mysterious moon which holds the key to the secret of a deplorably messy family affair.

By Yang Sung-jin

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