While I have featured movies with kids and families…a lot…it has been a while since I have featured an actual family film. So here is one about…erm…a homeless girl who decides to steal a dog? Whatever.
A teacher is telling her class Aesop’s fable of the hares and the frogs. The hares decided that they’ve had enough of being prey for the predators, so they decided to jump into the pond and die. But as they were falling into the pond, they scared the. The moral is that there is always someone worse off than yourself. And she tells the class to not be too sad or disappointed because they are in a difficult situation.
At the back of the class, Ji-so believes that Aesop would not have written that story had he been in her shoes.
Ji-so is riding in a car with her classmate Chae-rang. Chae-rang’s mother is driving and talking to someone else about another couple’s divorce on her not-hands-free-phone. A police officer takes notice and stops her. She tells him that she was on the phone for only a little bit, trying in vain to lessen the penalty. Chae-rang tells her that this is embarrassing, but her mother and the officer continue to argue. Eventually, Ji-so says that she can get out and walk home from here. So, she does. Chae-rang’s mother and the officer continue to argue when Chae-rang gets out to follow Ji-so.
Ji-so finds her younger brother, Ji-seok, at the supermarket chowing down on food samples. I guess that she eventually takes him, but she waits for him to dig in.
Meanwhile, their mother, Jeong-hyeon, is talking with restaurant manager Soo-young, in the hopes of getting a job. Apparently, they know each of the from a while back and Soo-young had wanted to date her. Jeong-hyeon is not particularly interested in charming him, she just wants to know if she has the job or not…well, until he asks about her address.
Oh, and here comes…Lady Marcel, the restaurant owner and Soo-young’s aunt. And she has brought her dog, Wally…or Wolly. Soo-young goes over to greet her…rather formally. She looks at Jeong-hyeon and Soo-young explains that she is interviewing for the extra hand. Lady Marcel simply says that Jeong-hyeon looks pleasant and goes to her office.
So, why was Jeong-hyeon coy about her home address? Because her home is a pizza shop van. There, Ji-so and Ji-seok argue about his behavior at the supermarket. Ji-seok sees it in purely practical terms: free food is free food. Ji-so, however, argues that they are not beggars, and their reputation could be ruined if people were to find out.
And just like that, Chae-rang appears. To her credit, she tries to avoid making this more awkward than it already is. Ji-so struggles to come up with a lie, saying that her father’s pizza shop is doing so well that they are in the process moving to a bigger house. Except, the house is not yet ready, so they have to stay like this for a week. Chae-rang…at least tries to believe her…sort of. Ji-seok has no interest in lying, and pretty much pops the bubble with his talk of getting water from the corner store to heat up their cup dinners. Well…no getting around it now.
Ji-so turns back to Chae-rang and almost immediately starts crying.
Some time later, Chae-rang gives Ji-so some bottled water to wash her face. Ji-so predicts that Chae-rang will be embarrassed to be with her and that Chae-rang’s mother will no longer let them play together. She says that it is okay if Chae-rang no longer wants to be friends. Chae-rang, probably still fuming at her mother’s behavior with the cop, suggests that they stay friends. And she swears to keep Ji-so’s situation a secret, even from her mother. Ji-so has Chae-rang pinky swear.
Over pizza dinner, Jeong-hyeon tells Ji-so that she got the job. Ji-so asks when they will buy a house. She reminds her mother that she said that it would be a week…but it has been a month. Jeong-hyeon does not answer, instead telling Ji-seok that he can go back to daycare and she can pay the overdue fees. He just needs to tell them that the family was on a trip. He…does not quite agree to it, but whatever. Ji-so asks, and not for the first time, why they cannot go to their aunt’s. Is it because of pride? Jeong-hyeon insists that that is not the reason, but does not give a reason.
Jeong-hyeon hands Ji-seok another slice of pizza. He says that dad’s pizza is better, but Jeong-hyeon reminds him that they had decided to no longer talk about dad. Ji-seok ignores that and asks why she could not bake the pizza like dad did, and Ji-so reminds him that their mother cannot cook. Jeong-hyeon denies that too, and leaves the van to…let out some stress.
At school, Chae-rang tells Ji-so that mothers lie sometimes, and sometimes they do things that do not make sense. If Chae-rang’s mother was smart, for example, then she would not have married Chae-rang’s father. Ji-so worries that her mother will drive her insane before they can buy a house. Chae-rang tells her that one does not buy a house, but gets a house deposit, which is…something that adults say. Ji-so asks if that is expensive? Perhaps more than $100.
Okay, she probably did not say $100, but that is what the subtitles say. I will get into this later.
