Gwi-im (played by Lee Ok-hee) is an elderly Korean woman living in China. Why she's living in China soon becomes all too clear- during the second Sino-Japanese War Gwi-im was forced from her hometown to serve as a comfort woman. While she did eventually manage to escape from the camp, ultimately, there simply wasn't any way for her to get back home. Of course, a lot has changed since the war ended. Hence why this story is being told, to unravel the general aftermath of the war.
Gwi-im's story is a compelling one. Flashbacks to the camp present a vivid nightmare. Director Choo Sang-rok wisely eschews the visual element here (it's not like Gwi-im knew the faces of any of the soldiers) and Lee Yool-I gives an excellent performance as the younger Gwi-im. She was a normal woman of her era, and the few successful efforts Gwi-im makes at fighting the system are presented as acts of desperation rather than heroism. This goes a long way to humanizing her efforts as a victim without disenfranchising her agency.
But midway through the movie Gwi-im's story is almost totally dropped in favor of the tale of her granddaughter, Hyang-ok (played by Jo An). Hyang-ok's story isn't a bad one- it's average melodrama. But the very tangential relation to Gwi-im does a lot to drag the narrative down, since the comfort woman angle is the main interesting hook, and Gwi-im's story isn't even finished yet. Her final flashback is the only one that takes place after the war's end, and apparently the several decades after that we're just supposed to use our imagination.
Outside of the core cast, the performances are somewhat lacking. This is mainly because most of the characters don't actually have that much to do. A pair of researchers are severely underutilized in exploring the comfort woman angle. I realized far too late that in another character's pivotal scene he was probably supposed to be drunk, given how completely irrational his dialogue was. This is really more the fault of the direction than anything else.
As another example, take the love story that ends up being the central element of the film's emotional catharsis. In the first place the whole storyline comes off rather cheaply in the context of the comfort woman issues. But more problematic is the fact that the romance simply isn't sold that convincingly. The whole "Tuning Fork" thing is cute, but it seems like insufficient motive for Hyang-ok to apparently abandon her career aspirations of being a translator.
Still, there's lots of good stuff in here. The tragic ambience is palpable- frequently the explanations and resolutions behind tragic events end up being less heartbreaking than we were expecting. But they're still heartbreaking enough to provide a sad kind of realization of how history is basically inescapable, even if Gwi-im has figured out how to deal with it. In the end, though, "Tuning Fork" can't overcome its own limitations as a dual narrative. I recommend watching until the last flashback and just leaving it at that.
Review by William Schwartz
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Tuning Fork""
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