I know what you are thinking. And, no, this movie has nothing to do with the 2007 song “Stand by Me” by The Brilliant Green. Instead, just in time for Thanksgiving in the USA, this is about how to deal with family when certain key figures are…well…not around.
Grandpa Kim is walking home from the bus stop with his two grandchildren. Out in the field, 9-year-old Kim Deok-gu recites his proclamation as loudly as he can. His yells out name means to seek virtue, and he was given the name by his grandfather. He dreams to become the president of Korea and he thinks that following our dreams is the way to live. There are some other things, but that is the gist. His grandfather looks on approvingly.
Later, Grandpa Kim gives the kid some pointers on how to say it with more power. But Deok-gu says that he doesn’t want to be president; he wants to own a toy store in town. Well, Grandpa ignores this. He turns to 5-year-old Deok-hee, telling her that it is time to go home and eat.
So, does Grandpa Kim make Deok-gu do this a lot?
No longer a chimney sweeper, Grandpa Kim does odd jobs around the town to pay for things for the kids. For example, he cleans grills at a restaurant, though he does not earn very much. He feels that restaurant owner is pretty cheap, but the owner’s very pregnant wife can be generous with food.
Oops. Grandpa Kim is late picking up Deok-hee from kindergarten and the teacher is not happy. Deok-hee doesn’t mind, particularly when Grandpa Kim lets her eat one of the handful of sweets that Jong-ho had told him not to take from the counter.
Meanwhile, Deok-gu is stuck in a classroom with…erm…a bunch of grandparents who are not his. Teacher and head of town Grandfather Go-bok is officially in charge of the proceedings, though the other grandparents, some significantly older than him, do not take him seriously. Also, Deok-gu is observing classmate Jung-hoon playing a handheld game while pretending to study. Jung-hoon thinks that Deok-gu is going to get him caught, though their little tussle is pretty noticeable.
Grandpa Kim and Deok-hee get on a bus after an elderly woman, Madam Jeong, yells at the bus driver to stop. They get on and Madam Jeong holds Deok-hee. Meanwhile, Grandfather Go-bok is yelling at a youth to stop…I guess rapping along to whatever song he is listening to through his earbuds. Eventually, the kid stops and apologizes, but Madam Jeong scolds Grandpa Kim for trying to throw his weight around as if he were the mayor.
Deok-gu has been waiting for his grandfather and sister at the bus stop. I guess during that time, he was able to draw Jung-hoon’s handheld game thingamee and has been playing with it using the power of imagination.
The three walk home, with Deok-gu complaining that Grandpa Kim is wearing a sock with a hole in it. They come across an elderly woman scolding her daughter-in-law for…something, and then getting even angrier when the daughter-in-law tries to stick up for herself. Grandpa Kim and Deok-hee keep walking, but Deok-gu stops for a bit.
Deok-gu remembers running out of the house with Deok-hee to prevent Grandpa Kim from forcing their mother to leave. But Grandpa Kim pushed her out and locked the gate, telling the kids that they have no mother. The kids cried, but it was no use. And that was that.
How long ago was this? Well, anyways…
Dinner time. After complaining about the lack of pork cutlets, Deok-gu tells Grandpa Kim that school is starting in the spring and that his friends are all going to show up with their parents on the first day. Grandpa Kim says that he and Deok-hee can accompany him, and that the important thing is to study hard, nothing else. Deok-gu does not accept this, so Grandpa Kim bops him on the head with a spoon. And then, ewww…he goes back to eating his soup with it. Deok-hee thinks that this bit of abuse is funny.
Grandpa Kim bathes the Deok-hee and puts on her pajamas. Deok-gu too, though mostly because he was too surly to do so himself. I guess, in an attempt to reassure Deok-gu, Grandpa Kim tells him that if anyone asks about his family to say that he is the 67th eldest son of the Gyeongju Kim’s clan and of noble descent. Then he points to photographs of his ancestors at the top of the wall and has Deok-gu recite their names.
Grandpa Kim is about to go strawberry-picking with Deok-hee and her classmates when the restaurant owner calls, offering higher (sort of) pay for work right now. Unable to find someone to take Deok-hee in his stead, he forces Deok-gu to go with her. Wow does Deok-gu struggle to get out of it, even after Grandpa Kim promises to buy him the dino toy that he wanted.
