“My Son” sees the return of the ever versatile Korean director Jang Jin, previously noted for genre blending films such as “Guns and Talks” and “Righteous Ties”. This time he turns his attentions to family drama, a well-worn and overly familiar form desperately in need of a fresh take.
The film follows Lee Gang Sik (Cha Seung Won, previously in the director’s quirky “Murder, Take One”), a man sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, who after fifteen years of good behaviour is awarded the chance to be released for a day to see his son. The day comes, and along with a prison officer he makes the journey and finally comes face to face with the lad (played by actor Ryu Deok Hwan, recently lauded for his performance in “Like a Virgin”), who is now eighteen and understandably confused about his feelings for his absent criminal father. With only a day to get to know each other again, the question remains as to whether this will be time enough to open their hearts and for Gang Sik make up for the mistakes of the past.
Crucially, the relationship at the heart of the film works well, and the characters slowly warm to each other in convincing fashion. For the most part the drama makes for fairly tense viewing, with the father and son unsure of how to act around each other, and with time quickly slipping away. Indeed, their nervousness is all too palpable, in particular during the earlier stages of the film which are filled with uncomfortable moments. Both protagonists are well written and believable characters, especially Gang Sik, a quiet, earnest man who is difficult to link with his brutal crimes, and who essentially carries the film on his not too steady shoulders. What doesn’t work quite so well is a voice over device in which the characters reveal their inner thoughts, occasionally even addressing the camera directly. This is at times a little jarring, and mostly only serves to further underline already obvious sorrows and woes, though it does make for a few moments of vaguely poetic insight as the film progresses. It goes without saying that things get very melodramatic before the end, though this in itself is not really a criticism, and indeed anyone not expecting tears to flow probably has no business watching a film about an emotional father-son reunion in the first place.
As usual, director Jang takes a quirky approach to the subject matter, and although he doesn’t really attempt to subvert the conventions of the genre with the same degree of innovation shown in past works, he does at least shake things up a little. The film does have an odd sense of humour throughout, with quite a few laughs being wrung out of the awkwardness of the situation and from Gang Sik’s efforts to fit in. There are also a number of bizarre fantasy scenes involving fish and a CGI flock of talking migrating ducks who turn up from time to time as if having strayed in from a completely different film. These offbeat touches really give the proceedings a lift and help things from ever becoming too gloomy or dull. It’s worth noting that Jang does turn things on their head somewhat during the final act with a plot twist that comes in from out of nowhere. However, although a little crazy it doesn’t really change the basic emotional and thematic ground on which the film has been built and again serves nicely to add a certain originality.
It also helps that the film is very well made, with Jang calming down his style to fit the mood, allowing things to progress in a thoughtful manner and working in a number of carefully framed shots which subtly bring out the characters’ turmoil. This gives the film a quiet though observant air, and a feeling of genuine intimacy often lacking in similar efforts.
As a result, “My Son” is a film which never really puts a foot wrong, and which should certainly be enjoyed by all fans of the form, or anyone looking for a slice of emotional human drama. Although perhaps a little manipulative in places, the film wears its heart on its sleeve and benefits considerably from the best efforts of the talented and always interesting Jang.
Jang Jin (director) / Jang Jin (screenplay)
CAST: Cha Seung-won, Ryoo Deok-hwan, Kim Ji-yeong, Lee Sang-hoon