Hope for the future versus hope for vengence
There are very few movies that manage to emotionally unsettle my almost ballet-dancer-like, graceful poise. Hotaru No Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) was one such movie, and it was perhaps the most teary-eyed, brilliant animated film I’ve ever seen or reviewed. ‘So-Won’, is perhaps the second most heart wrenching movie I’ve watched. Ever. So much so – that I’ve taken the trouble of wasting an entire paragraph just to tell you why this review might not be all that sarcastic owing to the gravity of the emotion it has drawn from. Or maybe I’m just saying this cause my mom said it’s not polite to make fun of ordinary people (commonly referred to as “people who are oblivious to sarcasm”).
So, in light of my newfound sense of direction and decency, I will begin with something I don’t usually do – give you a single sentence outline about the plot. The premise is simple – a typically average family has to cope with the unprecedented tragic incident involving their 8-year-old daughter, and must choose between revenge and hope, while battling society’s stereotypes and guilt on the way to an impossible normalcy. (I never said the sentence would be short.)
Sound too complicated? Let me reconstruct the scene – step by step.
Picture an average family. Dad works in a factory, comes home late and generally cares more about watching the game on TV than talking to his wonderfully enthusiastic daughter about school. Oh and his daughter has a viciously evil friend Angela, who’s developed a reputation for showing off and getting extra stars on her report card because she suckers up to the teachers.
Mom, on the other more mature side of the parental gene pool, runs the family general store – fussing over her daughter’s hair, making sure she goes to school on time and generally acting like the big boss playa in the hood. She’s also perpetually annoyed with her husband (tell me something new) for not hanging with the family enough. Both Mom and Dad, kind of make enough to get by, everybody seems to love each other – and most importantly, nothing out of the ordinary happens.
Now, pause for a moment, reconstruct this scene in a regular apartment, and just picture this normalcy – this simple unadulterated normalcy – getting ripped to shreds.
Everything is fine and dandy when without warning, out of the blue, you learn that your daughter has been abducted on her way to school, brutally raped and left battling for her life.
And there’s a reason that wasn’t a spoiler. You see this incident occurs in the first quarter of the film, so obviously it’s not what the movie was about. The rest of the movie focusses on an impossible attempt by that family to return to normalcy. That very human need to move forward in those moments of regret and guilt, and battling tears in a pretend show of strength and honour.
And the movie somehow manages to show all that honest complexity with so much beauty and simplicity, you’re bound to shed tears.
And those tears will come without warning, repeatedly during different moments, and often for opposing reasons. Kind of like happiness and sadness locked in a melodic dance – one constantly urging the human in you to reach out while the other gently pushing you to look away. And before you know it – four grown ass monks, who have conquered mountains and sold Ferraris to achieve nirvana, are left defeated in a futile attempt to hold back tears of profound sadness.
And I never thought I’d say this about a movie, but there were moments of hyped melodrama cleverly placed to evoke the right emotion, and yet it felt strangely – “necessary” in a way. I mean I always thought Shawshank Redemption was the ultimate movie about hope. And while it is undoubtedly a brilliant movie – it pales in comparison to ‘So-Won’ as far as the idea of “hope” goes, in my not so humble opinion.
And it is impossible to explain why this movie is so genuinely relatable without giving credit to the superb actors in it.
Take for example the father (Kyung-gu Sol) – and his on-point lack of emotion, and nonchalance in the beginning of the movie. Think Ryan Gosling doing his world famous award-winning performance of a rock. Yeah, that kind of disinterest. And the way that blank face changes after the incident – one expression at a time – slowly morphing into a regretful pain that screams emotion. And it is beautifully heart wrenching to watch the love for his daughter squashing personal ambitions – and the imposing dam between the façade and the father beneath it, breaking free in a torrent of uncontrollable tears.
It’s not that other movies haven’t dwelled on the super cliché father daughter dynamic before – it’s just that I’ve never quite seen it done this way.
Then we move onto the mother (Ji-won Uhm) – who struggles with society and its pressures, attempting to empathise yet conceal her true emotions. She hates the world for putting her daughter in the limelight – but blames herself in equal measure for letting it happen. Kind of like women screaming with banners saying they should not be told what to wear by phony chauvinistic men and then ironically wearing exactly what they’re told in a super objectifying fashion magazine a moment later. So we end up with a mother who has to play the most challenging of contradictions. To be strong and weak in equal measure – steady in her ambition, yet shaky in its execution.
And I can’t even begin to describe how perfect the daughter (Lee-Re) was. Think about playing a happy kid, then a devastated one, then a confused one – and then think about underlying all this with the innocent mannerisms of a child. I mean I’ve always wondered about child actors –
How do you even begin to describe what they’re supposed to do – especially in a movie as brutal and hard hitting as this?
Do they even understand what they’re doing while they’re doing it – or are they performers deceived by the treats they’re to receive at the end of each scene, with their parents behind the camera urging them on while they act?
And yet all these angles fit in with each other like a jigsaw of a million pieces, each so diverse yet intertwined with each other. And will have you wondering out loud, just halfway through the movie – How the heck is the director managing to cram all this in one movie???
I’ve always marvelled at movies that can change my, often-unchangeable, perception on things, but this one treads on difficult terrain throughout the movie. Like scenes with fluffy full body mascots doing belly dances – scenes that would normally make me grab the closest hardest object I can find, and chuck it at the TV. Real hard. True story. In this movie though – even belly dancing fluffy toy moments are guaranteed to make you weak in the knees, and queasy in the stomach.
And that is the most outstanding feature of the way the movie plays out – the way it violently takes over your ability to control your emotions, all the while managing to do so in a manner that is truly, utterly confusing.
You’re sad that it happened, but you’re happy they’re moving on – but then you’re sad they’re failing at it, but you’re happy they’re trying. That see-saw between Revenge and Hope – between looking back at an unchangeable past that was, instead of looking ahead at a future that might be. And while some may scoff at its apparent unrealistic positivity, you cannot help but applaud the fearless attempt to make reality dwell on a hopeful future. Especially in a time when movies tend only to focus on the gruesome violence of reality, without dwelling too much on the aftermath. In fact, there’s even a name for this sort of “revenge-movie” segment – and to tackle that overpopulated genre in a manner so refreshing was brilliantly unorthodox.
So when it finally ends, whether in justifiable hate or willful ignorance, you’re left asking the same question the movie seems to be asking us at every step of the way.
Is ‘hope’ an achievable possibility, even in the face of an unforgettable past?
Or is it merely a thing of the movies? A practical impossibility, or an errand embarked upon only by the wishfully ignorant?
Guess you’ll have to watch this movie to make that call. But whatever side you pick, one thing is for certain – you’re going to be way more emotionally invested in this experience than you could have guessed.
And when it’s all over and you’ve run out of tissues, I can say without a shred of doubt –
You might cry, be confused, feel hopeless or lost – but you would have loved what you’d just seen.