But Deok-gu goes…and he hates it. He even cries at at least one point and Deok-hee has to settle him down. This whole ordeal is just a reminder that he has no parents. It is humiliating, embarrassing, frustrating, and saddening. But Deok-hee likes strawberries.
After a busy session at the restaurant, Grandpa Kim goes to the store to buy the best Dinocore toy. Unfortunately, it costs over twice as much as he earned that day. But the small one next to it is less than 2/3 what he has.
Well, Grandpa Kim buys neither of those things, and returns home with a bag of food. He gives the bag to Deok-gu, who throws the bag on the floor and throws a tantrum. Grandpa Kim has no sympathy for Deok-gu’s grievances, saying that he can live without the toy. To Deok-gu, though, this is just another of Grandpa’s broken promises after shoving his lack of parents in his face. Meanwhile, Deok-hee eats some food from the bag.
Night time. Grandpa Kim gives the whole family clan line again, but Deok-gu pretends to be asleep. Grandpa Kim tests him by promising to buy him a toy before school starts, but only if he is awake. Of course, Deok-gu gets up and tells him to swear on Dad. So grandpa Kim addresses the picture of his late son, Sung-bok, and repeats the promise. Also, Deok-gu makes him pinky swear. And I guess Deok-gu got out of reciting the ancestors.
Sometime later, Grandpa Kim is approached by his doctor, Jong-ho. Jong-ho is reluctant to outright say it, but Grandpa Kim has lung cancer. After a lifetime of sweeping chimneys, Grandpa Kim is not surprised. He seems a little skeptical about the surgery, almost accepting that his time is coming. Jong-ho brings up the possibility of a foster home for the kids. Now this upsets Grandpa Kim, who tells him to leave.
Grandpa Kim goes back inside and checks up on the kids…who are sleeping next to each other. He holds the picture of his son and asks for advice on what to do about the kids.
After going around the town trying to do odd jobs for cash, he goes to look at his accounts and remembers how the life insurance payout for Song-bok’s death was only $20,000. But…what can you do?
At a playground, Deok-gu is playing a game with his classmates and wins against Jung-hoon. Being a sore loser, Jung-hoon asks why Deok-gu always goes after him, calling him Deok-hee’s mother in the process. Deok-hu insults him back, calling him slow and fat. As the other kids circle around them, Jung-hoon pulls out the big guns, telling the others that Deok-gu’s mother left with his father’s money. Now Deok-gu is angry. He pushes Jung-hoon and calls him a liar. But the others have thrown in their lot with Jung-hoon, who invites them to his house to play with his robot toys.
The other kids all walk with Jung-hoon, leaving Deok-gu by himself. An enraged Deok-gu runs over and pushes Jung-hoon to the ground. Jung-hoon gets up and the two start wrestling.
It is unclear who won the fight, but Deok-gu ends up tossing stones into a well alone, and remembering a time not too long ago when his mother was still around, reading a story to him and Deok-hee. Her Korean was not the best, so he had to correct her sometimes. But they were happy. And brightly lit. And they were together.
And now he is alone.
Grandpa Kim and the kids are walking home from the bus stop and he notices the marks on Deok-gu’s face. He asks whether Deok-gu got in a fight, but instead of answering, Deok-gu asks whether his mother preyed on his father and ran away with his money. Deok-gu seems to believe that only he and Deok-hee didn’t know. Grandpa Kim asks Deok-gu whether he misses her. Deok-gu says that he doesn’t know, but he sees her whenever he looks in a mirror…which I guess includes the reflection from the well. Grandpa Kim cannot respond to that.
Deok-hee is at kindergarten and seems to be taking the toys from the two kids near her. When one of them, Yoon-byul, tries to take one back, Deok-hee snatches it again and hits her on the head. Yoon-byul starts crying. The teacher goes over and tells Deok-hee to play nice.
Kindergarten is over and Deok-hee watches as the other kids leave with their mothers. Also, Yoon-byul sticks her tongue out at Deok-hee as she leaves.
Grandpa Kim comes just as everyone else has left. Deok-hee is not really in the mood to go with Grandpa Kim, even when he lets her take a sweet. She walks off alone.
At school, Grandfather Go-bok is scolding his grandson Jung-hoon for getting into a fight. Oh, nevermind. It is for losing his handheld game thingamee. Well, it turns out that it was in Deok-gu’s cubby, and falls to the floor when he pulls out his shoes. Of course, the classmate with the cubby next to his goes tattling to Grandfather Go-bok.
