Yoon Duk-soo twice found himself trying to outrun a rampaging communist army, but he was never a secret commando. He was an average Korean who just witnessed a lot of history from an uncomfortably close vantage point. With Yoon’s sweeping life story, director Youn JK pays tribute to his parents’ generation throughout “Ode to My Father.”
Yoon and his family were originally from Hungnam in the North, but they had to flee the Chinese forces that had broken through the Allied defenses. Somehow, 14,000 Koreans found refuge on the SS Meredith Victory, captained by Leonard LaRue, after the Merchant Marine freighter dumped all of its munitions cargo to accommodate them.
Yoon, his mother, his older sister, and their infant brother would make it. His father and the younger sister he was assigned to protect do not. It is not his fault, but Yoon will blame himself all his life and his passive-aggressive mother will let him.
The Meredith Victory’s evacuation is still considered the largest military humanitarian operation in history. Instead of the chaotic sequence depicted in the film, the actually loading process was reportedly quite orderly, lasting nearly a day.
Frankly, it seems particularly unfair to depict Capt. LaRue as a cold fish who reluctantly acquiesces to Korean pleas for deliverance, given the fact that he joined a Benedictine order after the war and was henceforth known as Brother Marinus.
Regardless, life marches on for Yoon. To support his brother’s studies and his sister’s irresponsibleness, the duly appointed head of household accepts work as a German Gastarbeiter coal miner. The work is as punishing as it sounds, but the pay was considerable for 1963 ROK. Fortunately for Yoon, West Germany was also recruiting Gastarbeiter nurses, like his future wife, Youngja.
To save the family’s Gukje market and pay for his entitled sister’s wedding, Yoon will pack his bags again, signing on as a civilian technician supporting the American forces in Vietnam.
Youn and screenwriter Park Soo-jin draw powerful parallels between the Hungnam evacuation and the chaos following the fall of Saigon, without belaboring their points or the audience’s patience. In fact, it is probably the strongest chapter of the necessarily episodic film. However, Yoon has at least one more Forrest Gump-ish date with destiny, as a participant in the landmark 1983 KBS broadcasts reuniting divided Korean families.
“Ode” is currently a massive Korean box-office hit, so you know it will not be afraid of a little sentimentality. Wisely, experienced character actor Oh Dal-su is on hand to sprinkle about a little vinegar whenever things get too saccharine. In fact, as Yoon’s best pal Dal-goo, he develops some convincingly down-to-earth buddy chemistry with Hwang Jeong-min.
Staten Island’s Kim Yunjin, recognizable from American television shows like “Lost” and “Mistresses,” also has some nice moments as Youngja, but her screen time is nowhere near equal to that of the central Yoon.
It is too bad the treatment of Capt. LaRue is most likely to annoy those who are most familiar with him as a historical figure. Otherwise, the resilient story of family and friendship, featuring a network television star, might have really resonated with American audiences, especially in military markets. That is a shame, because the work of Hwang and Oh give it real heart.
Recommended (with mild reservations) for loyal fans of the cast and Korean family dramas, “Ode to My Father” opens this Friday, Jan. 9, in New York at the AMC Bay Terrace.
‘Ode to My Father’
Director: Youn JK
Starring: Hwang Jeong-min, Kim Yunjin, Oh Dal-su
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Release date: Jan. 9
3 stars out of 5
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit www.jbspins.blogspot.com