Paramount Classics no doubt preferred to pick up The Way Home as an accessible, "safe" introduction to Korean film, rather than something more distinctive or challenging. Like such audience-friendly imports as Kolya or Central Station, The Way Home depicts a slowly thawing relationship between a cute kid and an elderly person. These films usually involve a curmudgeonly senior who learns to love, but The Way Home's antihero is an astonishingly nasty 7-year-old boy.
Sang-Woo (Seung-Ho Yoo) has no respect for his elders and an obsession with pop culture. The film begins with him and his mother taking various kinds of public transportation, and Sang-Woo's so intent on his Gameboy that he scarcely notices the spacious, spotless city train give way to a noisy, overcrowded minibus bounding along a dirt road.
Sang-Woo's father has abandoned his family, forcing his mother to find work in Seoul. In the meantime, the boy must live in the country with Grandmother (Eul-Boon Kim), who seems scarcely able to care for herself. The wizened woman, bent to almost literally a right angle, cannot speak or hear, and Sang-Woo shouts "Dummy" and "Retard" at her after his mother departs.
Country living, lacking indoor plumbing and electricity, is a life beyond Sang-Woo's conception. He gets out his Rollerblades, but there are no paved roads, so he rides in circles around Grandmother in her little hovel. Sang-Woo's not so obnoxious that we don't appreciate how hard his home life must have been until that point. But his presence seems like more of an affliction for the old woman than a treat.
At one point she asks him, via sign language, what he wants to eat, and he exclaims, "Pizza, hamburger, Kentucky chicken!" After great difficulties (which we don't realize until later on), she acquires a live chicken and cooks it for him. Yet when Sang-Woo sets eyes on the boiled bird, he only whines, "This isn't Kentucky chicken! This sucks!" The young actor reveals a striking repertoire for annoying tones of voice.
Writer-director Jeong-Hyang Lee gives her film such a quiet simplicity that it could easily be a silent movie. Several times she shows the mute woman's hands entering the frame and Sang-Woo's field of vision, an efficient way of showing how the pair begin to communicate.
Most of the production's cast are non-professionals: When cast as Grandmother, Eul-Boon Kim had not only never acted, she'd never seen a film before. With sunken mouth and eyes narrowed to slits, she comes across as a symbol of long-suffering patience and conveys great dignity in her simple hand gestures.
Eventually Sang-Woo grows to appreciate Grandmother, but the film doesn't belabor the positive sides of their relationship. When things between them improve, Lee's interest shifts to Sang-Woo's crush on a neighbor girl and his jealousy of another boy. It's as though the film needs to give Sang-Woo a new person to torment.
The Way Home keeps the sentiment in check and doesn't romanticize the hardships of rural life, offering no equivalent to the sun-drenched Amish barn-raising scene in Witness. Grandmother's life looks punishingly difficult, especially given how she fetches water every day under a yoke big enough to crucify someone on. The film does provide quirky recurring comedy with a "crazy cow" that apparently runs loose in the region, charging at children who don't clear the path.
Slight but heart-warming, The Way Home need only add a few scenes in praise of agrarian life to resemble an old socialist propaganda film, with Sang-Woo providing a prime example of the decadent effects of capitalism. Given North Korea's current aggressive posture, it probably doesn't hurt for South Korea to have a film on hand that would please Communists.