Jibeuro (The Way Home)
Sometimes it's interesting to watch a movie about a place you'll probably never visit. South Korea may be considerably more accessible than its northern counterpart, but there are parts of the country that tourists are unlikely to go to. Jibeuro (The Way Home) is set in rural South Korea, specifically the village of Jeetongma in Choongbuk Province. It's a gentle and intensely atmospheric fable that draws you into the poor country village, and the little hut in which most of the action takes place.
The story is that of Sang-Woo, a horribly spoiled seven-year-old city boy, who is left by his flustered mother with his mute grandmother for two months. The latter lives in a tiny, ramshackle hut, and the little boy is disgusted with his new surroundings and his 'retarded' caretaker. So he takes out his frustrations on her, and she stoically puts up with his obnoxious behavior. Luckily, her persistent kindness works magic.
The location could be many places – it looks like rural Japan or even Malibu at times. The rolling hills are lush green, the fields yellow with long grass, and the roads dusty. Men travel by bicycle, children run away from crazed bulls down dirt tracks, and the elderly walk with sticks and hunched backs. The hut is basic – flimsy and wallpapered with what looks like newspaper. The village is quiet, with old signs littering the sidewalks. The nearest town is a bus ride away and features a small but bustling market. The buses are full of boisterous families and clucking chickens. I haven't been to Korea, but I imagine this is a very good reflection of the way of life away from Seoul.
The director Lee Jeong-hyang shot the movie entirely on location in the mountain village of Jeetongma (population: 8), and all of its residents appeared in the movie. Playing the grandmother was first-time actress, local resident Kim Eul-boon. As Jeong-hyang said in a 2002 interview, 'In finding the actor who played the grandmother, somehow I thought that once I found the location to shoot this movie, that the grandmother would be waiting there for me. It was like a miracle. When I decided on the village and went there, I saw her.'
She describes the grandmother as being like nature, a quiet, transformative force. '[Jeetongma] is a mountain village. All the houses are built with dirt and all the roads are old and curved, just like the life of the grandmother. The feeling I got from the land there resembled so much of the character of the grandmother.'
When you think about foreign countries, it's interesting how often you think of the iconic imagery – the Eiffel Towers and Statues of Liberty, the Big Bens and Red Squares. Watching movies like this one drops you right into the middle of nowhere and lets you absorb the reality of another world, one without tourist attractions. Jibuero tells a simple tale with great character and authenticity. You may not see a lot of South Korea, but you'll feel like you've got to known one small part (and its people) intimately. – Roshan McArthur