Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, the lovely Korean film “The Way Home” is just a simple fable done in an artless style, but it’s tremendously moving. Though the calculation shows, the picture never becomes cloying: it’s manipulative in the best sense, the rare tear-jerker than earns every sniffle–worthy of comparison to the Italian neorealist classics in which children played a prominent role (just think of “Shoeshine” and “The Bicycle Thief”), to the best of the recent Iranian pictures that focused on youngsters (“The White Balloon,” “Children of Heaven,” “The Color of Paradise”), and even to Rene Clement’s masterpiece “Forbidden Games” (1951). Impeccably written and directed by Lee Jung-hyang, this bittersweet parable of family values manages to be deeply affecting and frequently amusing without becoming either maudlin or suffocatingly cute. That’s a remarkable accomplishment.
The narrative couldn’t be more direct and unadorned. Sang-Woo (Yu Seung-ho), a seven-year old tyke from Seoul, is brought by his mother (Dong Hyo-heui) to the remote mountainside cabin of his aged grandmother (Kim Eul-bun). He’s to stay with the old woman while his harried mom gets back on her feet (she explains that she’s heavily in debt as a result of a failed business). Initially the two barely make contact. He’s a spoiled brat obsessed with his toys, video games and prepackaged foods and disgusted by the rustic environment. She’s a withered, bent-over mute whose efforts to engage the child meet with contemptuous dismissal. Gradually, however, her serenity in the face of his rudeness and endless patience in trying to meet his wants despite her extreme poverty pay dividends. By the time the boy departs with his mother at the close, a bond has grown between them and the separation proves difficult; plenty of purses will click open to retrieve handkerchiefs as the grandmother walks carefully uphill to her now-empty house.
There are a few other characters in the picture–a couple of local kids who attract Sang-Woo’s interest (and jealousy), an old shopwoman with whom Grandma trades, an ill neighbor, even a personable cow and dog–but it’s the relationship between the old woman and her grandson that makes the film, and the two leads give it amazing depth. Yu successfully avoids any hint of preciousness; abetted by the writing and direction, he comes across as a real youngster–self- absorbed, petty and mean-spirited in the main but ultimately capable of responding to repeated acts of adult kindness. Even more remarkable is Kim, a non-professional, whose wizened face silently conveys a lifetime of work and suffering and whose slow, halting gait mirrors the almost imperceptible progress of her winning over the child. The scenes between the two are beautifully composed and played, never forced or overstated, and the cinematography by Yun Hong-shik captures the gorgeous rustic settings vividly without romanticizing them.
One can discern the buttons being expertly pushed in “The Way Home,” but one winds up not caring about being manipulated: the picture remains an almost transcendent tale of the power of unconditional love.