Once, long ago, Kang-sik (played by Cha Seung-won) committed a horrible crime. Ever since that day, he has lingered in prison, mostly dead on the inside, with no hope or expectation of mercy or forgiveness. Realizing Kang-sik is not a threat to anyone in this state, prison authorities grant Kang-sik a single day to go home. There he finds an old woman (played by Kim Ji-yeong) and a young student (played by Ryu Deok-hwan) who are supposed to be family yet feel, in reality, like hopeless distant strangers.
That sense of poetry is the dominant tone in "My Son". Seriously, I'm pretty sure this movie has more internal monologue than it does actual dialogue, because that's just the kind of person Kang-sik is now. He's so withdrawn from the real world, so completely separate from any understanding of his place in it, that it's little wonder prison authorities are so lax with him. The notion of Kang-sik misbehaving is completely incomprehensible. Were the man to try and escape, where would he go?
Kang-sik's story throughout "My Son" is one of finding peace in the world through relating to his son. What's funny is that Joon-seok, while having not committed any horrible crimes, appears to have lived life in a similar sort of malaise as what Kang-sik feels. Is this genetic moodiness? Or is it because living with the knowledge that your father is a murderer has its own kind of sad guilt, as if living life with such a legacy is something that needs to be justified?
Whatever the reasoning, father and son are able to connect to one another through sharing this sadness. A very stark example comes late in the film, where Kang-sik starts crying, showing true emotion for the first time, and it's easy to identify with Kang-sik's sense of empty misery. The scene in question also contains a questionable use of voiceover, wherein one character simply expresses how something important is happening yet he's not sure what.
In all fairness we in the viewer are in the same position. That, I think, is why writer/director Jang Jin falls back on the deadpan character narration so much. Kang-sik has to tell himself these gloomy facts of life so often precisely because any depth of feeling, any at all, must be explicitly exposited upon or else he feels doubt that it even happened. It's excellent acting on Cha Seung-won's part, always looking so repressed that if he were actually talking it would feel out of character.
But don't think of "My Son" as being a depressing movie. Far from it, the ability of Kang-sik to be able to take genuine emotion, to feel real joy and sadness through the course of a single day while lacking the power to express that sentiment, is very true to those little spots of hope that pop up during real depression. Kang-sik just needs to grasp something, anything to justify his own existence. That he does manage to find that in the end gives "My Son" a happy, if bittersweet ending.
Review by William Schwartz
Available on DVD from YESASIA
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "My Son" + DVD Giveaway"
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