Min-sup, the boy sitting in front of Ji-so turns around and mocks them for thinking that a deposit would be so cheap these days. Chae-rang asks how expensive his house is. Instead of answering, he reminds them that they saw it at his birthday party. It’s so much more than $100. Ji-so presses Min-sup on it, and he says about $500. Yeah, he doesn’t know anything either. But Ji-so seems to believe him…and starts to despair.
It is the end of school…or lunch. The teacher goes over to Ji-so to see if she had asked her mother about her birthday party next month. The teacher remembers how Ji-so had wanted a big party like Min-sup. The teacher seems to sense that something is the matter with Ji-so and tries to backtrack tactfully, saying that she does not like to host parties at her place because it seems like showing off. But Ji-so doubles down, declaring that she wants to have a big party at home. Well, that settles it, and the teacher says that she expects a call from Ji-so’s mother. After the teacher leaves, Chae-rang reminds Ji-so that she does not have a house. Well, then Ji-so will have to get one before her birthday.
Ji-so and Chae-rang find a real estate office and look at the promotions outside. They look at the listings and…don’t understand any of it. Then they notice a house that looks pretty nice. And it is $500…per square…where is Per Square? Is Per Square far from the school? Chae-rang reasons that it should not matter too much, since Ji-so will still have the van.
A realtor comes out and tells the two girls to go away. Chae-rang asks if that house is really $500. The realtor tells them to bring their mother if they really want to know. Ji-so asks if she can lower the price, but the realtor says that $500 per square meter is the best bargain in town and then goes back inside.
Erm…okay, so I was going to wait until after the synopsis to bring this up, but I guess that I have to do it now.
This movie was adapted from an American children’s book by Barbara O’Connor. It was published in 2009 and…hey, remember that time? Fun times, financially speaking. Anyways, it is not very common for South Korean movies to adapt stories from the West, it is mostly from South Korea or close neighbors like (gasp) Japan. But the people behind this movie chose a Western story and, unlike with Snowpiercer, tried to genuinely localize it. However, anyone who watched Squid Game would know that South Korea does not use the American dollar as currency: they use the Won. And one American dollar was around 1,000 won back when this movie was made. So, $500 may seem like a lot to these kids, but 500 won would definitely not.
This movie sticks with the number 500, which was part of the original American book. But it is not $500, but 500 man, which is 5,000,000 won or $5,000. And the square does not refer to meter either, but per pyeong, which is around 3.3 square meters. These details are not super necessary to get a deeper insight into the story, and I usually do not focus on these things, but it tripped me up here when I first saw the movie, so I figured that I might as well mention it. Whatever. ANYWAYS…
Jeong-hyeon’s start at the restaurant is not going particularly well. And also, she brought Ji-seok along and managed to rope Soo-young into looking after him and giving him…what is that, ice cream? Ji-so shows up outside, so Jeong-hyeon goes to meet her, giving her some cash for laundry and a snack. Ji-so asks her mother if she has 500…man. Jeong-hyeon dismisses her question and goes back inside.
Ji-so walks past the real estate office and sees the number 500 everywhere. The address of the office. The number of a bus. The number of years that the Joseon Dynasty lasted. Some vitamin. The price of laundry.
Ji-so goes to a pizza shop and asks the employee if she can pay for a family size pizza with eight coupons and give him the other two later. He says no, as no one gives free pizza upfront. She then observes him taking an order for a family size pizza, but writing it down as a regular. When she calls him out on this, he makes her leave.
Ji-so is back outside looking at a pile of pizza boxes, when she sees a flyer on the bottom saying 500 man reward for something or other. A homeless man wakes up nearby and Ji-so just stares at him, nervous and probably frightened. The man holds up a pair of pizza coupons, asking if she wants them. Ji-so takes…a long time to get them, but she eventually does grab them and runs off. She keeps running until she gets tired. And then she finally takes a look at that flyer that she also took.
Ji-so pulls Chae-rang out of her martial arts lesson and shows her the flyer. It offers a 500…man reward to whoever returns of a dog. She calls it a God-given chance. Chae-rang asks how they would find the dog, and Ji-so says that they have to try everything.
First Chae-rang calls the number on the flyer to make sure that they would pay the reward and not deduct taxes or anything. But…it turns out that they found the dog…he was in the front yard. Well, that was a waste.
Ji-so walks back to the van only to find that…uh…it is not there. It turns out that it went to some sort of impound or something. The employee there gives it back to Jeong-hyeon only after Ji-so tells him that they are too poor to live in a house or own a phone.
