Ode to My Father (or Gukje Market, 국제시장) really lives up to its English title, being a kind of summary of chunks of Korean history from the Korean War into the 1980s, representing some of the biggest events in the lives of many Korean seniors. The film has been very well-received by Korean audiences, with huge numbers at the box office; it recently surpassed 10 million overall tickets sold. (Teaser here.) That said, the film never really forges a real overarching story, instead relying on a series of tragic or heartwarming events to propel the whole thing forward.
The opening tragedy begins at a turning point in the Korean War when the Chinese joined the fight. Young Yoon Duk-soo (Uhm Ji-sung, later Hwang Jung-min) is tasked with holding the hand of younger sister Mak-soon (Shin Ri-na) as his family flees for Hungnam Port in what is now North Korea.
In the chaos to escape via boat before the combined North Korean and Chinese military arrives, Duk-soo loses Mak-soon and his father, Jin-gyu (Jung Jin-young), goes to find her, leaving Duk-soo the head of the household if they should become separated. Well, they become separated and we watch how Duk-soo’s promise to be the head of the household impacts his life as he goes from dangerous mining work in Germany to taking an engineering job in the Vietnam War, and into his present prosperity.
In many ways, Ode to My Father resembles Forrest Gump, taking a relatively simple protagonist through a series of major historical events. Like Forrest Gump, the film is peppered with references to major cultural touchstones and no small amount of run-ins with future famous people. This can get lost on non-Korean viewers but drew audible recognition from the predominantly older Korean audience in my theater.
More significantly like Forrest Gump, adult Duk-soo is a relatively simple-minded character without much internal conflict. He simply does what he believes is best for his family and the conflicts he encounters are predominantly external, like war and hard labor. And as such a static character, he’s never quite compelling, especially since, unlike Forrest Gump, the characters around him are not especially dynamic either — they don’t change over the course of the film because of Duk-soo’s presence in their lives.
Instead, Ode to My Father wrings most of its tears from predictably sentimental melodrama, from the moment of Mak-soon’s loss to the penultimate scene that had the entire audience in tears. Except for me, because I never once saw Duk-soo struggle with any of the decisions that he made. At the beginning of the film, Duk-soo reveals his dream of being a boat captain to his wife Oh Young-ja (Kim Yun-jin), but aside from a couple small references, we never really see that dream as a temptation for Duk-soo. As such, half of the events of the film seem to be happening to Duk-soo and not because of him.
The strongest moments of the film are actually those moments that he personally asserts himself, both in his initial romance with Young-ja in Germany as well as when he begins searching in earnest for Mak-soon during the early 1980’s when KBS was running a telethon to reunite families divided by the war. However, despite running on autopilot for a lot of a film, the ride is full of enormous spectacle, from war, to mining accidents, to huge gatherings of people in Seoul searching for their lost relatives and soaking those moments in almost makes up for the unchallenging narrative.
This is perhaps a result of director Yoon Je-kyun’s history of working with spectacle, both with his own tidal wave disaster film Haeundae as well as producing some of the visually splashier Korean blockbusters of Quick and Sector 7. His experience with large scale scenes shows up well, although the CGI crowds occasionally are a little too obvious. Director Yoon also approaches the drama in a similar manner, using broad slow motion and close ups to emphasize both tragedy and triumph. Inclusion of actual footage from the KBS telethons was especially potent as it tied the film’s world to our real world.
Also helpful to driving Ode to My Father is Hwang Jung-min, who is surprisingly convincing as both a young man in his twenties as well as an elderly man. I don’t know if they used CGI to paste his head onto a ripped 20-something’s body, but he passed as a young man believably. Similarly, Kim Yun-jin manages to capture age in her acting where the makeup isn’t quite as convincing. Oh Dal-soo is predictably cast as supporting comic relief and operates best when in that mode although Hwang Jung-min himself manages more than a few chuckles due to Duk-soo’s relative simple-mindedness. Finally, production values are appropriately grand for a film of this budget and the design fits the attempt at the film’s epic scale.
Ode to My Father is not at all subtle, but without story and character driving the film’s emotions, forceful direction and production is key to entertain. And to that extent, I think it succeeds, particularly for native Koreans. The film is packed with huge scenes, foreign locales, period details, and many memorable moments in Korean history all tied together in the tale of a man who sacrifices blood, sweat, and tears to keep his promise to his father and serve his family. Many will get swept up in the huge moments and spectacle that Ode to My Father has to offer. It keeps those blockbuster promises, but some discerning audiences that demand more than blockbuster highs might also be disappointed by the relatively shallow story and characters.
Best for those looking for blockbuster spectacle and melodrama, not for those that need nuance. 6/10
Where to watch it: Ode to My Father is in theaters in Korea now. It will be screening in many major North American cities in January as well as at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.