Of late, we’ve seen a lot of films attempt to trace the history of a nation through the story of one man and his family which ultimately becomes a metaphor for the that of the land itself. Many of these have come from China, which shares something of the turbulent history that has affected the Korean peninsula over the last hundred years. In Ode to My Father, director JK Youn has tried to pay tribute both to his own father and to all the fathers of modern Korea who underwent great difficulties and suffered immensely in the hope of building a better, happier, future for their own children.
Mostly we view events from the point of view of Duk-soo - an old man at the beginning of the film who has made a success of himself and is surrounded by a large, loving family, though he seems to retain a kind of unresolved sadness. When we travel back with him, he’s just a small boy fleeing his homeland with his parents and siblings. As the oldest, he’s put in charge of his sister only to have her cruelly snatched away from him during the final escape. This event colours the rest of Duk-soo’s life, as he carries with him both the tremendous guilt of having failed to protect his sister and of losing his father has he went back to look for her. The remaining family members gather together at the small imported goods shop belonging to an aunt, which itself becomes another motif of the film.
Growing into manhood, Duk-soo is now the man of the house with both his siblings and his mother to provide for. Making countless sacrifices which see him abandoning his own dreams and travelling abroad to seek better paid work - first in the coalmines of West Germany and later the warzone of Vietnam - Duk-soo puts his family before himself every single time. Working tirelessly, Duk-soo grows up but inside he’s forever the little boy on a boat watching his father drift away from him, desperately hoping he’ll somehow miraculously turn up at the shop with a smile and an improbable story.
This is a story of painful separations and the shockwaves they send through the rest of one’s life, and of all the lives throughout history. Having fled the Chinese and the communists in the North, Duk-soo and his family are excited about the prospect of being able to go home at the “end” of the war, though this is a war which is still not technically over, merely suspended by a truce and Duk-soo will never see his hometown again. Eventually, during the ‘80s, 30 years since Duk-soo was separated from his father and sister, a nationwide campaign is held to try and re-unite family members forced apart by the traumatic events of the 1950s. Entire squares in the city are covered with people desperately looking for each other wearing signs with their relatives' names and point of last sighting, clothing etc all in the hope of finally finding each other again. Needless to say, some of these people are luckier than others and there are tears of both joy and sadness.
Still, all in all, Duk-soo and South Korea made a success of themselves even if there’s a resulting ache from the great wound which has split the nation in two. Much of the story is universal - a father’s love for his family - but Ode to My Father will obviously speak loudest to Koreans who can identify more strongly with the historical context. Yoon has also injected some humorous incidents involving real-life Korean historical celebrities which may mystify international viewers even if they’re signposted well enough that one gets the gist of it anyway.
Unabashedly sentimental and oftentimes overblown, Ode to My Father nevertheless succeeds in tugging at the heartstrings in all the intended ways. A paean to the post war generation and all that they endured in building the modern Korea that their children could live in without fear or hunger, Ode to My Father is in the end far too sugary but also, it has to be said, affecting.
Ode to My Father was screened as the opening night gala of the 10th London Korean Film Festival on 2nd November 2015.