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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Family Ties (Gajokeui tansaeng) 2006

The first scene of Family Ties is one of hope. A young man and woman meet on a train and strike up a conversation, they are both very nice and clearly like each other. This early optimism however, is quickly dashed by the stories that will unfold on screen. We don’t revisit the couple until the final part of the film. Family Ties is an omnibus of three short films that are thematically very similar but each focus on a particular kind of relationship and the troubles associated with it.

The first story is about Mira, a meek and young women who occupies the decaying home of her family by herself. We do not know what happened to her family but it seems that they have been gone a long time. Soon we are introduced to her brother who hasn’t been seen in years, while initially exited to see him she is rather taken aback when he introduces her to his wife Mu-shin, a gruffer, older woman. Mira is embarrassed and does not seem to know how to react to her, she mostly looks at the floor.

It is unclear what, if anything, the brother does. He wants to open a store to which Mira responds that she has no money, he says he isn’t asking for any money and she reiterates very clearly that she has none. She is embarrassed by her brother, doesn’t trust him and is clearly worried that he will hurt her. It is when they all go out to dinner with her suitor that things get a little out of hand, after joking about selling liquor at his future store after hours, the brother then takes great offense at some comments directed at Mu-shin by Mira’s boyfriend.

Later, a child winds up on Mira’s doorstep and it turns out that she is the daughter of Mu-shin’s ex-husband. The brother is thrilled to see her but the women are not. His irresponsible behavior leads to great friction in the household until one morning when he takes some money from Mira’s purse and says he is going to go for a drink, he never comes home. After a few days, Mu-shin and the girl leave, Mira hesitantly asks them to stay but they leave anyway.

Mira’s character is like many that have featured in Korean films. A subservient woman who is abused by an irresponsible family member that ends up on the road. In fact, all of the main protagonists, who are mostly women, have been hurt somehow and each is heavily associated with the concept of han. Darcy Paquet describes han as:

“a deep-seated feeling of sorrow, bitterness or despair that originates in oppression or injustice, accumulates over time and remains unexpressed in the heart.”

While the women suffer from this han, the men wander off screen between families in search of their identity. The clash between these types of characters always results in conflicts and these are never fully resolved.


The motif of the train in Family Ties plays a crucial role. It serves as a clue that can give you an idea of the connection between the characters, but more importantly, it is also a symbol of the passage of time in Korea which highlights the differences in society that have taken place. The end credits sequence assembles all the characters from each story including young and older versions of the same characters on a train platform. They are all walking around going in different directions and waiting to go somewhere else, it is as if they are looking for something. Perhaps they are looking for each other and because of time and the rapid change in society are unable to recognize what or who they seek.

The second story features Sun-kyu who desperately wants to leave the country and whose mother has a life-threatening illness. After rebelling against everyone around her she eventually relents to her past when she manages to open her mother’s suitcase which is filled with mementos from her past, the rush of memory overwhelms her, particularly when she embraces a red garment. She could easily represent a generation of Koreans who, in the early 90s finally came to terms with their dark, bloody history. The red would symbolize the infamous Gwangju massacre of 1980 where demonstrators dressed in red were massacred by the military.

Ultimately, we learn that all of the characters are related somehow and that the three stories happened in different time periods. Sun-kyu turns out to be Kyung-suk’s sister, she has accepted her role as a damaged vestige of Korea’s past. She is now a singer but she is also alone, save for her brother. Kyung-suk’s girlfriend is the child from the first segment and she does not recognize Mira’s brother when he appears again with another wife, indicating a blocked memory of a damaged past.

The more I think about this film, the more impressed I am about it and I look forward to revisiting it and perhaps incorporating it into a more substantial piece in the future.

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