The Way Home

by Howard Schumann

Unconditional love is the ability to love people exactly the way they are and the way they are not, without judgment or evaluation. This is a big stretch for me, but for the wise old grandmother in the South Korean film, The Way Home, it is second nature.

This film by Lee Jeong-hyang, one of Korea's few female directors, is this year's biggest box-office hit in South Korea, and the first Korean film to receive major studio distribution in the United States. The grandmother, played with startling authenticity by first-time actress, 78 year-old Kim Eul-boon, conveys without speaking the redeeming power of love. Like the young aboriginal girls in the Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence, Kim had never even seen a movie before she was discovered in a talent search among rural villagers.

The story concerns Sang-woo (Yoo Seung-ho), an insufferable seven-year old boy from Seoul, is deposited at his grandmother's house in the remote village of Youngdong in Korea's Choongbuk province, so that the mother can have time to look for work. The grandmother's posture is stooped and her face is withered from years of hard work, and she suffers from a chronic disability and can't speak. She lives in a wooden hut carved into the hillside. The stunning cinematography captures the beauty and remoteness of this mountain retreat.

Sang-woo is about the most spoiled and irritating boy that I have ever seen in films, and one that would try the patience of St. Francis of Assisi. Full of street-smart know-it-all, he marches into grandma's home with his electronic toys, cans of Coca-Cola and Spam, and starts calling her dummy and byungshin (retard). When she asks what he wants to eat, he tells her "pizza, hamburger, and Kentucky Fried Chicken." She walks all the way to town to buy him a chicken, but he won't eat it (until he is too hungry to resist) because it is boiled in a pot and not fried, Colonel-style. Despite everything the boy does to her, including stealing her shoes so she has to walk barefoot, and removing a clasp for her hair so he can sell it to buy batteries for his Game Boy, she remains centered and loving. Rather than refusing to cater to his every whim, she becomes increasingly generous, cleaning and cooking for him and overlooking his stealing. He begins to accept the new lifestyle, helping his grandmother to thread a needle, hang up clothes on the clothesline, and shop with her at the market. Gradually he also learns about the meaning of kindness when he sees his grandmother give a package of vitamins to a dying man, and when a neighborhood boy forgives him for teasing him about a "crazy" runaway cow. When Sang-woo's mother comes back to retrieve him, though undemonstrative, he has clearly changed.

I was expecting a saccharine payoff, but Ms. Jeong-hyang wisely stays away from a melodramatic farewell that would be out of sync with the rest of the film. Besides, it isn't about the destination but the journey, and Sang-woo in his sojourn with grandma has learned some valuable lessons that become apparent by the end of the film. The Way Home is dedicated to all grandmothers around the world, and speaks volumes about the power of loving-kindness to heal the hardest heart. This is not just the ten-thousandth variation on the city slicker versus country bumpkin theme, but a refreshing look at what truly makes a difference in life. With a lovely score by Kim Dae-hong and Kim Yang-hee, it is yet another example of the emotional power of films that do not require a huge budget, mind-boggling complexity, special effects, or even dialogue to work their magic. And magic it is indeed…Have you hugged your grandmother lately…or anyone?

Our culture often sees violence as a way to solve problems. A common response to violence is to seek revenge for these crimes; however, recent news stories about the exoneration of over ninety former death row inmates show that innocent persons may be executed in the process. Many prominent political and religious groups have called for the abolition of capital punishment as an integral part of the defense of human life. Unfortunately, The Life of David Gale, ostensibly a liberal film on the subject, shows anti-death penalty protestors in such a negative light that the proponents must be rejoicing. Director Alan Parker, who gave us the lie of heroic pro-civil rights FBI agents in Mississippi Burning, wants us to believe that opponents of capital punishment are unprincipled egotists, alcoholics, frauds, hypocrites and womanizers who are willing to throw away their principles to promote their cause.

Kevin Spacey plays David Gale, a philosophy professor in Texas and an anti-capital punishment advocate. He finds himself on death row in a Texas prison after having been convicted of the rape and murder of Constance Harraway (Laura Linney) a fellow activist. Along comes Kate Winslet as Bitsey Bloom, together with an intern Zack Stemmons (Gabriel Mann), to spice up the action. Bitsey (c'mon, folks) is an investigative reporter whom Gale chooses to talk to, because he thinks she will not compromise her sources and wants to prove his innocence. With his execution in a couple of days, Gale tells his story to Bitsey, and it is dramatized in flashbacks announced in dizzying sequences that flash words at you such as desire, murder, and punishment.

The film gets deeper and deeper into absurdity as the convoluted story unfolds. With time running out and in possession of sensational videotape, Bitsey and Zack must figure out the truth about what took place and stay one step ahead of a cowboy in a pickup truck who is following them. But since the film has more plot holes than there are craters on the moon, the audience will be several steps ahead of her.

The Life of David Gale is not a film about capital punishment at all. It just uses the issue to attract audiences to what is essentially a standard thriller with an unbelievable plot. No anti-capital punishment activist would ever have to compromise their integrity to make a point. They need only look to the public record, where many actual cases of wrongful conviction exist, and where the Governor of Illinois recently released everyone on death row because of questionable evidence. The film does not tell us about the real death row, where the poor and minorities are more likely to be executed than those who commit similar crimes but can afford better legal help. A film about a black or Hispanic defendant who cannot afford a high-priced lawyer with a ponytail would not play at the box office. The Life of David Gale is a cynical and dishonest film that should be sentenced to movie death row awaiting execution.

Characterized by both gentle and frenetic rhythms, the vibrant music of the Manouche resounds throughout Swing, the latest film by director Tony Gatlif. The Manouche are Gypsies living in the Alsace area of France, whose music combines the rhythm, melody, and emotion of their own culture with the jazz, swing, and blues of America. Gatlif, of Algerian and Gypsy ancestry, has made numerous films dealing with Gypsy cultures around the world, such as the acclaimed 1993 documentary Latcho Drom. This film not only provides a unique insight into Gypsy life but is also a charming coming-of-age story about two unlikely friends.

Max (Oscar Copp) is a blond-haired, blue-eyed French ten-year old who is on vacation at his grandmother's house. He is drawn to Swing (Lou Rech), a boyish-looking girl of his age and is captivated by the music that is an integral part of her life. Fascinated by the guitar music of the Django Reinhardt School played by Miraldo (Tchavolo Schmidt), he buys an old guitar and asks Miraldo to give him lessons in exchange for help in writing letters to the Welfare Department. Max and Swing explore the natural beauty of the countryside together, wandering along the lost roads and hidden rivers of the French countryside. When she invites him to musical evenings at her home, he learns the history and songs of the Manouche and their tribulations during the Holocaust.

The story is slight and not fully realized, but it doesn't really matter. The film is not about the story but about the people, their music, and their way of life. Gypsies have been one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities throughout history. Like the Jews, their numbers were decimated during the Holocaust, and their heritage and traditions are in jeopardy. Gatlif says, "I'm simply trying to transmit something that is disappearing… I am trying to be a witness." Swing transmits that "something" with meaning and joy.

©2003 Howard Schumann