The other kids look on as Grandfather Go-bok interrogates Deok-gu. Jung-hoon has a real shit-eating grin. Deok-gu can only look at the ground, not even trying to speak up for himself, let alone plead innocence. But he doesn’t apologize either, even as Go-bok threatens him with a rod. Grandpa Kim arrives with Deok-hee and yells at Grandfather Go-bok for touching Deok-gu. Grandfather Go-bok explains that Deok-gu stole Jung-hoon’s toy. When Grandpa Kim asks if Deok-gu did it, Deok-gu says meekly that he didn’t, still looking at the floor. Grandfather Go-bok calls Deok-gu a liar like his mother. Ignoring the insult against both his grandson and daughter-in-law, Grandpa Kim takes the rod and hits Deok-gu in the back of his legs. A lot. Jung-hoon stops grinning. Grandfather Go-bok tries to get Grandpa Kim to let up. Deok-hee runs over to hug Deok-gu and calls Grandpa Kim mean. Both kids start crying. Only that gets Grandpa Kim to stop, and he hugs them both.
At home, Deok-gu is lying on the floor. Grandpa Kim tries to apply some Vaseline on Deok-gu’s legs. Deok-gu does not respond, either because he is asleep or simply because screw you, gramps.
Grandpa Kim goes to the convenience store, but stays outside when he overhears Grandfather Go-bok talking with Madam Jeong inside. Grandfather Go-bok says that Grandpa Kim went over the edge, but Madam Jeong seems to think that Grandfather Go-bok shares some responsibility, for showing no sympathy for their circumstances. Grandpa Kim walks off without going inside.
The next day, Jung-hoon approaches Deok-gu at the playground to make amends. Deok-gu ignores him, even when Jung-hoon offers the handheld game thingamee and the robot toy. So Jung-hoon presents a stick for Deok-gu to hit him with. This gets Deok-gu’s attention. He takes the stick and they, um negotiate how many times Deok-gu can hit Jung-hoon. Ultimately, though, Deok-gu pokes Jung-hoon in the butt with the stick and runs away. Jung-hoon gives chase, threatening to kill him, but it is all bluster. I guess that they are friends now…or again. I don’t know. They are friends.
And it turns out that Jung-hoon really did let Deok-gu at least borrow the handheld game thingamee, as Deok-gu is playing with it at home, to Grandpa Kim’s irritation. Suddenly, Grandpa Kim notices Deok-hee peeling off chips from the wall and trying to eat it. How long has she been doing that? He manages to stop her, but she keeps trying to do it and cries when she can’t. Jeez.
Grandpa Kim passes by a shoe seller in town. He flashes back to when he bought a pair of boots for his daughter-in-law at this place. She tried to feed him a slice of…clementine (?) as thanks, but he dismissed that as embarrassing. Vanessa did not understand him, but he decided not to explain, taking the slice anyways. Back to the present and the shoe seller sees Grandpa Kim looking, but Grandpa Kim rejects the wares and leaves.
Deok-gu’s friends are outside the house calling for him. Deok-gu has been tasked with looking after Deok-hee, but Deok-gu knows how fickle the other kids can be. Also Deok-hee seems to be asleep, so he uses a spoon to keep the door locked from the outside and goes to play with his friends.
Grandpa Kim returns home to find Deok-gu gone, a spoon in the door, and Deok-hee choking on her own vomit.
Grandpa Kim takes Deok-hee to the hospital, and Jong-ho says that she threw up all of the wall chips, so she should be fine now. But he explains that this is a reactive attachment disorder. She may be 5 (the actor was actually 4 during filming, but the characters may be going by Korean aging where newborns are already a year old), but she talks like she is 3. Kids that age need someone to teach them slowly and give them the right food. He insists that it is not Grandpa Kim’s fault, but that she needs a mother. Grandpa Kim is confused; is a grandfather not enough? Jong-ho doesn’t answer, but they both look at the sleeping Deok-hee. Apparently, it is not enough.
Grandpa Kim goes back home and Deok-gu is there to greet him, eager to show that he made a fire in the outdoor stove. Grandpa Kim pushes him aside, and a confused Deok-gu says that he is hungry. Grandpa Kim smacks him and tells him that Deok-hee almost died. How could the eldest son leave his sister alone? Well, Deok-gu snaps, saying that the other kids call him Deok-hee’s mother. He wants his real mother back or nothing. He declares that he does not have a grandfather, and storms out of the house to…away.
