As a tear-jerking melodrama, South Korean movie “Way Back Home” is so transparent in its plot that I always knew every bright moment in the story would be soon followed by another punishing moment for its ill-fated heroine and her poor family. For instance, when things look better for them at one point, I checked my watch, and I predicted there would be another hard moment for them because there were still around 40 minutes left – and I was not wrong at all.
Its story is one of those nightmarish stories about nice, ordinary people unwittingly getting involved with crime and then being punished much more than they deserve. Jeong-yeon(Jeon Do-yeon) is a wife and mother who has been leading a plain but happy life with her husband and daughter, but her world is suddenly turned upside down thank to a big mistake of her husband Jong-bae(Ko Soo), who unwisely stood guarantee for one of his friends who loaned around 200 million won($ 180,000). After that friend commits suicide out of desperation, Jong-bae has to pay off the huge debt instead now, and the life of his family is tumbled down to the bottom as a result; they have to give up many things including their cozy home as well as their garage, and then they move to a shabbier place later.
They try to move on as much as they can while living far more poorly than before, but the circumstance becomes more difficult for them day by day as anger and resentment grow between them. They still have more debt to be paid even after they used all of Jeong-yeon’s savings, and their landlady keep pressuring on them due to their delayed rent payment.
In such a situation like that, a seemingly harmless offer from another friend of Jong-bae looks tempting to both of them. This guy has been doing a lucrative business of smuggling something expensive into South Korea, and he needs one more carrier to deliver his stuff right now. He assures to them that this illegal activity will not be much of a problem even if it is detected by the customs officials; even in the worst possible circumstance, carriers will just pay fine for their minor crime and then walk out of the airport with no serious problem.
It does not take much time for us and Jeong-yeon to see that this guy is not very trustworthy, but, after going through another moment of frustration with her husband, she decides to accept his offer, and, not so surprisingly, she dearly pays for her wrong decision. When she is arrested by the police at the Orly airport in France, it turns out what she attempted to smuggle are not gold ores but packages of cocaine, and, even though she cannot speak English or French, she gradually realizes her grim situation; she can be incarcerated at least for 10 years for getting involved with this crime even though she had absolutely no knowledge of the contents of her suitcase.
Fortunately, there is some hope for her, but she will not be released easily because of the strict legal procedures in France, and she feels more isolated as days go by in her cell. As soon as learning that his wife is being incarcerated in France indirectly because of him, Jong-bae frantically tries to get his wife sent back to South Korea, but he also finds himself against the wall as much as her. While there are several legal matters to be handled and resolved, the officials at the Korean embassy in Paris basically ignore her situation just because they are not interested in her case(they care more about the visiting politicians from their country, by the way), and the cops in South Korea are lazy in their investigation of the case even after Jong-bae desperately urges and pleads to them.
Compared to them, French law officials are fair and efficient, but their hands are tied unless they receive the legal documents to confirm Jeong-yeon’s innocence from South Korea. Time keeps going by with no trial, and, after several months, she is eventually transported to the prison in the Martinique Island in the eastern Caribbean sea. As she struggles to adapt to her new environment, the movie hands down to her many familiar elements from prison movies including a cellmate who slowly bonds with her despite language barrier and a cruel prison warden abusing and exploiting her prisoners. To be frank with you, I could not help but think of “Papillon”(1973) when Jeong-yeon inadvertently attempts escape during one scene in the jungle nearby.
The movie is a bit too long, and I sometime found myself becoming impatient mainly due to its predictable story line, but the director Bang Eun-jin, who has also worked as an actress in several notable South Korean films, handles her story with enough sincere feelings although the movie tries its melodrama too much at times to make our eyes teary. The feeling of confinement is palpable throughout the movie, and the movie also makes a good use of the locations in France and Dominican Republic to establish the unfamiliar environments surrounding Jeong-yeon. In case of the prison scenes in the Martinique Island, they actually shot them at a prison in Dominican Republic, and I was not surprised to learn later that they actually used real prisoners as extras.
As the heroine who keeps getting cornered and crushed by the injustices inflicted on her, Jeon Do-yeon, who is mostly known for her great performance in “Secret Sunshine”(2007) outside South Korea, supports the movie with effective melodramatic performance. While the movie gives her many weepy moments to be handled, Jeon Do-yeon plays her character as someone we can identify with from the beginning, and the movie is more effective when it lets Jeon to do more subtle things such as when Jeong-yeon gets an unexpected peaceful moment at the beach.
The movie was inspired by a real-life story, and, while there are certainly fictional elements here and there in the movie, I heard that it also took a long time for that unlucky woman to return to her dear family in South Korea as shown in the movie. In spite of many notable flaws including its rather cartoonish depiction of several despicable supporting characters functioning as the villains of the story, the movie mostly works thanks to Jeon Do-yeon’s good performance and its sincere approach, and I think I may deliver a mild judgment on the movie in this time.