Asian cinema: Korean films
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Na Moon-hee and Lee Je-hoon in a scene from I Can Speak (category IIA; Korean), directed by Kim Hyun-suk. Choi Soo-in also stars.

Review | Film review: I Can Speak – lighthearted Korean comedy with a surprise political gut punch

For the most part an inoffensive comedy about a cantankerous pensioner with a hidden heart of gold, the film ambushes its audience towards the end and may leave them at once conflicted and confused

3.5/5 stars

The unlikely friendship between an elderly busybody and an ambitious young civil servant is at the heart of Korean filmmaker Kim Hyun-suk’s lighthearted comedy I Can Speak – that is, until a late-breaking revelation steers the film into wildly different territory.

For the past 20 years, Ok-boon (Na Moon-hee, Miss Granny) has been pestering her local civil affairs bureau with daily complaints, mostly on trivial health and safety matters. New civil official Min-jae (Lee Je-hoon, Anarchist from Colony) initially clashes with Ok-boon, but then reluctantly agrees to help her study English. He believes this is so that Ok-boon can reconnect with her estranged brother in the US, but the truth is far more impactful.

Na gives a wonderful performance in I Can Speak.

For its first two-thirds, I Can Speak unfolds as an inoffensive comedy about a cantankerous pensioner with a hidden heart of gold. Na gives a wonderful performance, revelling in the opportunity to play such a despised yet complicated individual.

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A land redevelopment dispute hovers on the periphery and threatens to set Ok-boon and Min-jae at loggerheads, but the impending stand-off never materialises. It is when Ok-boon’s secret is revealed that – major spoiler alert – the film shifts its focus to the hot-button issue of “comfort women” (prisoners used for sexual gratification by Japanese soldiers during the second world war) and the HR121 hearings held in 2007.

Lee (centre) in a scene from I Can Speak.

Unfortunately, at this point the quality writing and subtle characterisation is eschewed in favour of a worthy yet heavy-handed climax. Instead of building to an emotionally earned crescendo, I Can Speak ambushes its audiences with a political gut punch that may leave them at once conflicted and confused.

I Can Speak opens on January 18

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