Although sentimental and predictable – as Korean dramas often are – Keys to the Heart remains a soul-stirring and, at times, humorous, piece about love and tragedy.
Boxer Jo-ha (Lee Byung-hun) was once the welterweight WBC Asian champion. Now middle-aged, he’s scraping together a living by free fighting other boxers and handing out flyers on the street.
His family life is no better than his professional one, as he reunites with his mother (Youn Yuh-jung) who left him with his abusive father for 17 years without a word. Jo-ha also discovers he has an autistic half-brother Jin-tae (Park Jung-min), who is a gifted piano player.
Still resentful towards his mother and frustrated with his brother, Jo-ha plans to move abroad, but first he needs money. His plan? Get his brother to win a prestigious piano contest.
Although it doesn’t take much to figure out the plot, there’s not a moment during the film's 121-minute running time where you’ll be tempted to check the time – credit for which goes entirely to the incredible performances by Lee, Youn, and Park.
Lee masters his role beautifully, portraying the conflicting sides of Jo-ha’s character. Beneath his tough boxer’s exterior, Jo-ha is a deeply wounded child who feels both compassion and bitterness towards his mother and sibling.
Likewise, Park delivers a nuanced, thoughtful performance of someone with autism, relying mostly on subtle use of body language. Perhaps even more impressive are the actor’s piano-playing skills; having never played before, Park made the classical pieces his character performs look amazingly convincing.
Even so, the drama might still have fallen flat if it wasn’t for veteran actor Youn’s turn as a mother who manages to be both selfish and selfless; a woman suffering a lifetime of guilt for abandoning her eldest child behind to escape her violent husband.
In spite of a plot which offers no surprises, Keys to the Heart’s three lead actors manage to tell a story that is in turn comedic, heartbreaking and uplifting, detailing the intricate relationship between both mother and child, and between siblings.