Ode To My Father (2014) Korean Movie Review
In the critical community currently, the movie “Forrest Gump” (1994) has seen better days. The common consensus is that it is a sappy/corny and really 90s movie that was overrated during its time. However, besides being an actually well-made movie, “Forrest Gump” (1994) did something very unique. It, in broad strokes, managed to define who a generation of people was for not only America but for the world.
“Forrest Gump” (1994) is not just a movie about a mentally challenged person’s adventurers spanning several decades. It is a movie is about the post-world war American baby boomer generation and their ordeals and hardships. It is about the parents and grandparents of those who are reading this from America now. Thus, their story has relevance to a lot of people on a personal level. At the same time, it is also about the formative period in time for this new millennial age we are currently live in. Thus, “Forrest Gump” (1994) has significance beyond the personal.
For the movie that “Forrest Gump” (1994) was, its cinematic impact beyond using CGI to insert actors into old footage is rather small. In a way, “Forrest Gump” (1994) was made at the tail end of the movie-making period which started in the late 70s. You do not see movies with the same tone as “Forrest Gump” (1994) anymore. However, in an odd place, the influence of “Forrest Gump” (1994) could be still felt. It is the Korean movie industry.
Entering the 21st century, the Korean movie industry is making movies that feel like they could have been made in the 80s and early 90s Hollywood. We make thrillers, action, and noir genre movies that do not come out of Hollywood anymore. Thus, seeing “Forrest Gump” (1994) feeling movies being made in Korea should not be a surprise. The thing with those movies was that none of the movies were totally successful in defining a generation in the broader sense like what “Forrest Gump” (1994) did. They were always lacking something intangible. “The International Market” (2014) comes closest to that goal I have ever seen.
A Forrest Gump clone
So, what is the movie about?
Well, “The International Market” (2014) is actually a really straight “Forrest Gump” (1994) clone set in Korea. However, beyond the settings, it has a few very different elements. First, the protagonist is a normal person and not someone who is mentally challenged. He never does great things in the vein of the character of Forrest Gump.
Second, the protagonist is not a baby boomer. In America, the definition of baby boomers is the generation born post World War 2. Thus, the baby boomers were born after the mid-50s or so and had not experienced the big war. In Korea, the definition of baby boomers is pushed back a decade or so. For Koreans, the big generation-defining event was not World War 2 but the Korean War that started in 1950 A.D.
“The International Market” (2014) is about a man who falls in the 1.5 Korean war generation. By 1.5, I mean the generation who experienced the war and its aftermath as kids. This is the generation who had to suffer through the horrors of refugee life as helpless participants and who had to take on the brunt of the burden of making what Korea is today. “The International Market” (2014) is about this boy going through the defining events of the last 6 decades.
The plot and history
The movie is made of 4 acts. The first starts out as our protagonist is going through the events of “The Hungnam Evacuation” with his family. By the 10th of December 1950, the UN forces were being pushed out of North Korea by the swarms of Chinese troops. The troops were being evacuated by sea out of North Korea via Hungnam port. A huge number of civilians were gathered at the port trying to flee from the advancing Chinese and North Korean armies.
At the tail end of this evacuation, a United States Merchant Marine Victory ship called “SS Meredith Victory”, on its own authority, decided to dump all its cargo and loaded more than 14,000 Korean civilians and left the port on 23rd of December. As a 10,658 tonnage ship, this was a no small feat.
According to the movie, our protagonist was just a boy around 10 years old who was evacuated by SS Meredith Victory. The tragedy of this event for him beyond the obvious is that he was carrying his little sister on his back at the time. During the chaos, his sister was ripped from him and his father had remained behind to look for her. The trauma, guilt, and responsibility towards his remaining family are the defining motivation of this character throughout the movie and the character’s life. It is what drives him to sacrifice his own dreams and go to great lengths to provide for his family during the decades after the world.
The second act of the movie starts after the evacuation and goes through the post-war recovery period in which Korea was exporting labor overseas. Our protagonist, who represents the men of this generation, goes abroad in order to send back his paycheck to his family. During the way, he meets a few famous Korean historical figures on the way and also creates his own little family. As with “Forrest Gump” (1994), “The International Market” (2014) is not based on any real person.
The third act covers the Vietnam war period in which our protagonist gets involved with the war. He is representing the Korean companies and employees who went to a warzone once again to send back money home. It is also partly about getting to terms about his trauma and guilt.
The final act covers the period in 1983 when there was a huge Korean national televised event to try to connect family members who were separated during the war. This was the time before the Internet. It was very difficult to find people once you lost contact with them. This was more so if you lost contact with them during the chaos of the war. In other words, this event was a defining event of the 1980s for Koreans.
