Lim Soon Rye, one of Korea’s most prominent female directors, returns with “South Bound”, the tale of an anti-establishment man who takes his family to live away from the prying eyes of the government on a small rural island. As with her popular “Forever the Moment”, the film is a character driven and humanistic affair, and was based upon a popular novel by author Okuda Hideo, previously filmed for the screen in Japan back in 2007. The film has a powerhouse male lead in Kim Yoon Seok, star of a variety of recent hits such as “The Thieves” and “The Chaser”, and a supporting cast that includes actress Oh Yeon Soo (“Iris 2”), award-winning actor Kim Sung Kyun (“Nameless Gangster”), and upcoming talent Baek Seung Hwan (“Silenced”).
Kim Yoon Seok plays Choi Hae Kab, a long-time political activist and documentary film maker, who spends most of his days kicking back against the authorities, still known to many as ‘Choi Guevara’ for his beliefs and protests. Though supported by his wife (Oh Yeon Soo), his behaviour causes nothing but trouble for his family, especially his son Na Ra (Baek Seung Hwan), who feels neglected and frequently gets into trouble with the other kids. One day, his old comrade Man Deok (Kim Sung Kyun) turns up and informs him that a sleazy congressman (Lee Do Kyeong, “Bloody Tie”) is planning to sell off their old island home Deul to property developers. Determined to put a stop to this, and tired of the police harassment of city life, Hae Kab heads back to Deul, dragging his family along with him.
Thankfully, “South Bound” turns out to be much more than the kind of wacky urban family running into trouble in the countryside comedy that its premise suggests. It’s a real shame that it didn’t strike more of a chord with Korean audiences, as Lim Soon Rye has done a very solid job of combining commercial cinema sensibilities with a brain and a purpose to both entertaining and thoughtful effect. The film certainly does have a very wide anti-establishment streak, played out through Hae Kab, though while it covers and delves into a number of different social issues, it never becomes a preachy rant, maintaining a fairly light tone throughout. As such, it’s far more accessible than most activist films, and balances some effective and generally amusing comedy with its politics, also touching on issues of traditional versus the modern in Korean society, as well as general themes of family and inter-generational clashes.
Though the plot does lose its way somewhat towards the end, Lim successfully holds the interest throughout, mainly due to some great character work and an affectionate, sympathetic approach. Hae Kab makes for a fascinating protagonist, grumpy, awkward and clearly a chore to live with, though at the same time warm and in many ways admirable, and this makes his struggles far more engaging than had the film tried to push him as a straightforward martyr type. The script pays as much attention to his relationship with his family as it does with his fist shaking at the authorities, and this pays considerable dividends, giving the film a believable emotional centre.
Kim Yoon Seok is on excellent form, and the film really belongs to him, alternately charismatic and fierce, showing again why he’s one of Korea’s very top acting talents. The rest of the cast are all similarly impressive, in particular young Baek Seung Hwan, and the way that the film’s father-son bond shifts and develops is both subtle and enjoyable.
There’s a lot to like about “South Bound”, and the film is another fine piece of work from Lim Soon Rye. It’s not the easiest thing to combine a serious message with comedy and realistic characters, though the film does a much better job than most, and it really deserves to have met with more commercial success than it did – hopefully it’ll find an appreciative audience on DVD.
Lim Soon Rye (director) / Choi Moon-seok-I, Lee Gye-byeok, Nah Hyeon (screenplay), Okuda Hideo (novel)
CAST: Kim Yoon-seok