The surprise smash-hit film The Way Home opened in South Korea on April 5th, 2002, and has earned over $20 million since its release. The film opened in New York and Los Angeles on November 15, 2002.
Written and directed by Lee Jeong-hyang, the film is about the unconditional love that grows between a young boy and his grandmother. Seven-year-old Sang Woo is left with his mute grandmother in a remote village while his mother looks for work. Born and raised in the city, Sang-Woo quickly comes into conflict with his old-fashioned grandmother and his new rural surroundings. But through his grandmother's boundless patience and devotion, he learns to embrace empathy, humility and the value of family.
With the unexpected box-office success of her second feature, Lee Jeong-hyang has now earned the title of Korea's most commercially successful woman director. Her debut film Art Museum by the Zoo featured star actress Shim Eun-ha, but The Way Home's sentimental story and first-time actors from rural backgrounds successfully won over South Korean audiences.
Early on in Lee's life she developed a passion for film and went on to be a member of the fourth graduating class of the Korean Academy of Film Arts. She has received great acclaim from viewers and critics alike and won Best New Director at the Grand Bell Film Awards, the Blue Dragon Film Awards, the YongPyung Film Awards, and the Choonsa Film Awards.
Asia Society spoke with Lee Jeong-hyang about making this very personal film that she has dedicated to all grandmothers.
Recently Korean films have been getting more international attention and acclaim. Do you feel the quality of Korean films has improved in recent years or has the international film industry finally taken notice of Korean filmmakers?
I think that Korean film is really getting better. Also, Korean audiences are not viewing movies as just a way to kill time. They look at our films with compassion and appreciation. So in reponse, people making films will try harder. It is not so much which came first, I think they worked off each other.
The Way Home did very well at the box office in Korea. A reviewer wrote that she was shocked to see how well this film performed since it contains no trace of commercialism, yet it managed to outperform both Hollywood blockbusters and star-studded local movies. What do you think has made your film appeal so widely to audiences in Korea?
Before I made this film, the people who were involved were all worried because it did not have any stars in it and also had a very low budget. These types of movies never make it in the box office. But this movie broke all of those rules and so people who are in the industry were really surprised.
I think that one of the reasons for its success might be that all of us have a grandmother. For those of us whose grandmother has passed away, the movie makes us feel remorse, regret, and longing for her. And for those whose grandmother is still living, we think to ourselves that we are going to treat her better from now on and be good to her. I think this has meaning for all of us. It is something that we all can experience. I think that is a reason why it did well with audiences.
You say that your own grandmother inspired this film. Can you describe your relationship with her?
My own maternal grandmother had only one child in her life, my mother. My grandfather had passed away earlier so my grandmother moved in with my family even before I was born. We lived together in my family's home until she passed away two years ago. I was her favorite one and she loved me the most. All my relatives and friends know that. I was the one who misbehaved the most with her, but I was also the nicest to her.
Did you talk to her about this film?
No, I didn't talked with her about the film. She passed away while I was looking for a producer so she died not knowing that this movie would be made.
Why did you choose to use first-time actors in The Way Home? You searched very hard in the countryside to find the right woman to play the grandmother. What drew you to Kim Eul-Boon?
I use non-professional actors not because I wanted to make a film like a documentary; that was not what I was thinking. Even when I was writing the script I knew that only people who have lived in such remote villages would be able to convey a certain feeling. It would be unavoidable that they would have never acted before.
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.
Why did you choose to make the character of the grandmother mute?
My main concept was that the grandmother is nature -- the power and strength of nature. Nature does not talk and so the grandmother also does not talk. Also, she represents the person who gives love without words, which can sometimes be larger and more powerful.
The film effectively captures the differences between rural and urban Korea. Through the relationship between the boy and his grandmother, the film highlights aspects of rural life that have been lost in the course of development. Why did you choose to shoot the film in the small village of Jeetongma? Was it difficult to work in such a remote area?
It came about so easily for me. There is a man who wrote a book on and specializes in remote villages in Korea. I gave him my script and asked him to recommend some sites. He personally felt that Jeetongma was the most suitable and indeed it was. I went to all the other places he initially recommended and Jeetongma was the last. I went there and I really liked it. It 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.
The villagers really liked us there. They have spent many years so lonely in the mountains. At the time we made the movie, there were eight people living there. Now it is six people in the village because two have passed away because of old age. So they were really happy to see us there and were cooperative and they all appeared in the movie. It made it a lot of fun for all of us.
When and why did you decide to pursue film?
When I was in junior high school I saw the movie Towering Inferno and I fell hard for Paul Newman. I got so much pleasure out of movies that I became a movie maniac. I thought about how I could return this happiness that I get from movies. So I thought by being a film director I could make good movies to return this pleasure. Ever since then my dream has never changed.
You have also done work in documentary film. After doing two major feature films, do you prefer doing narrative films? What are you working on next?
If I felt that there was a problem I could help set straight through film, then maybe there is a possibility I would do a documentary. But at this point I don't have any plans for that.
There is a third script that I wrote before my debut feature, but that script is not complete yet. But before anything at all, my motto is that once I am done with one film, I should take one year off to recover.
Interview conducted by Cindy Yoon of Asia Society, with a translator.