Director: Kim Tae-yong
Screenplay: Kim Tae-yong, Sung Ki-yeong
Cinematography: Jo Yeong-gyu
Cast: Moon So-ri, Kong Hyo-jin, Bong Tae-gyu, Uhm Tae-woong, Go Doo Shim, Kim Hye-ok, Jung Yoo Mi
Trailer: on YouTube (not subtitled)
Runtime: 113 min
Seen at one of the bimonthly Korean Film Night screenings at the KCCUK on 12 September 2011, followed by a Q&A with director Kim Tae-yong. (Note for Londoners: the film is available at KCCUK’s library.)
Three stories are told in Family Ties (original title 가족의 탄생/Gajokeui tansaeng, literally Birth of a Family). They are set in different moments in time but are connected, although this does not become apparent until the very end of the film – it is even something that can (almost) be missed as character-aging, perhaps unsurprisingly for a Korean production, is not the film’s strongest suit.
Family Ties opens with a scene of two young people (played by Jung Yoo Mi and Bong Tae-gyu) seated next to each other on a train. The ease of their conversation suggests that they are a couple, but they are in fact strangers.* The scene soon – and somewhat abruptly – switches to the first storyline of the film.
Mi-ra (Moon So-ri), a young, dutiful girl, lives in the house that her family has left her, when her older brother Hyung-chul (Uhm Tae-woong), an ex-con, suddenly turns up for the first time in years. But there is a further surprise in store: he has brought his new wife, Mu-shin (Go Doo-shim), who is noticeably older. Mi-ra is taken aback by this, but does not voice her shock initially. Bigger problems arise soon. Hyung-chul tries to guilt-trip his sister into lending him money to open a business but Mi-ra knows her brother only too well and refuses to hand over her savings. When on top of this a little girl, Chae-hyun, appears at the gate, claiming she has been sent to live there by her father – Mu-shin’s ex-husband – Mi-ra is unwilling to put up with the situation any longer.
Set around the same time as storyline 1, Sun-kyung (Kong Hyo-jin) has a deeply troubled relationship with her mother (Kim Hye-ok) and, as a result, also cares little for her much younger half-brother Gyeong-seok. She dreams of escaping her misery and family woes by going abroad, a dream that she pursues persistently but that is eventually shattered when her mother becomes seriously ill.
The final story returns the viewers to the youngsters on the train, who now are in a relationship that is, however, often troubled. I won’t say more than this to avoid spoilers – and because piecing the different story lines together is an integral part of the film’s viewing experience.
In each segment of Family Ties Kim Tae-yong presents us with characters that can be frustrating to watch. They are flawed, troubled individuals that behave in selfish ways to the point of irritation. Such people of course exist in real life, but we are overly familiar with them from Korean films and TV, where there is often such a concentration of these characters to a degree that exceeds what is realistic, also in part because the other individuals around them generally show little, if any resistance. Is that the case here? I could not quite escape the feeling, but by having three stories in one film, there was less time available to dig deeper into each character and give us a better insight into their psyche.
Better than character development is the film’s imagery. When Kim Tae-yong captures life’s more mundane moments purely on a visual level, we are served with scenes that make Family Ties a film to be cherished: the two women, Mi-ra and Mu-shin, resigned to whatever life serves them with, sit at the table eating, the door to the courtyard open. There, Chae-hyun, the child that is related to neither of one of them, is playfully skipping about as first a day, then days, pass with the changing colours of the sky in the background.
On the whole the watching experience of Family Ties can feel rather fragmented. Because the three storylines develop independent of one another, they leave a sense of incompleteness, something that is only remedied when the thread that connects them is revealed at the end. People’s lives are joined and missing puzzle pieces are inserted, allowing the film to achieve a satisfying ending. We finally understand – and can therefore sympathise more easily – with the quirks of some characters, now that we know the journey they have had in life.
Q&A with Kim Tae-yong (director)
Kim Tae-yong is a relatively new film director. His films include the horror movie 여고괴담 두번째 이야기 / 여고괴담 2 (Yeogo go edam II/Memento Mori, 1999), the documentary 온 더 로드, 투 (On Deo Ro-deu, Too/ On the Road, Two, 2005), 가족의 탄생 (Gajokeui tansaeng/Family Ties, 2006) and 만추 (Man chu/Late Autumn, 2010). He has also taken the newly restored 정준의 십자로 (Cheongchun-ui Sipjaro/Crossroads of Youth, 1934) – Korean’s oldest silent film – on the road, screening it with live-narration and musical accompaniment at events such as the 2011 Mayor’s Thames Festival in London.
As the screening was quite a while ago, I do not recall most questions of the Q&A. One question Kim Tae-yong was asked was what he intends with his films. He replied that he wants to make films that make people do things, that after watching a film like Family Ties, viewers pick up their phone and call an ex-boyfriend that they haven’t talked to in years, or reach out to their mother – that they just do something. Another audience member inquired about the meaning of the scene during the credits, a scene which shows all main characters from the different sections of the film together. Not surprisingly, Kim Tae-yong responded “None,” but that he filmed it simply because he wanted to. For my part, I rather enjoy these kinds of artistic liberties – they are special gifts given to the viewer, particularly those who stay in the cinema until the very end of the credits. It is certainly a wonderfully shot scene, and its impossibility adds to this.
Two of Kim Tae-yong’s films, 여고괴담 두번째 이야기 / 여고괴담 2 (Yeogo go edam II/Memento Mori) and 만추 (Man chu/Late Autumn), will be shown as part of the London Korean Film Festival, which starts November 3. Tickets for Late Autumn have now sold out, but I will be reviewing the film here.
*This may be different in the original version of the film, depending on the politeness level used in the conversation. Unlike Korean, English is much more limited in its ability to convey the relationship between speakers.