Yasujiro Ozu's "Tokyo Story" is one of the most influential films of all time, and its impact could not be avoided in Korean cinema, with Lee Doo-yong using it as a basis for "The Oldest Son". However, Lee strayed far away from the classic, eventually creating a movie that is distinctively Korean.
An elderly couple moves to Seoul to live with their grown-up children, after their hometown is to be flooded with water for a new dam. The eldest son, Tae-yeong is a successful and quite busy employee at a computer company, and the man supposed to care of the three generations of the extended family: his parents, his brothers and sisters, and his wife and children. As the elderly couple becomes rather uncomfortable living in a tenement apartment, they move in with their youngest son, a college student who stays at a temporary house on a vacant lot, where Tae-yeong is building a permanent house for them. Tae-yeong also has to deal with the constant failures of his wife-beating, other brother, his wife's constant nagging for neglecting their family for the sake of his parents and brothers, and a transfer to Jeju Island as a result of a promotion that takes him away from his family. Eventually, he moves his parents to a block of flats, disgusted with the situation of the temporary house, and leaves his wife to take care of them and his failure brother in charge of building the house. Some moments of normality start to appear, but tragedy soon hits rather hard.
Lee Doo-yong directs one of the most realistic and meaningful melodramas ever to come out from Korea, with the number of entries in the genre being an eloquent testament to the quality of "The Oldest Son". In the narrative, Lee uses his characters as metaphors for the radical changes S. Korea was experiencing during the 80s. The parents represent the old, rural, agricultural class, which was set on rules, appearances and specific, societal "rankings" for each individual, and found it quite troubling to adjust to the rapid industrialization through technology the country met at the time. This aspect becomes quite obvious as we watch the father trying to introduce a flower bed to the temporary lot they live, which is surrounded by barbed wire, and the mother being frustrated by the many children her daughter gives birth to, and in general her anger at the way women conduct themselves in the city. The ending, however, and the failure of Tae-yeong to grant her last wish and to avoid her greatest fear seems to be a tombstone to everything the previous generation believed in, in a rather harsh goodbye that provides the most dramatic element in the film.
Tae-yeong represents the "middle ground" of the current (at the time) generation, whose members found themselves fighting between tradition and modernity, trying to uphold the "rules' of the past but also to adapt to the new ones, indicated by financial and technological advancement. As we watch his final decision regarding the wellbeing of his parents or his own family, the finale becomes even more dramatic, in essence indicating that new era will crash any attachments to the past in the worst way. Tae-yeong's portrait, both as a metaphor and as an actual character is the main focus of the narrative, as Lee presents an individual that initially seems impeccable, but is soon revealed to be rather imperfect, particularly since he keeps a mistress on the side. Kim Hee-ra is exceptional in the role, with him depicting a number of psychological statuses ranging from happiness and good-will to violent anger and utter despair with realism and artistry, with his performance anchoring the film.
The second most significant performance comes from Tae Hyun-sil who plays the mother, with her almost constant nagging and the inner sadness resulting from her failure to adapt being another of the central elements of the film.
Jeon Il-seong's cinematography also focuses on realism and metaphor, with the latter aspect finding its apogee in the way the apartment complex is depicted, with the camera looking upwards in a tactic that highlights the claustrophobia the settlement produces, particularly in the eyes of the elderly parents. Lee Kyeong-ja's editing induces the film with a relatively fast pace that works quite well in the narrative.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[Hancinema Film Review] "The Oldest Son" + Full Movie"
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