South Korean film “I Can Speak” is more serious than its trailer suggests. When I watched the trailer, I thought it was merely another silly comedy film, but then I heard that it is about a certain serious historical subject which is still reverent at present, and I am happy to report that the movie is better than I initially expected. Although it is sometimes clumsy especially during its melodramatic second half, the movie mostly works thanks to the engaging interactions between its two lead performers, and it surely earns its laughs and tears even though we can clearly see through its manipulative aspects.
During the opening scene, we meet Park Min-jae (Lee Je-hoon), a young public servant who is recently transferred to one district office in Seoul. When he begins the first day at his workplace, everything looks fine as he and others ready themselves for work, but then there comes someone who has been feared by his co-workers for many years. The person in question is an old lady named Na Ok-boon (Nah Moon-hee), and she has been quite notorious in her neighborhood for routinely filing civil appeals for various things. Her latest civil appeal is involved with a suspicious guy who often purposefully damages an old building in her neighborhood, and she suspects that this is connected with a local construction company which wants to redevelop the area surrounding that building as soon as possible.
As nobody else in the district office wants to get involved with Ok-boon, Min-jae decides to handle her latest civil appeal by himself, and he soon comes to see why his co-workers call her ‘troll granny’. After they happen to come across each other at a private English academy, Ok-boon persistently requests Min-jae to teach her English in private, and he eventually surrenders with one condition; she must pass his test first, and then he will teach her.
Of course, Min-jae intends to block her request once for all, and the movie gives a small amusing moment when Min-jae demands Ok-boon to memorize 100 words which, in my inconsequential opinion, are rather difficult for beginners. For example, he deliberately chooses sophisticated words like ‘encyclopedia’ or ‘conspiracy’, and that took me back to those good old days when I eagerly absorbed many difficult English words for enriching my vocabulary.
It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Min-jae eventually changes his mind as he comes to see Ok-boon’s more gentle and likable side. While she is indeed an annoying busybody to many people around her, Ok-boon really cares about her neighborhood and neighbors, and that aspect is apparent when she confronts a group of thugs cornering one of her neighbors – or when she shows considerable kindness to Min-jae’s teenager brother who has lived with Min-jae since their parents died some years ago.
Around its midpoint, the movie takes an expected turn after Min-jae and Ok-boon become closer to each other than before, but then it takes another narrative turn as Ok-boon’s hidden past is fully revealed to Min-jae and others. I will not go into details here, but I can tell you instead that Ok-boon’s desire to learn English turns out to be based on a personal reason involved with her old friend Jeong-sim (Son Sook). As shown from one flashback scene later in the movie, she and Jeong-sim have shared a terrible past which still hurts them a lot, and that reminded me of how many Korean women like them had to hide their pain and shame for many years before they recently came to open their mouth.
After going through a series of melodramatic moments, the movie culminates to an obligatory dramatic moment for Ok-boon, and I must point out that this moment is clichéd and heavy-handed at times. In case of two certain minor supporting characters appearing during that moment, I understand that they simply exist for emphasizing what is at stake for Ok-boon and many other women she represents, but they look so broadly despicable that you will be surprised to see that they do not have any mustache to twirl.
Nevertheless, the movie is not entirely without emotional appeal, and that is mainly because of Nah Moon-hee’s likable performance. As grabbing our attention right from her first scene, Nah fills her character with a considerable amount of life force, and we come to like and understand Ok-boon while accepting her brash, colorful personality. Deftly handling many humorous scenes during the first half of the film, Nah also brings genuine sadness to more serious scenes during the second half, and she surely holds her ground well during the aforementioned dramatic moment.
On the opposite, Lee Je-hoon functions as a humble but effective counterpart to Nah’s showier acting. While stepping aside for his co-star from time to time, Lee ably captures the dry humor in his character’s no-nonsense attitude, and he is also believable as his character comes to care about Ok-boon more than expected. In case of the supporting performers in the movie, Park Chul-min, Yum Hye-ran, and Lee Sang-hee are fine in their respective roles, and Son Sook is poignant in her few scenes with Nah. As they talk with each other, we can instantly sense a long history between their characters, and we are not so surprised when Ok-boon later makes a certain decision without any hesitation.
“I Can Speak” is directed by Kim Hyun-seok, who previously made “Y.M.C.A. Baseball Team” (2003), “Scout” (2007), and “Cyrano Agency” (2010). Compared to these well-made comedy drama films, the movie is less satisfying in terms of story and characters, but its good elements are still strong enough to compensate for its notable flaws, and I sincerely hope that the movie will draw more public attention to its subject.