The family gets the van back and Jeong-hyeon…drives around in a circle? Ji-so complains, but her mother insists that it is not her fault that they have nowhere to go. Ji-so suggests auntie’s. When Jeong-hyeon says that that means that Ji-so will have to transfer, Ji-so counters that that would be better than being homeless. This leads to a shouting match where they accuse each other of being stubborn. And then Ji-seok calls them both stubborn.
At school, Min-sup asks Ji-so about her upcoming party and the size of her house. Perhaps trying to help, Chae-rang says that Ji-so’s house is significantly more impressive than Ji-so’s. While the teacher distracts Min-sup by making him do some reading, Ji-so tells Chae-rang that they should steal a 500 man dog, and then return it to collect the reward money.
After school, Ji-so and Chae-rang go to the van to strategize. They write down some rules in a notebook. They should steal from someone not too rich to simply buy a new dog, but also from people they would not feel sorry for. Not too big or loud or bite-y.
The two are interrupted by Ji-seok making faces from the roof. Chae-rang asks if they need to keep him around. Ji-so says that he is the third generation of only sons, so there is no choice. Chae-rang says that her mother told her that people with “seok” in their names are stupid, and sometimes her mother is right. Incidentally, Chae-rang’s father has “seok” in his name.
So, Ji-so and Chae-rang take Ji-seok along for their recon missions. He asks annoying questions like where will they put the dog once they have one, how will they feed the dog, how will they avoid security cameras. What an annoying kid.
Speaking of annoying, Soo-young is getting on Jeong-hyeon’s case for dropping one measly plate on the floor. Then Ji-seok shows up. Does this mean that it is time for Jeong-hyeon to leave? Nope, still three hours left on her shift. She promises Soo-young that she will simply give her son some ice cream and then send him on his way.
And here comes Lady Marcel with her dog. Soo-young talks with her about Mr. Park, her assets manager. Apparently, he also told Soo-young something about her will that he did not understand. He tries to ask her, but she…feels something weird. Is it that there are only two tables in use at the moment? Well, whatever. They go to her office.
Lady Marcel pours some water into a teacup for her dog, while she tries to reassure Soo-young about a painting that is going to auction. Well, Soo-young is getting distracted seeing Jeong-hyeon and Ji-seok outside. When Lady Marcel notices him acting odd and tries to see what he is looking at, he tries to change the subject to the proposal to turn this place into a skyscraper. Lady Marcel then shuts him up and tells him to inform Mr. Park that she will contact him when the will is done.
Lady Marcel leaves with Wally and goes to her car, which is parked outside of the property for some reason. Ji-so and Chae-rang just happen to be observing them. Ji-so explains to Chae-rang that her mother works there, and she compensates for her low paycheck by letting the kids eat there often. They sneak inside the property, though Lady Marcel notices.
Meanwhile…Jeong-hyeon is bathing Ji-seok in the bathroom? Soo-young is just flabbergasted at her behavior. Jeong-hyeon says that it doesn’t matter; this place barely has any customers, and she hears that Lady Marcel uses this place more to meet people than for business.
Soo-young starts ranting about his job here and how his aunt drove her husband and son away and how he would have left too if he were not the only one to inherit this place…oh, Lady Marcel just happens to show up behind him.
Lady Marcel walks out as both Soo-young and Jeong-hyeon follow her, apologizing. Also there is Ji-seok in just his underwear. Lady Marcel tells her nephew to kick out Jeong-hyeon. Ji-so and Chae-rang witness this from outside the restaurant.
It is a rainy night back at the van and Jeong-hyeon is telling her kids that she may not be cut out for service work. And now she has an opportunity to look for her true calling. Meanwhile, she has enough severance to pay for a few days at a hotel. Ji-so is too busy staring at the rain on the window to pay much attention.
Ji-so dreams of Aesop trying to tell her the tale of the Hares and the Frogs. She says that she does not want to hear the stupid tale, and that it is only fair to compare a hare to another hare. And so, Aesop apologizes to her. He says that she is the most pitiful one and that he would not have written the story had he met her.
Ji-so wakes up in the bathtub to see her mother dumping laundry in with her.
Ji-so goes to Chae-rang’s house and overhears her parents arguing about her martial arts lessons. She tells Chae-rang that she has decided on a dog. Chae-rang guesses Lady Marcel’s dog. Indeed.
And Ji-so has a plan.
So…as I said earlier, this is based on an American children’s book by Barbara O’Connor. The book was published a couple years into the global financial disaster, while the movie was made a few years after the recovery. That may account for a few differences in the stories. There are also, of course, some changes for localization (such as that 500 man thing that the subtitles did not take into account), but I think that the biggest difference is getting outside of the protagonist’s head, save for some of the voice-overs. That means that the main character’s friend, Chae-rang in the movie, continues to hang out with her, if only so that they can explain things that were mostly internal monologue. Also, we see a bit more of the mother’s story. There is also a few more characters and subplots to make the story bigger; whether that stuff was necessary or not is a matter of opinion, but I enjoy at least a few of the additions.
