Ode to My Father (dir. JK Yoon, South Korea, 2014) is a hauntingly beautiful film that celebrates the power of history, family, and friendship through the eyes of one man, Duk-soo (Hwang Jung-Min) from 1950 to the present. Duk-soo essentially becomes the embodiment of South Korea’s history and journey from the Korean War to modern capitalist democracy. The film begins with Duk-soo telling his wife in the present of his boyhood dream to be the captain steering a big ship, and explains that he never told her of this before because “ah, what’s the point?” This is particularly poignant because Duk-soo’s dreams have never been his own, and this film serves as a deeply moving fictional memoir and touching tribute to sacrifice, both Duk-soo’s father’s, and his own.
In a flashback, we are taken to Hungnam, North Korea in December 1950, where the child Duk-soo and his family are fleeing the invading Chinese army. During an attempt to get on a ‘big ship,’ Duk-soo’s sister is lost and his father leaves the family to attempt to find her. His father tells Duk-soo that should he not return, he will be head of the household and will need to take care of the family, clearly a reflection of Confucian values of hierarchical relationships and filial piety.
The remainder of the film brings us from that day in 1953 to the present, as Duk-soo lives the remainder of his life keeping that promise, from shining shoes on the streets of an impoverished Busan as a boy, to working in dangerous conditions as a migrant coal miner in West Germany, to serving as a technician in Saigon to the Vietnam War (where he will come full circle with the choice to save yet more war refugees by boat), all to support his family, send his younger brother to Seoul National University, and pay for his sister’s wedding.
Through it all, Duk-soo is accompanied by his boyhood friend Dal-gu (Oh Dal-su), demonstrating the power of friendship. He comes into contact with everyone from a young “Mr. Chung” of the burgeoning Hyundai Group to a fashion designer (André Kim) who visits his shop looking for fabric (both of whom were actual figures in South Korea’s revitalization). We also get to see the attempts at reconnecting family members lost during the war.
As a teacher, I would use this entire film in my class. Although I’m sure one of my students will argue it could be called “Owed to my Father” as Duk-soo selflessly carries out his promise, it is a beautiful, sometimes harrowing, sometimes breathtakingly sad film that does an incredible job of showing the scope and span of South Korean history since the Korean War. As this is done all through the vantage point of one character, students will be able to better connect with and relate to that history.
Note: there are a few moments of nudity, all male bare bottoms, both in a non-sexual setting (hospital/shower).