South Korea's path from postwar poverty to modern wealth is a rags-to-riches tale well suited to cinema, and it's intimately presented through one family in "Ode to My Father," the country's latest box office smash.
Amid its success, "Ode" has sparked criticism from some in South Korea who argue that in attempting to honor the hard work of the postwar generation, the film glosses over the human costs of the country's speedy development.
Korea was decimated by the 1950-53 civil war, in which more than a million people died. Over the next several decades, South Koreans built one of the world's 15 largest economies from the rubble. The speed and extent of the development were exceptional, with South Korea rising from being a recipient of foreign aid to a donor.
This story is at the heart of "Ode", which opens in present-day Busan, South Korea's second-largest city, where the main character, Duk-soo (Hwang Jeong-min), is an ailing grandfather.
It flashes back to Duk-soo's early childhood, when he loses his younger sister and father in a rush to flee south at the outset of the Korean War. In his father's absence, Duk-soo becomes de facto head of the family, the beginning of a lifelong sense of responsibility to provide for his loved ones.
Distributed by South Korean giant CJ Entertainment, "Ode" opened Dec. 17 and took in $11 million in its first weekend. In just two weeks it became South Korea's sixth highest-grossing movie of 2014; as of Jan. 27, it had brought in more than $87.5 million at the box office. As of Jan. 25, "Ode" had grossed more than $1.5 million, playing on 38 screens in the U.S., high numbers for a Korean film.
"Ode" follows South Korea's biggest film of last year, "The Admiral: Roaring Currents" (directed by Kim Han-min), another historical drama. "Roaring Currents" grossed more than $130 million at the domestic box office, nearly double the next closest film, with a swashbuckling tale of a 16th century Korean naval victory over Japan.
"Ode" is playing in Los Angeles and in major markets across North America. American viewers might find some of "Ode's" scenes a bit sappy or awkward, with characters who don't always come across as authentic. For example, elderly Duk-soo throws a number of tantrums that seem like overstated caricatures of a cranky Korean grandfather.
For director JK Youn, best known for the 2009 disaster flick "Tidal Wave," the film is a literal ode to his father, who passed away when the director was in college. "I never had the chance to thank him for how hard he worked to provide for our family, so I've always wanted to make a film to honor him," Youn said at his Seoul office.
Throughout the film, Duk-soo spends his life toiling to earn money for his mother and younger siblings. He takes dirty and dangerous jobs in a German mine in the 1960s and in war-era Vietnam. "Ode" has a sentimental flavor that has reminded some viewers of "Forrest Gump," with straightforward filmmaking that seems deliberately emotive.
Youn complains that South Korean youths aren't properly educated about their country's history and all the work that went into building the national economy and infrastructure. "Nowadays young people aren't aware of just how poor this country was and how much older people sacrificed for our development," Youn said.
The most tear-jerking scenes in "Ode" center on Duk-soo's search for the sister he lost during the war. He joins countless other South Koreans separated from their loved ones who participated in a program on KBS, a major national broadcaster, where people were given the chance to state on air the names and details of their lost relatives, with the hope that those they lost were living elsewhere in the country and would see them on TV. An estimated 1.2 million Koreans died in the war, and an unknown number were displaced. More than 36,000 U.S. soldiers also died in the conflict.
The scenes are lent added emotional weight by the use of real footage from the KBS program, a marathon broadcast that riveted the nation over summer 1983. Live on air, relatives questioned each other on details of their origins and families to determine if they were related. Many tearful reunions took place.
"When that was going on, I watched it on TV and cried every day. Seeing the movie really brought back all those emotions," said Baek Ji-min, 42, a teacher in Seoul.
In addition to tugging at moviegoers' heartstrings, "Ode" has tapped into an often antagonistic discussion over how South Korea's history should be interpreted, whether as a triumph or the outcome of brutal violation of human rights. The film has been accused by those on the political left of being a whitewashed version of history and going easy on the governments that ruled, generally with iron fists. "Ode" makes no mention of human rights abuses by military governments, nor of the bloody student protests of the late 1980s, both still somewhat touchy subjects.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye has said that "Ode" illustrates the diligent struggle that went into building the country and embodies the South Korean national anthem's exhortation to "love the country, whether in suffering or joy." However, Park admitted to not having seen the film, only reading about it in a newspaper.
Lee Taek-kwang, a professor at Kyunghee University in Seoul, told the Kyunghyang newspaper that "Ode" reflects the conservative ideology that for many years exhorted South Koreans to forego individual rights in the name of national development. Referring to one scene in "Ode" where Duk-soo shuns a discussion with his wife to stand at attention for the national anthem, Lee told the Kyunghyang that "Ode" "effectively endorses the idea that the state can exploit its people."
Youn says he had no political agenda in making the film and is dismayed at the polarized discussion that has ensued. "I believe that our modern history is something to be proud of," he said.