South Korean independent film “Way Back Home” is a quiet and sensitive drama which speaks volume in many wordless moments. Calmly observing how its ordinary heroine’s daily life is shaken by the return of one terrible incident in her past, the movie subtly and tentatively depicts her resulting emotional struggle beneath the surface, and we eventually come to understand and empathize more with her troubled state of mind as she slowly steps forward to the possibility of hope and healing.
During the opening part, we get to know the current status of Jeong-won (Han Woo-yun) and her dear husband Sang-woo (Jun Suk-ho). Several years ago, they met each other via her uncle running a carpentry shop where he works, and it is clear to us that they have lived pretty well together as we watch them preparing to move into a house where Sang-woo’s parents once lived. They still feel like newlyweds although it has been two years since they married, and Jeong-won’s uncle and aunt, who took care of her after she left her rural hometown, are certainly pleased to see their niece having a fairly good and happy married life.
And then there comes an unexpected phone call to Jeong-won on one day. It is from a local police station, and she is notified that a man who sexually violated her around 10 years ago was finally arrested. Understandably quite disturbed by this news, Jeong-won also becomes very conflicted because she has never told her husband about this incident of hers, and it does not take much time for him to notice something odd about his wife.
At least, Jeong-won has her aunt and uncle, who understand her situation well because that incident was the very reason why she was sent to them during that time. Because they do not have any children between them, Jeong-won has been pretty much like a daughter to them, and they are surely ready to give her some emotional support while hoping for the possible closure for her.
In contrast, Jeong-won does not interact well with her own mother due to many years of estrangement. When her mother happens to drop by her workplace, their interactions feel strained to say the least, and, for a reason to be revealed later in the story, Jeong-won is also not so enthusiastic about meeting her younger sister again, who is now a high school student preparing for her college entrance examination and will probably stay at Jeong-won’s residence around the time of her college entrance examination.
As the police re-open and then re-examine her case, Jeong-won cannot hide her past incident anymore from her husband, and Sang-woo is certainly caught off guard as a result. Not so sure about what he should do for his wife, Sang-woo attempts to learn more of the case, and, not so surprisingly, that inadvertently hurts Jeong-woo’s feelings. As she flatly says to her husband at one point, talking about that terrible incident is the last thing she wants to do for now, and, as a caring husband, Sang-woo respects her wish even though he becomes more baffled and frustrated than before.
Jeong-won subsequently tries to go through her daily life as usual, but, of course, that turns out to be much more challenging than she thought at first, and the movie quietly but palpably conveys to us her growing emotional instability while not resorting to any cheap melodramatic tactic. Although her phlegmatic face does not signify to us much, we can clearly sense the psychological turmoil behind it, and we later get a small but striking moment when she suddenly finds herself thrown back into an old memory from the past.
Discreetly moving from one narrative point to another, the screenplay by director/writer Park Sun-joo gradually builds up the emotions swirling around its heroine and few other characters, and it is poignant to see how it leads them to several small but touching moments during its last act. As opening herself more to her younger sister, Jeong-won comes to realize that she is not the only one damaged and tormented by that incident, and that is followed by a hopeful moment of reconnection between them around the end of the story. After they become more honest about how they are respectively feeling now, Jeong-won and her husband’s relationship becomes more solid that before with more mutual affection and understanding, and she is reminded again that she did marry a good man.
The main cast members of the movie are convincing in their unadorned acting. While Han Woo-yun serenely and steadily holds the center as required, Jun Suk-ho, Yoo Jae-myung, Yeom Hye-ran, Oh Min-ae, and Jung Da-eun have each own moment around Han, and Jung is particularly wonderful as a girl who is as confused and conflicted as her older sister.
In conclusion, “Way Back Home”, which is incidentally Park’s first feature film (She previously edited several notable South Korean independent films including “The End of April” (2016) and “February” (2017), by the way), is a plain but engaging human drama, and its main issue is certainly relevant considering the prevalent gender insensitivity in the South Korean society. While it may be a bit too dry and slow for you at first, its tentative emotional journey is worthwhile to watch nonetheless, and you may find yourself reflecting more on helping and supporting survivors like Jeong-won.