[Movie Review] Despite its nationalism, Ode to My Father captures the pain of a generation
Ode to My Father (literal Korean title Gukje [International] Market) is a sweeping epic that starts at the Hungnam Evacuation during the Korean War, and spans the life of its main character, Duk-soo. He starts as a young boy who feels responsible for his family being torn in two, and he is weighed down by that burden his entire life, in an obvious but fitting symbol for the Korean peninsula itself, torn in two with family members on each side.
The film is well-made and entertaining, moving smoothly from the present to the past and back again. Lead actors Hwang Jung-min and Kim Yun-jin do a wonderful job in their roles as Duk-soo and Yeong-ja. In a Forrest-Gump-esque series of coincidences, Duk-soo participates in iconic historic moments of the last seventy years, crossing paths with famous figures well before they made it big, such as the founder of Hyundai and the singer Nam Jin.
All of this makes for a very engaging watch, balancing pathos with humor, but the emotion is so very heavy handed, and at times the film can be overtly nationalistic and somewhat jarringly politically uncritical. For example, when Duk-soo and Young-ja are arguing they suddenly stop and salute the national anthem; Duk-soo manages to pass his interview to work in West Germany solely due to strong patriotism. American soldiers only appear as benevolent, or at least harmless, figures.
These are small details, but it was a choice to include them. Director Yoon Je-kyoon, in response to criticism that the film was right-wing, said that he “purposely took out political events that could be sensitive and create an uncomfortable atmosphere.” I normally wouldn’t mention an interview in a review, but it relates to the fact that we’re given all these moments where people are saluting the flag and singing the national anthem, and yet viewers are to believe that the film is somehow apolitical. Not to mention that the film’s flashbacks skip entirely over the democratization movement in the 1980s—it doesn’t escape me that the only times either Korean or American soldiers are shown, it’s when the hero (and the audience) is entirely in sympathy with them.
I think what bothered me most was the contrast between two scenes. In one, Duk-soo’s mother tells him not to blame himself for losing his sister Mak-soon. As their mother, she has to stay alive for the sake of the rest of her children even if that means leaving her other child to die. But in West Germany, Young-ja pleads to be allowed to go back into the mines to rescue Duk-soo and his best friend, even if that means all the Korean miners might die in a gas explosion. You could see it as a gesture of love and friendship, except that it’s framed as a patriotic act: even if they die, they must die in the arms of their countrymen, in this cold foreign land. Uncomfortably, this seems to place nationalism over parental love, as though the love for country is somehow nobler and more powerful than a mother’s love for her children.
Still, I found one particular episode incredibly powerful. Duk-soo goes to Seoul in 1983 to try to find his father and sister, surrounded by crowds of people searching desperately for loved ones lost to them during the war. They come to different cities around the country and ask each other on live TV for details about their families and lives together, confirming whether or not they’ve found the family members that have been missing for so long. That scene alone made the movie worth watching.
I feel the rest of the film would have been even more moving if the director had a lighter touch with the music, slow motion, and patriotic motifs. At its core, this is real pain that is still felt by living people; it needs no added melodrama to move an already sympathetic audience. And yet, there is an element of catharsis, and since Director Yoon has also said that this movie is quite literally an ode to his father’s sacrifices—he even gave the lead couple his parents’ names—perhaps that is the best spirit to watch the movie in. It’s a nostalgic and idealized look back at difficult times gone by and sacrifices made by those who are no longer with us, but it also has quiet moments of poignancy and humor that remind us that often pain and joy coexist. And we continue to live on, carrying both with us.
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