I admit that WTF ASIA has featured only a few movies written or directed by women. And while some of these women have many credits to their names, others don’t. Other than as writer-director of this movie, Bang Soo-in has one small acting credit from 2009 and only just had another project this year for which she is the writer and director: a show from Shadow Beauty that I think just started a few days ago. And that is it. I cannot say whether Stand by Me and Shadow Beauty were the only things that she was interested in making or whether the industry has largely shut her out. In any case, this movie seems rather small and personal, as if it were the one thing that Bang wanted to make if she could make nothing else.
So…family, is an important aspect of Korean and…Asian society. But not just the nuclear family, the whole lineage. This is what Grandpa Kim wants to impart onto Deok-gu. The Gyeongju Kims trace their descent from the ruling family of Silla, a kingdom that controlled most of the Southern regions of Korea between 57 BCE and 935 CE. So, they have a high pedigree. Of course, since there were supposedly almost 2 million Gyeongju clans in South Korea by 2015, that pedigree does not necessarily count for much. And as we see, this branch of the clan is not particularly well off, but Grandpa Kim has high ambitions for his grandson. The presidency? The grandson of a chimney sweep? Sure.
Of course, those lofty ambitions clash with reality. Grandpa Kim is not well off, and I guess that whatever retirement he may have received is not enough to take care of the kids. The odd jobs that he takes around town do not pay much if he can even get them. So, he is quite frugal, especially when it comes to the kids. He takes what he can get and gives only what is necessary. He may give sweets to the Deok-hee, but only because he managed to swipe them from the restaurant. But for things that he has to pay for? Forget it. He even rescues one of his socks that Deok-gu had thrown out because it had a hole in it. The family will have plenty of time for frivolous wastefulness once Deok-gu is president. Perhaps he does not actually believe that that will happen, but one has to dream big. In the meantime, he has to work his way back up from the bottom. So, he may have the mindset of a temporarily embarrassed billionaire, but not the attitude.
Grandpa Kim may have tried to instill such a lofty, yet practical mindset into his son, Song-bok. And perhaps he had expected Song-bok to do the same to Deok-gu. But Song-bok died, so it is up to him to do it for Deok-gu. He sees Deok-gu (and Deok-hee to a lesser extent) as the chance to redeem the family line, not just for him personally, but for the branch of the clan. Thus, he tries to teach behavior and values that makes Deok-gu the worthy successor of his lineage. Deok-gu is the future; his future. Just as he tries to instill the identity of the Gyeongju Kim clan into his grandson, he invests his own identity into Deok-gu. Grandpa Kim does not even have a name, he just goes by Deok-gu’s Grandfather. This is fairly common for how parents refer to each other; Deok-gu’s Mother, Deok-gu’s Father. Well, those two are gone, so Deok-gu’s Grandfather will have to do.
Unfortunately for this family, the town does not really place much value upon the things that Grandpa Kim does. And neither does Deok-gu. Family to him is significantly more nuclear; him, his parents, maybe his sister…his grandfather, sure. Family is the people who raised him and nurtured him and took care of him. They were the ones whom people see when it comes to family representation for school. That is how it is for other kids and that is how it should be for him. What does he care about the clan? What does he care about a kingdom from over a thousand years ago? His classmates don’t see his ancestors. They see that he doesn’t have a father or mother.
It is not made completely clear why Song-bok died. What is clear is that he is dead. There is nothing that can be done about that. Of course, no one is happy about that, but it is something that they will all have to work around if they are to keep going in life.
What is less solid is the circumstances around Song-bok’s wife and the mother of his children. The woman, whom we later learn is named Vanessa, allegedly ran off with the insurance money a mere week after her husband’s death. Now, did she do? Why would she do it? How would Grandpa Kim been able to kick her out of the house if she had already run off? These things get addressed later in the film, but the immediate consequences of that is that the tragedy of Song-bok’s death is tainted by both this allegation against his wife and her disappearance from the lives of her children.
