Betrayal! Smuggling! Bankruptcy! Prison! The Ministry of Foreign Affairs! All that and more in the first 20 minutes of Way Back Home, a 2013 Korean film directed by Bang EunJin. Bang is one of the few female directors in Korea and her previous feature, Perfect Number, was the subject of my previous post. Whereas Perfect Number suffered from a lack of rhythmic progression of its story, Bang does a bang-up job in a movie that features another seoulful performance by the great Jeon DoYeon.
(Some mild spoilers up on ahead. Y’all be aware, now.)
Based on a true story, Jeon plays a housewife who, under financial duress, becomes a courier for a shady family friend. Without telling her husband, she takes a suitcase of what she thinks is full of gemstones from Guyana to Paris. But as the Frenchies are happy to reveal, it’s actually full of cocaine. Lots of cocaine. Bricks of cocaine. I’m not quite sure what self-respecting cocaine dealer would put that much inventory at risk by attempting to move it in the most asinine way possible, but suspension of disbelief and all that.
It’s at this point when I expect a deluge of maudlin setups that lead up to the inevitable family reunion. While there’s plenty of emotional tumult as we see her and her family go through the process of figuring out the seemingly insurmountable problem of trying to get out of a foreign prison, the emotion manipulation is mostly kept in check. (The final courtroom scene being a glaring exception.) The rest of the movie pulses through as we see our heroine encounter one setback after another. The biggest hindrance to her freedom is the Korean government itself. As it turns out, the Korean embassy in Paris is teeming with lazy civil servants who spend far more time complaining about the work they have to do than actually doing it. Bureaucracy is a bitch. By the time the third act is ready to roll out, I pondered the possibility of punching the actors who played the embassy employees. The movie is successful in getting the viewer on Jeon’s side.
Way Back Home isn’t just a whirlwind of plot, though. In fact, it’s a fairly linear story that, plot-wise, isn’t complicated. There are moments of silence and reflection that keep the movie grounded. Shots of Jeon on the beach, marveling at the magical azure waters off the shores of Martinique, echo the character’s befuddlement: beauty is pointless when freedom is rendered meaningless. Another shot of Jeon shows her staring at a map of the world, taped against a bare wall, as she wonders how the world can feel so big, small, crowded and empty at the same time. In these moments of silence, Bang closes in on the core of Jeon’s character. It’s when she’s most effective with the camera.
It’s worth noting that once again, Jeon makes the case that she’s the best female feature film actor in Korea. She has the ability to draw you in and force you to study her. And while she doesn’t lose herself with complete abandon as she did in Milyang or You Are My Sunshine, she measures carefully how much to give and delivers. The other notable performance is by Bae SungWoo who plays an embassy employee. His insouciance and clock-out-at-5 attitude hit the right notes. Jeon’s husband is played by Go Soo. For someone who’s been acting for almost 20 years, he still needs more on-the-job-training.
This film is available online through various sources. Google is your buddy.