Coating tragedy with something funny
From the plot description and history lesson, you may think that this movie may be just dark and depressing. However, you have to keep in mind that “The International Market” (2014) is a “Forrest Gump” (1994) clone. So, as with “Forrest Gump” (1994), “The International Market” (2014) coats the sorrow and pain of the times with charm and comedy. What I mean is that the movie is quite a funny movie. It is also quite a clean movie. I mean that the time period looks literally cleaner than what reality looked like.
At the same time, “The International Market” (2014) does not shy away from showing the bitter tragedy of the times underneath. People die a lot in this movie. People die from war. People die from being trampled. People die from just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This balance between its sugar-coated exterior and tragedy of historical events is extremely well handled. The sweetness makes the tragedy more palatable but does not lessen the tragedy.
Among the many “Forrest Gump” (1994) clone movies, “The International Market” (2014) is the best that Korea has made up to this point. It definitely succeeds at defining a generation which is not actually done a lot in Korean entertainment. However, “The International Market” (2014) is not as great of a movie as “Forrest Gump” (1994). There are issues with it that prevent it from reaching that pinnacle.
Acting-wise, all of the cast is top-notch. In the Korean movie industry which tends to overuse Idol Kpop singers, “The International Market” (2014) is the best cast movie in recent memory. However, there is one exception. Kim Yun-jin is cast as our protagonist’s spouse. She stands out from the cast and not for acting excellence.
Kim Yun-jin is an actress who never totally felt like a Korean actress. There is something foreign about her that is intangible. It may be because of the fact that she immigrated to the States when she was young. This has worsened as she became very active in American TV. She seems to be stuck between the two different acting styles and has not found a way to handle both. Thus, she stands out in “The International Market” (2014) as all of the cast except for her feels very Korean.
Another issue with the movie is related to the framing device in the screenplay. In “Forrest Gump” (1994), you have that “waiting at a bus station and telling stories” framing device which works perfectly. “The International Market” (2014) tries something like that but not really like it. In the movie, there is a subplot used as a framing device involving the protagonist in the present day as an old man. He deals with his family and the young folk. This story bookends the movie and snippets of the story are inserted throughout the movie.
The problem is that the subplot does not fully work as its own subplot because there is not enough in the movie but, at the same time, it does not work well to frame the individual historical events and time periods in the past since it is neither providing narration nor commentary about the past shown on screen. It just runs in parallel.
I think this problem originates from the fact that the screenplay is not sure of what the relationship between the narrative and the audience is. In “Forrest Gump” (1994), the audience was being told a story. In “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), the audience was experiencing the characters’ journey. “The International Market” (2014) meanders between the two while trying to say something about the present generation. It does not work and is not strictly necessary.
The final issue with any significance is related to the third act. The third act is somewhat redundant in the overall narrative. I understand why this period was included in the movie. The Vietnam War period was an important period in Korean history. However, the movie does not do enough to warrant its existence. In many ways, the third act overlaps half with the second act and half with the fourth act in regards to its story function. You could just cut most of the third act out and not much would have changed.
Such a terrible title
I do not know why Korean movies and dramas are so bad at naming. I did not know anything about the movie going in and I was turned off by the title. What can you infer from a title like “The International Market”? I thought it was some kind of lame family drama or a story about a merchant.
After seeing the movie, I get why they named the movie “The International Market” since the movie actually shouts it out at the end. It is linked to the protagonist’s driving motivation surrounding his father. However, I get it only in a long manner. It is the same logic as naming the movie “Citizen Kane” (1941) the “Kane manor” because the sled “Rosebud” was stored in a closet somewhere inside Kane’s manor. Darn! At least, name it “Rosebud”.
At the end
“The International Market” (2014) is a movie that, while not perfect, does most of the things it set out to do. The most important of those is, in broad terms, putting its stamp on defining a generation that built the foundation of modern Korea. Thus, if anyone wanted to understand who Koreans are, I would show them this movie to show who Koreans were.
“The International Market” is a movie about how the children of the Korean War recreate Korea as the place it is today. It shows all the suffering that had to be endured to get to this state but coated in sweetness, charm, and comedy.
On a personal level, it is the movie about my father’s generation. It is a movie about how they lived and how they are reflected in us. By showing how they lived, the movie is not just praising that generation and acknowledging their efforts. It is also helping mend the rift between them and us who also had suffered because of that rift. Where were we, the decedents and the baby boomers, during the time our parents went through their ordeals?
While we were their purpose for living, we were not part of their lives. It is a real irony of life. We do not know our parents really and we suffer for this lack of connection with those we should be close to. We need that connection to frame our own life. “The International Market” helps, in its own little way, to create that connection.
While I pondered whether to give the movie either an A- or B+, the problems with it prevent me from giving it the former. The screenplay just needed someone to come in and do a final draft to raise it above a B+. So, “The International Market” (2014) is a great B+ movie. It is a movie that I would show anyone who was interesting in knowing who the modern Korean people are.
Score: B+ or 7.5 /10