Jeon Do Yeon, one of Korea’s most acclaimed and popular actresses takes on another interesting role in “Way Back Home”, a true story about a housewife who gets arrested in France for unknowingly smuggling drugs. The film also has a top female talent behind the camera in director Bang Eun Jin, whose career has seen her move from acting in the likes of Kim Ki Duk’s “Address Unknown” back in 2001 through to helming tough feminist revenge thriller “Princess Aurora” and Keigo Higashino adaptation “Perfect Number”. Jeon is no stranger to awards, notably having won Best Actress for her amazing work in Lee Chang Dong’s “Secret Sunshine” at Cannes in 2007, and the film was another critical as well as commercial hit for the actress, pulling in more accolades and prizes for her impressive turn.
Based on a real life incident from 2004, the film sees Jeon as Jung Yeon, a poor but contented housewife who lives with her loving husband Jong Bae (Ko Su, “The Front Line”) and young daughter Hye Rin (Kang Ji Woo). Their happiness is shattered after a friend of Jong Bae kills himself, leaving the family saddled with a massive debt that they have no hope of repaying, even after they sell their shop and home. Seeing no other way out, Jung Yeon agrees to be part of a shady scheme transporting gemstones to Europe, only to be arrested in the airport at Paris after it turns out she’s been tricked into carrying cocaine. Imprisoned without trial for months, she waits for assistance from the Korean consulate, though the incompetent officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs inexplicably refuse to help, leaving her without even a translator or any idea of what’s happening to her. Things get even worse when she is abruptly transferred to a hellhole prison on the Caribbean island of Martinique, while back at home Jong Bae frantically tries to track down the real criminal behind the drug plot.
Given her indie credentials and background in tough-edged and challenging cinema, Bang Eun Jin was a great choice for “Way Back Home”, managing to turn something that could easily have been a simple tearjerker into a film that at least partly shoots for a little substance. While there is melodrama here and some scenes towards the end could easily have been trimmed, the film for the most part is an engagingly gritty and grounded affair that offers not only a moving human interest story but a scathing look at the marginalisation of the poor and bureaucratic corruption and injustice in Korea.
The film is genuinely shocking when it comes to the latter, with Jung Yeon being utterly betrayed by the Korean consulate in Paris (in fairness, it should be noted that The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has claimed that the film is inaccurate in its depictions of events), who refuse to help in even the most basic way, being far more concerned with arranging dinners for guests, only visiting her in Martinique due to it offering them the chance for a tropical holiday. It’s hard not to be angered by this, or by the ways in which the police back in Korea prove similarly useless, fumbling the investigation and failing to follow up leads even when it’s obvious that Jung Yeon is far from being some kind of drug kingpin.
Bang displays an anti-authoritarian streak a mile wide, championing everyday people and the liberal press, and even for those who don’t necessarily agree with the views espoused here, the film wins points for its social conscience and for actually having something to say. At the same time, Bang is careful never to present Jung Yeon as an innocent or a martyr, much of the fault here clearly being hers, as though her need for money was dire, the jewel smuggling scheme itself was illegal and high risk. During the first half of the film she’s presented as being essentially helpless, though thankfully, if not surprisingly, she does gradually seize back a measure of control over her situation despite the language difficulties and harsh conditions.
Impressively, the film was actually shot in a real woman’s prison in the Dominican Republic, apparently using real guards and prisoners as extras, giving it an all-important shot of realism. Jeon Do Yeon is superb in the lead, and it’s unquestionably her film, her performance adding depth and believability to Jung Yeon, and really pulling the viewer into her plight. This helps in no small part to distract from some of the final act emotional excesses of the script, and ensure that even when the film gets a little manipulative in its quest for tears, it’s never too cheap or offensive.
Bang keeps the pacing tight, and even as a true story with a known outcome, the film is tense throughout its fairly long running time. The narrative is intelligently structured, jumping between events in prison and back in Korea, with Jong Bae’s hunt for the real drug smuggler and fight for justice being equally gripping. This having been said, Bang does drop the ball in some respects, primarily in the way that in its search for people to blame, the film goes a touch over the top at times, with the consulate officials occasionally being so amazingly wicked that they transform into evil, villainous caricatures. Some of the prison scenes and characters similarly fall back on clichés and hysterical nefariousness, most notably the wicked warden, an almost cartoonish sadist lesbian monster who ticks every box on the exploitation cinema list.
Thanks to the efforts of Bang Eun Jin and especially Jeon Do Yeon, such lapses aren’t anything worse than distractions, and though imperfect, “Way Back Home” is a moving and provocative piece of human drama. Whether or not certain aspects of the story have been exaggerated is to an extent beside the point, and the film is all the more effective for its obvious passion and willingness to take a long hard look at Korean society.
Eun-jin Pang (director)
CAST: Jeon Do-yeon