Family Ties [가족의 탄생 ]
Moon So-Ri (Oasis, Bewitching Attraction), Ko Doo-Sim (Long & Winding Road), Uhm Tae-Woong ("Rebirth", Public Enemy 2), Kong Hyo-Jin (Volcano High, "Sang Doo, Let’s Go to School"), Bon Tae-Gyu (When Romance Meets Destiny, See You After School)
Kim Tae-Yong (Momento Mori)
Kim Tae-Yong, Seong Gi-Yeong
What are the ingredients that make up a family? Love? Support? The provision of food, clothing and shelter? Or is it simply the people to whom you are related by birth? Why blood? What other factors tie people together and make them family? Isn’t it true that oftentimes the bonds we choose to form are healthier than the ones we’re born with? "Family Ties" tells three stories of people struggling with the question of what, or who, family really is.
ACT ONE Mira’s life has settled into a comfortable routine of running her restaurant and occasionally dating. Her peaceful life is turned on end when her delinquent younger brother Hyung-Chul invades her home after a 5-year absence. They are family, so naturally he expects her to shelter both him and his much-older new wife. Despite being more than 20 years his senior, the chain-smoking Mu-Shin shares his irresponsible, immature attitude. The uneasy truce established by the trio is shattered by the arrival of a little girl looking for her mommy. The daughter of Mu-Shin’s ex-husband’s ex-wife, Hyung-Chul insists they should take her in as well, pushing Mira’s patience to its limit.
ACT TWO Obsessed with emigrating to Japan, Sun-Kyung lives a solitary life of eating Japanese food at home alone and interviewing to become a tour guide. One day her mother shows up with a big suitcase and starts checking out her apartment. The daughter has obviously nothing but contempt for her mother and asks, "What? Did your married lover dump you again?" and then pushes her out the door. Some time later the lover also visits to inform Sun-Kyung that her mother is terminally ill. "So what?" she asks, "Do you expect me to cry now?" Bitter at the world, she can’t say anything pleasant except during job interviews. "I have to get out of this country!" she cries in desperation. Apparently all of Korea is to blame for her unhappiness, including her shy younger half-brother and her soft-spoken ex-boyfriend.
ACT THREE The story of these two severely dysfunctional families is book-ended by the cute meeting of 20-year-old Kyung-Suk and free-spirited Chae-Hyun on a train ride, and later with the progress of their relationship. Kyung-Suk is a naive and sentimental young guy whose personality frequently clashes with that of his girlfriend. She freely loans money to acquaintances and forgets important dates with him to help out her neighbors, sacrificing time with him for people who he believes are just using her. In his eyes, her feelings for him appear to be very superficial, though she claims to love him very much. He tells her, "When I’m with you, I’m dying of loneliness." While their efforts to communicate with each other often misfire, both are very caring and open to love, in contrast to the families introduced in the first two acts.
Not surprisingly, "Family Ties" wasn’t a big commercial success on the home front. The theme borders on the controversial; the concept of an individual putting his own needs ahead of those of the family unit would not be a popular one in Korea, where images of the filial child sacrificing for the parents are common in both cinema and on television. It’s unsettling to witness a scene of a girl responding with "So what?" when informed her mother is going to die. Children are expected to care for their parents, regardless of how they’ve been injured by them.
The movie also consists of a cast of little-known actors, though all have continually chosen non-commercial, quality projects: Moon So-Ri of "Oasis" and "Bewitching Attraction"; and Uhm Tae-Woong of "Silmido" and the 2005 drama series "Rebirth"; veteran actress Ko Boo-Sim; Kong Hyo-Jin of "Heaven’s Soldiers" and TV serial "Sang Doo, Let’s Go to School"; and Bong Tae-Gyu of "When Romance Meets Destiny" and "Conduct Zero". Not to mention a great cameo performance from Ryu Seung-Beom ("Crying Fist", "Bloody Tie"), who demonstrates once again that he’s one of the finest young actors in Korea right now.
Second-time director Kim Tae-Young makes some interesting choices which distance viewers, but also draw them in. He uses camera work to illustrate the feelings of his characters, such as focusing on their hand movements as they fidget, or lingering on the panorama of a snow-covered lake after the characters have moved out of frame. To display the passing of time, Mu-Shin and Mira sit across from each other at the dinner table while the little girl plays in the yard beyond them. The foreground scene doesn’t really change, but the view of the yard and garden the girl plays in does. Breathtakingly beautiful.
He does make the viewer work, though, which is sometimes a strain. The root of Sun-Kyung’s estrangement from her mother is uncovered slowly, and some questions are never answered. The viewer is often made to feel like an onlooker in scenes that have no introduction and little history, such as when Sun-Kyung invites her ex-boyfriend over so she can return some of his things. We get no back story as to how they met or why exactly they broke up, but her hostility and his heartbroken expression are clearer than any exposition.*
While not necessarily a bad thing, this method of story-telling may leave those looking for light entertainment from a movie feeling frustrated. For those with a taste for something different, the experience is worth it, though be prepared to play "fill in the blanks" here and there.
The final act cleverly ties both stories together, and a positive message about non-traditional families emerges. All the characters have felt pain, heartbreak, communication problems, and disappointment, but together, creating their own family ties, they find the strength to survive, and yes, to even be happy.
*There are several flash-back scenes of the two together in the extras on the second disc, so the director made the choice to cut them. For the most part it works.
NOTE: This movie is NOT a comedy. I’ve seen lots of misleading promotion for Korean films in the past, but the producers really did "Family Ties" a major disservice. The movie poster (and thus the cover art for the DVD) make the movie look like a wacky comedy. Don’t be deceived.
** edited by Aziraphale