“The Road” sees the return of acclaimed Korean director Bae Chang Ho, who in the 1980s was responsible for a number of critical and commercial hits such as “Whale Hunting” and “Deep Blue Night”. Although he has been in the cinematic wilderness for some time, with his lasting outing being the 2001 mystery “The Last Witness”, the Korean film industry arguably needs now more than ever directors of his ilk, who concentrate on telling honest, humanistic stories of everyday people, rather than simply churning out melodramas or gangster films. Indeed, “The Road” is the perfect antidote for viewers tired of the country’s increasingly generic output of recent years, being a quiet, low key tale of considerable emotional richness based around the director’s philosophical musings on life, fate and forgiveness.
The film has a fairly simple set up, following a travelling blacksmith called Tae Seok (played by the director himself, who has actually featured in quite a few films, including Lee Myung Se’s “Gagman”, which he also co-scripted), who encounters a young woman travelling to her father’s funeral. Their meeting causes him to recall his past, in particular the betrayal he suffered at the hands of his supposed best friend that cost him his livelihood and wife. As the two continue on their journeys, their paths become entwined, forcing Tae Seok to confront and re-evaluate the bitterness which he has held in his heart for so many years.
With the director playing the lead role as well as having written the script, “The Road” is obviously a very personal film, and it certainly comes across as such, being an intimate, heartfelt examination of a man’s life which focuses mainly on themes of acceptance and forgiveness. What is perhaps most impressive is the way that Bae conveys a great wealth of emotion without ever making anything too explicit or obvious, relying to a large extent on characters’ facial expressions and body language rather than dialogue to convey aspects of the story.
Shying away from any kind of melodrama, the film depicts Tae Seok with the utmost honesty, showing his faults as well as merits, bringing him to believable life in a way which makes him far more than a simple mouthpiece for the director’s own thoughts. Similarly, the story never patronises the viewer and avoids passing judgement or offering easy answers to the dramatic events at its core, adding a real sense of maturity and considered depth to the proceedings.
The film benefits from a well thought out narrative structure, with the scenes set in the past and present complimenting each other perfectly, and gradually revealing their secrets as they quietly converge. Although there are a couple of twists in the tale, they are played out simply and without fuss, and as such they only add to the film’s naturalistic feel rather than disturbing its contemplations through forced dramatics. This is not to say that the film is without any kind of tension, rather that the viewer is pulled into the story gradually and without any kind of artifice, something which actually results in it being all the more engrossing.
Visually, the film is impressive throughout, with Bae making great use of the rural scenery, though without overplaying his hand, bestowing it with a silent, often bleak beauty. The changing seasons act as an effective, if rather obvious metaphor for the cycles of life, and provide a fitting method of underlining the differences between the warm green of the past and the cold ice of the present. As expected, the film does move along at a fairly slow pace, though this matches its rhythmic, unhurried feel, and appropriately reflects Tae Seok’s deliberate, unending journey. Wisely, the running time is kept to a lean ninety minutes, and the film never outstays its welcome, covering its narrative and themes with a pleasing lack of clutter or excess.
As a result, “The Road” is a film far removed from most other recent Korean offerings, being a genuine and unforced piece of character based drama which shows an admirable sense of economy without sacrificing emotional depth or cinematic appeal. A simple yet thoughtful tale told well and with great compassion, it marks a real return to form for one of the country’s great directors, whose career will hopefully see him continue to craft this kind of wonderfully human film.
Chang-ho Bae (director) / Chang-ho Bae (screenplay)
CAST: Chang-ho Bae