A Korean Forrest Gump: Ode to My Father recalls sentimentality of hit US film

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 April, 2015, 6:16am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 April, 2015, 7:21am

When the Korean filmmaker Yoon Je-kyoon first came up with the idea for Ode to My Father he only had one purpose in mind: to pay tribute to his late father to whom he still felt deeply indebted.

But since its December release in South Korea, the family melodrama had drawn more than 14 million viewers in local cinemas. It is now the second-most-attended title in his country's box office history - behind only the historical biopic Roaring Currents (2014).

Although Yoon is no stranger to blockbusters - his tsunami film Haeundae (2009) was a hit both locally and abroad - Ode to My Father was still a surprise box office success, given its personal nature.

"The reason I made this film could be traced back to autumn 2004, when my son was born. I was reminded of my father, who died when I was in the second year of university," says Yoon. He was recently in Macau to represent his film at the Asian Film Awards, where it was a best picture nominee (the film lost out to Chinese director Lou Ye's Blind Massage for the award).

"When I thought about it, he had spent his whole life holding the family together. He was an ordinary father - an office worker - who, unfortunately, died from cancer, and it made me sad to think that I'd never properly expressed my gratitude. I made this movie as a tribute to him."

Yoon named its protagonists after his own father and mother, Duk-soo (played by Hwang Jung-min) and Youngja (Kim Yunjin). "My father's personality is quite similar to that of Hwang's character," he says. "He was often poker-faced and always mumbling."

But Ode to My Father is no navel-gazing effort. It charts several social and historical events between the dusk of the Korean war and the present.

Beginning with the evacuation of 14,000 North Korean refugees on the freighter SS Meredith Victory in 1950 - a humanitarian effort which holds the Guinness World Record of "the largest evacuation from land by a single ship" - this ambitious film covers virtually the entire second half of the 20th century.

As Duk-soo emerges from the regret of losing his father and younger sister in that early chapter, Ode to My Father follows his remarkable life journey through a coal mining disaster in 1960s West Germany and a brush with death as a civilian worker in 1970s Vietnam.

For his '70s storyline, Yoon had flirted with the idea of sending his protagonists as part of the wave of Korean construction workers in the Middle East between 1975 and '83 before he decided to stay with the Vietnam narrative arc.

"In both cases, workers went abroad and made some money before coming back to help the economy of Korea. I went with the Vietnam War because, like the foreigners who came to help during the Korean War, Koreans helped the people there during the Vietnam War. The comparison interests me."

Unlike Haeundae, which is "a purely fictional film", Yoon has found his latest project harder to direct owing to its foundation in history. "When I made the film, because a lot of people have actually lived through those eras, I had to work carefully and couldn't just invent things with my imagination."

Of the history evoked, the most tear-jerking moment has to be the extended re-enactment of a 1983 KBS broadcast that aimed to reunite families separated during the Korean war. Yoon recalls watching the programme as a secondary two student - the only part in the film that he has witnessed first-hand.

Due to its focus on one everyman character who lives through a country's modern history, Yoon's decades-spanning film has been described as a Korean version of the sentimental classic Forrest Gump (1994), a comparison with which he readily agrees.

Because a lot of people lived through those eras, I couldn't just invent things
Yoon Je-kyoon, director

"In Forrest Gump, the social and historical changes in America are told through one protagonist's eyes. There is a film like this in every country - such as [Takashi Yamazaki's] Always film series in Japan, or To Live in China - except Korea, so it's good that people think of Forrest Gump when they watch my film."

The director believes a common characteristic of all his films is that their audiences are always in for an emotional roller coaster.

"There are both laughter and tears - this is what the audiences have told me, and it is consistent with my own personality. I like to offer a warm feeling through my movies."

Ode to My Father is no exception as it has taken the emotional story of a family torn apart by war to pull an unusually broad range of viewers into cinemas.

"Film investors nowadays prefer to produce movies that are targeted at younger viewers, but this movie isn't one of those - it is for a more senior audience group. You can see families - some of which span three generations - in the cinemas for this movie," says Yoon.

"Many of the audiences I saw are in their 40s, 50s, 60s or even 70s. As the film may be recalling some of those years of struggles in their past, the experience of watching it may be able to offer them a sense of consolation."

Looking ahead, the director is keen to work on the mainland and the next project could be his most ambitious yet.

"I'm in the negotiating stage on various projects. Nothing is confirmed yet, but I'm considering the possibility of making a film in mainland China. My wife is ethnic Chinese, so I feel obliged to make a film with a Chinese connection," says Yoon, better known outside his country as "J.K. Youn".

"And if I find such a film project, I hope it'll be liked by both the Korean and Chinese audiences," adds Yoon. Should that happen, he's going to make the investors' heads spin even faster.

Ode to My Father opens on April 9