Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Ode to My Father: National History as Family Saga

Yoon Duk-soo twice found himself trying to outrun a rampaging Communist army, but he was never a secret commando. He was an average Korean, who just witnessed a lot of history from an uncomfortably close vantage point. With Yoon’s sweeping life story, director (JK) Youn Je-kyun pays tribute to his parents’ generation throughout Ode to My Father (trailer here), which opens in New York this Friday.

Yoon and his family were originally from Hungnam in the North, but they had to flee the Chinese forces that had broken through the Allied defenses. Somehow, fourteen thousand Koreans found refuge on the SS Meredith Victory, captained by Leonard LaRue, after the Merchant Marine freighter dumped all of its munitions cargo to accommodate them. Yoon, his mother, his older sister, and their infant brother would make it. His father and the younger sister he was assigned to protect do not. It is not his fault, but Yoon will blame himself all his life and his passive-aggressive mother will let him.

The Meredith Victory’s evacuation is still considered the largest military humanitarian operation in history. Instead of the chaotic sequence depicted in the film, the actually loading process was reportedly quite orderly, lasting nearly a day. Frankly, it seems particularly unfair to depict Cap. LaRue as a cold fish who reluctantly acquiesces to Korean pleas for deliverance, given the fact he joined a Benedictine order after the war and was henceforth known as Brother Marinus. The entire crew of the Meredith Victory probably deserves better.

Regardless, life marches on for Yoon. To support his brother’s studies and his sister’s irresponsibleness, the duly appointed head of household accepts work as German Gastarbeiter coalminer. The work is as punishing as it sounds, but the pay was considerable for 1963 ROK. Fortunately for Yoon, West Germany was also recruiting Gastarbeiter nurses, like his future wife, Youngja.

To save the family’s Gukje market and pay for his entitled sister’s wedding, Yoon will pack his bags again, signing on as a civilian technician supporting the American forces in Vietnam. Youn and screenwriter Park Soo-jin draw powerful parallels between the Hungnam evacuation and the chaos following the fall of Saigon, without belaboring their points or the audience’s patience. In fact, it is probably the strongest chapter of the necessarily episodic film. However, Yoon has at least one more Forrest Gump-ish date with destiny, as a participant in the landmark 1983 KBS broadcasts reuniting divided Korean families.

Ode is currently a massive Korean box-office hit, so you know it will not be afraid of a little sentimentality. Wisely, experienced character actor Oh Dal-su is on hand to sprinkle about a little vinegar whenever things get too saccharine. In fact, as Yoon’s best pal Dal-goo, he develops some convincingly down-to-earth buddy chemistry with Hwang Jung-min. Staten Island’s Yunjin Kim, recognizable from American television shows like Lost and Mistresses, also has some nice moments as Youngja, but her screen time is nowhere near equal to that of the central Yoon.

It is too bad the treatment of Cap. LaRue is most likely to annoy those who are most familiar with him as a historical figure. Otherwise, Ode’s resilient story of family and friendship, featuring a network television star, might really resonate with American audiences, especially in military markets. Without that early anti-American veneer, it could have possibly generated far wider word of mouth, but instead it will just play to the established audience base. That is a shame, because the work of Hwang and Oh give it real heart. Recommended (with mild reservations) for loyal fans of the cast and Korean family dramas, Ode to My Father opens this Friday (1/9) in New York, at the Regal E-Walk.