Some things that movie did keep from the book were the deliberate vagueness regarding how they got where they are. It is implied that things fell apart when the father left and Jeong-hyeon was maybe not experienced in the service industry, but we do not really get a reason why. Jeong-hyeon would rather not mention him than provide details, perhaps because she is not ready to badmouth him to the kids if he was really bad to abandon his kids. Is he dead? Probably not; the source material may be American, but it is not Disney. At the very least, Jeong-hyeon seems to be resourceful enough to wring enough out of a little, even if she is too proud to keep from driving all over the place when she has nowhere to go. Apparently, she has a sister (or sister-in-law) that Ji-so thinks that she
The other thing is to keep the kids rather precocious. Young Nin in last week’s movie may have seemed rather immature and overly dependent for his age, but these kids seem to be a little mature and somewhat independent-minded. Sure, Ji-so does not know anything about how expensive things are, but she has the discipline to put down her plan in a notebook, though she adds images and a…map? Meanwhile, Ji-seok may not know how to read…or lie…but he manages to find flaws in his sister’s plans that she reluctantly has to acknowledge and address.
This movie does feature the common kid’s movie theme of someone telling a lie and then having to jump through hoops in order to maintain that lie. But it is not simply that. Ji-so does not want to get a house simply because she wants to host her birthday party there; she hates living in a van and, at best, living temporarily elsewhere. Of course, if her desperate and illegal plan to steal a dog will not even get her close to her actual goal even if it does succeed. So, this whole enterprise is doomed, so her hope is a false hope that is doomed to collapse.
The characters are not simply lying to each other or holding back information from others. They are doing that to themselves. First, there is Ji-so and Chae-rang. They know that what they are doing is wrong, but they acknowledge that only on the level that they cannot get caught, not that they should not be doing that in the first place. Other people lie to themselves in justifying their bad actions. But that is not the only type of lying.
The moral of the Aesop Fable (which was in the original story) is that, however unfortunate we may think we are, there is always someone worse off than ourselves. And…to an extent, the movie does adhere to that. Yet, it also pokes holes in that. It seems to be so easy for anyone in a seemingly comfortable situation to lose it all. And it is difficult for a child who had been used to living in…well…a residency, to have to accept living in a van as normal. Even the poor family in Parasite did not have to live in a van.
Sure, there may be other people worse off than Ji-so, but so what? How is she supposed adjust her mindset? By thinking like her mother? Jeong-hyeon is constantly living in false optimism. It is an optimism that may be necessary to stave off the terror and despair that will cause her to completely shut down. Even if she does not truly believe that she is close to turning things around, she needs to believe that she believes that she is. Yet, this mindset puts her at odds with Ji-so (and Ji-seok to a lesser extent), who see her state of denial as not taking their situation seriously. Her unwillingness to reveal her stress and worries to her children may come from a place of wanting to avoid scaring them, but she also seems to be in denial that it is backfiring severely. Ji-so also in a state of denial, though it is more believing that she can stave off the inevitable collapse than that things will get better soon. Chae-rang sticks with Ji-so out of friendship, but perhaps also so she can have an easier time ignoring the possibility that her own parents’ marriage is falling apart. And maybe she is just one paternal walk-out away from falling into Ji-so’s situation. We do get introduced to a character who is in a worse situation than our main characters and tries to see the bright side of things; yet while the movie may try to portray that mindset as a positive, the character does eventually admit to great shame and regret.
Shame and regret exist in many characters in the movie, particularly when it comes to parents. Jeong-hyeon’s denial is a cover for the shame and regret over what happened. Perhaps her husband is responsible for causing the situation that she and her children are in now. Yet, she had to take the entire weight of responsibility for it regardless and she is barely maintaining status quo post-getting evicted. And as rich as Lady Marcel may be, the money will not make up for her husband and son leaving her, with only a cynically resentful nephew as a blood heir. Some of these things they can fix with struggle and luck. Other things, they will have to accept that the damage is permanent.
Did I mention that this is a family film? Yeah, it gets sad, but it is funny and sweet and…yeah, kind of hopeful. And it is a good one. You can do worse this holiday season.
WTF ASIA 193: Vinci Da (India: 2019, approx. 113 minutes)
WTF ASIA 194: Modern Love (Japan: 2018, approx. 115 minutes)
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