Deok-hee might not exactly be able to work out her feelings about what is going on, but Deok-gu’s feelings are clear. Whatever his mother may have done, she is probably still alive and able to return to take care of them in their time of intense need. His grandfather, who has the most bizarre of priorities for him, appears to be the sole impediment to her return. Grandpa Kim coming to events meant for parents is not only humiliating on its own, it seems as if he is rubbing in Deok-gu’s face that he had gotten rid of her. And Grandpa Kim makes for a pathetic replacement. Deok-gu tolerates him due to a lack of alternatives, but he feels the familial bond to be more and more of a constriction. Deok-hee seems to be able to accept the circumstances, but even she starts to turn, with near-fatal results.
Grandpa Kim may see Deok-hee as a just a little girl, but he sees Deok-gu as the heir to a dynasty, and sometimes does not appreciate that he is also a child. A child who has no real concept of budgetary issues, but does feel the stings of a thousand empty promises. A child who knows little about the need to honor the ancestors, but sees how his peers judge him. A child who does not understand the difference between daily necessities and wasteful luxuries, but has experienced the sudden saddling of responsibilities with only additional responsibilities as a reward.
When Grandpa Kim cannot even be around to be there for one of Deok-hee’s events, Deok-gu himself has to be the parental replacement. Grandpa Kim may be fine with taking up the parental obligations regardless of what other people think. Deok-gu is not. I doubt that Grandpa Kim was ever referred to as Deok-hee’s mother, even behind his back. Deok-gu gets called that to his face, and he finds it mortally emasculating. And while Grandpa Kim may be a bit old to take part in some of these things, Deok-gu is NINE YEARS OLD! Perhaps if he were taught to act as her caretaker for years earlier, then it would not be so bad. But he is thrust into this position because, once again, his grandfather exiled his mother and does not even have the decency to show up. So, even when Deok-gu’s selfishness almost results in his sister killing herself, he cannot bring himself to accept even a modicum of responsibility. To him, this is all on the cruel and foolish Grandpa Kim.
The great hole in the center of the story is the parents. We get only bits and pieces about Song-bok. It seems like he was fine, doing what he was supposed to do and whatnot. The story of Vanessa is a little shaky, though even more important, if only because she is supposedly still alive. One thing that I only hinted at before is that she is an immigrant. Though the actor is from the Philippines, the character is from Indonesia. I am not sure of the reasoning behind that, since the two countries do not really have all that much in common aside from a border, but whatever. Now most of the memories of her seem pretty positive, and it can sometime be difficult to get a bead on her as a character on her own aside from being wide-eyed and perhaps a little out of her depth. I cannot really say whether Grandpa Kim’s actions against her were based on xenophobia. I would not go that far, especially since he has a kind of friendly relationship with the restaurant owner’s wife, who is also from Indonesia. It is not wholly unreasonable, though to assume that he may have treated Song-bok’s marrying a poor immigrant as another sign of how the mighty have fallen, and that his efforts to turn Deok-gu into a modern nobleman is an attempt to erase the other side of the boy’s heritage. And, thus, erase Deok-gu’s mother from memory. Of course, things don’t work that way.
This movie looks at different views of what family means. Grandpa Kim seems to see it as lineage and legacy, which is why he kicks out Vanessa and rejects the possibility of sending the kids to a foster family. Deok-gu holds a much narrower and immediate view. What of the movie? I guess that it falls more on Deok-gu’s side, even though it does not quite let him off the hook. It is unclear how much it agrees with Jong-ho that a child needs a mother specifically. But while the movie depicts a society where the significance of respecting one’s elders is not quite as set in stone as before, there is still a strong emphasis on the importance of the mother-child relationship that weighs heavily on both Deok-gu and Doek-hee. Grandpa Kim may worry about the long-term future of his family line, but does not seem to understand that the short-term issues may mean that there will be no long-term future at all. And with his own failing health, he may have to change how he sees his family before it is too late. I know that some people did not like the ending, and I admit that it kind of threw me for a loop, given the (somewhat cheesy) buildup that came immediately before it. That said, I felt that the way it ended kind of reframes some of the narrative and character arcs.
A gentle story that can be rough around the edges, this movie may be difficult at some points, but I found it quite moving. A good movie for Thanksgiving? Maybe. Maybe not. But a good movie regardless.
WTF ASIA 189: The Cup (India…sort of: 1999, approx. 94 minutes)
WTF ASIA 190: Sanjuro (Japan: 1962, approx. 96 minutes)