Chungmuro/Film Reviews
Movie Review: Ode to My Father (2014)
by | January 16, 2015 | 25 Comments

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.

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25 Comments from the Beanut Gallery
  1. porky2189

    “I don’t know if they used CGI to paste his head onto a ripped 20-something’s body” hahaha what a silly comment. thanks for featuring this movie!

    I’ve only heard about this because of Heo Ji Woong’s lawsuit against some Ilbe users. Low ratings and negative reviews for such a blockbuster movie actually reminds of Haeundae. It made a lot of money, but it didn’t make much else. hahaha

    • 1.1 lola

      it did make much! other than being a blockbuster hit, OTMF is one of those rare k-movie that give a very deep impression to the viewers

      • 1.1.1 Dr. Hwata

        Not to all viewers.

        Let’s be precise. Unlike a popcorn summer blockbuster that Hollywood releases every year for the whole planet, a viewer has to be steeped in the peculiar Korean sense and sensibilities of certain generations to respond emotionally to this kind of movie.

        I finally watched the other blockbuster of 2014 – Roaring Currents – in a flight last week. I found it remarkably anticlimactic and too ponderous. But I admired the fact that the movie tried very hard to be disciplined so as not to be (overtly) jingoistic.

        • 1.1.1.1 pogo

          this is hardly an exclusively Korean phenomenon, Hollywood itself releases enough thinly veiled jingoistic borderline propaganda every year in the form of war movies.

          Otherwise how would you explain the success of American Sniper, which is literally about an American sniper whose biggest achievement was the highest kill count of any sniper in the Iraq war? Especially when the real-life person the film was based on was openly racist, bloodthirsty (competitions for kill counts) and refused any attitude but “America good, Iraqis bad?”

          • 1.1.1.1.1 smogman

            Go back to Bananastan you filthy moron. YOU are the open racist. American Sniper is an “openly racist movie”??? ISIS needs you. For you it’s Americans bad, everyone else good. Kyle was a hero who saved COUNTLESS Iraqis.

      • 1.1.2 jillifish

        The “deep impression” they received is likely due to a sense of reminiscence that the older generation felt by watching this. While this is the biggest reason why it was such a hit, it is also one of the points that is being criticized the most. Heo Ji-woong literally stated that it made him “want to vomit” that the hard work of the previous generations is glorified when the real problem is that it resulted in people with weak mental strength and lazy attitudes today (which resulted in netizens posting bad stuff against him and him filing a lawsuit against them.. kind of should’ve been expected though)

        The film didn’t really touch me, because the plot didn’t really suck me in.. or I am not patriotic enough lol.

  2. jammie

    I read a lot of positive review about this movie and well receive by the public… a bit controversial when some politician and critics saying this movie is overly patriotic.. LOL. congrats to JKY and hwang jung min especially

  3. whitewire

    Hwang Jung-min and Jung Jin-young makes it worth it, guys!

  4. Purplerrr

    It’s still in the Seattle area through Thursday. I saw it this week and was the only non-Korean in the theater. It was obvious there were things I missed because I didn’t always understand why the audience was reacting to something on screne. Enjoyed it even it was rather odd in tone in places – especially the rape scene played for laughs. But I’m glad I saw it as it introduced me to things I had no idea about that happened to Koreans. I had no idea Koreans went to work in West Germany.

    • 4.1 Dr. Hwata

      As you come to understand Korean history and culture, you will discover that there are some things that just don’t survive close scrutiny. Your comment reminds me of Japanese TV commercials in which they sometimes show a father bathing in a bathtub with his little daughter. Now that is something you will never see in the US.

  5. jensredshoes

    I’ve been looking forward to this film. Thank you for the review.

  6. HopesDD

    I so ant to watch it, it seems like a master piece.

  7. meh

    I think alot of people who have gone through this type of tribulations (despite being non-Koreans) can relate to this. For sure, my parents can relate to this: having to cross the river via a boat or swimming to escape the Communist and losing their love ones during this event. And once they finally reach to a new country, they have to start their life all over again. I remember my mother would always tell me how she was separated from her family due to the war and how scared she was. Luckily, she was able to reunite with them. As for my father, he lost his wife and child (before meeting my mother) while they were trying to escape the communist.

  8. SH

    I want to watch it so badly… I don’t think I can even afford to spoil myself reading this right now. I want to and I started but… I will come back to it later ;__;

  9. takedimatsu

    I think Sewol was surely one of the main reason why Roaring Currents was a blockbuster hit in Korea. The country was devastated by the incident … the captain leaving behind his sinking ship and all those innocent kids… this movie was released days after that accident and its like General Lee came to warm and comforting their broken heart thru the movie … we could understand the sentiment

    sure not all people like ode but like Roaring Currents, JK Youns target is of course to grab the potential audience.. the Korean and their nostalgia.

    LOL of course this is just an opinion from me, the basic kmovie fan 🙂

    • 9.1 pogo

      There was a gap of over three months between the ferry sinking and the release of Roaring Currents, get facts right please.

      Of course the events of last year played a role in its success, the movie was even set in the same straits that claimed all those innocent lives, not hard to understand why the country turned out in such droves for it.

      (that said, I don’t think Forrest Gump is all that either, I find it overly sentimental and lacking in finesse and in no way deserving of a Best Picture Oscar, so if Ode has even less finesse than that, I’ll skip it)

      • 9.1.1 refresh_daemon

        Forrest Gump is definitely overrated, but it’s the closest thing to this film and, yes, if you didn’t like its broad sentimental strokes, you really won’t like Ode to My Father.

  10. 10 Nicole

    I saw this last week with my parents at the Koreatown CGV – a full audience despite it being a weekday afternoon.

    Thanks for the review, refresh! We had much the same thoughts as you expressed here. The first thing I said coming out of the theater was actually, “That was like a Korean Forrest Gump!” A less effective and richly drawn story than Gump, but nevertheless poignant.

    I did cry buckets, but I admit I’m a hopeless sentimental when it comes to films like these. Hwang Jung-min was nothing short of excellent per usual. He did the best with what he was given (as did Jung Jin-young). Unfortunately, I felt Kim Yun-jin was woefully miscast. Her German sounded legit though. Jang Young-nam was also very believable as she aged.

    I appreciated the snappy pace of the movie. It kept moving along and really only lingered at the most necessary moments.

    Worth seeing at least once, but perhaps those who have patience may want to save the theater experience and view it at home once it is available.

  11. 11 Dreamcloud

    Does anyone know where to download this movie? Thanks for any information.

  12. 12 museofmanymasks

    Hmm I’m one of those folks who when it comes to melodrama and other moving incidents my emotions most often take the opposite swing–can’t help laughing or becoming otherwised detached. I will watch it though for the history and Hwang-jung min. Cursing the fact that I live nowhere near any theater that would air it.

    • 12.1 pogo

      yeah I had that same reaction to Forrest Gump myself, I eyerolled a lot.

  13. 13 refresh_daemon

    For those who want a bit more in depth on the movie with spoilers, Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling is writing a more hefty look at Ode to My Father comparing it with what he can dig up about its Korean history parallels. Good reading: http://populargusts.blogspot.com/2015/01/a-review-of-ode-to-my-father.html

  14. 14 lola

    excellent movie, well made, engaging from the start, great
    acting, many great characters, extremely moving story line, coherently shown, great cinematography

  15. 15 james

    When will this movie be available for download or purchase.

  16. 16 donama

    I want watch this movie
    does anyone where I can download???

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