South Korean independent film “Tiny Light” is simple and earnest in its tentative approach to story and characters. While it slowly reveals the growing concern of its ordinary hero on a certain serious matter of his, the movie thankfully does not resort to blatant melodrama while phlegmatically sticking to its austere attitude, and we are quietly touched as observing what he tries to capture from several people around him.
The movie begins with its hero’s unexpected visit to his mother’s shabby residence. When Jin-moo (Kwak Jin-moo) enters his mother’s house, his mother warmly greets him while naturally asking him about how he has been, and then there also come his older sister and his young nephew later. As they all are having a dinner together in the house, the mood is brightened a bit, but it is pretty evident to us that they are not particularly close to each other although there is no anger or resentment among them.
The private moments among them are occasionally presented to us via the video clips being shot by Jin-moo, who incidentally brings a video camera for a personal purpose. It turns out later that he is soon going to have a serious brain surgery, and, because he is warned that he may suffer memory loss after the surgery, he wants to record his life and family as much as possible with his video camera.
Although things Jin-moo observes and records are not that significant on the surface, the movie slowly lets us immersed into his environment through its realistic mood and details. For instance, we notice those moldy wallpapers in his mother’s house, and that certainly tells us a lot about how much she has spent most of her life there.
And then we see Jin-moo meeting several other family members of his. After quitting his job, he has a dinner with his older brother, but they only come to find that there is not much to talk about between them, and this moment reminds me of my rather distant relationship with my younger brother. Besides our personality difference, I and my younger brother do not have much in common between us, and our conversations are usually pretty awkward just like the one between Jin-moo and his older brother. Quite drunk in the end, Jin-moo and his older brother eventually come to have some moment of brotherhood during a small humorous moment involved with an abandoned piece of furniture, and that moment is followed by another funny moment when Jin-moo asks his older brother to dance a bit in front of his video camera.
In case of his older sister, who has raised her young son since she divorced some years ago, her private conversation with Jin-moo during his visit to her residence reveals a bit about her plain life. While she once aspired to be a writer a long time ago, she is now usually occupied with supporting herself and her dear son, and she has been mostly content with how her life has been despite some disappointments.
Along with his uncle, Jin-moo later goes to a remote spot in the forest where his dead father was buried. Although he does not remember his father much, Jin-moo is eager to get more memories of his father from his family members, but they do not have many things to tell him, though his mother turns out to have some conflicted feelings toward her dead husband.
Meanwhile, the date of Jin-moo’s is approaching, but the movie wisely avoids emphasizing that too much to us except one moment implying how much Jin-moo’s mother has been worrying about her son’s medical condition. Although Jin-moo does not hide his upcoming surgery from his family at all, it is still an inconvenient fact among his family members, and we come to feel more awkwardness as reflecting more on the conversation scenes between him and his family members.
Nevertheless, the screenplay by director Cho Min-jae and his co-writer/lead actor Kwak Jin-moo, which is inspired by Cho’s real-life experiences, does not lose its small sense of humor while maintaining its low-key tone as usual. I like an unexpected moment of poignancy involved with a broken fluorescent light in the residence of Jin-moo’s mother, and then I was amused a bit by a trouble which Jin-moo and his family happen to face when they are going to bury the body of Jin-moo’s dead father somewhere else.
Cho also draws the good natural performances from Kawk and the other few main cast members. While Kwak humbly takes the center as required, Shin Mun-sung, Byun Joong-hee, Kim Hyun, Yoon Sung-won and Kawk Seong-moo also have each own moment to shine, and Byun is particularly good when her character shows a little more of herself in front of Jin-moo’s camera later in the story.
Overall, “Tiny Light” looks rather modest and insignificant on the surface, and I must confess that I occasionally became impatient during my viewing due to its slow and dry storytelling approach, but its seemingly plain moments grow on me as I write about what I observed and felt from the movie. Although I am not as enthusiastic about it as other local critics, but the movie is certainly one of the notable debut works of this year in South Korea, and I am now interested in what Cho will give us next.