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Why Moving On is the Best Korean Film of 2020

The South Korean independent film “Moving On," which is set in Inchon (a port city near Seoul), mainly revolves around a young adolescent girl named Ok-joo (Choi Jung-woon) and her little younger brother Dong-joo (Park Seung-joo). The opening scene shows them on a bright summer day, moving out from their shabby apartment building along with their divorced father. We then see an effortlessly long shot as the camera patiently observes their minivan going along the alleys and streets of Inchon for several minutes.   

Because his current financial situation is quite poor due to some recent business failure, the father of these children has decided to stay at his father’s house for a while, and the grandfather does not have much problem with that. Not that well at present, this fragile old man remains mostly silent and unresponsive even when he meets his son and grandchildren again, and we come to sense the considerable gap between him and them even when they later share a little cold lunch together in the kitchen. 

Although they do not like this change that much, Ok-joo and Dong-joo gradually get accustomed to their new environment, spending their free summer days there. During their first night at the house, Ok-joo makes one of the upstairs rooms into her own private place. We then get a small amusing moment when Dong-joo tries to sleep along with her there, but only ends up sleeping downstairs because his older sister wants to sleep alone.

The mood in the house becomes merrier when their aunt later comes to the house. Enjoying the time with her brother and his children, the aunt—who has incidentally stayed at her close friend’s residence for a while shortly after she left her husband for some personal reasons—also decides to move into her father’s house. Ok-joo is pleased to have someone who can be a sort of big sister to her. Although she drinks a bit too much from time to time, the aunt is always kind to her niece and nephew, and everyone in the house feels like a family again. On the grandfather’s birthday, everyone else sincerely congratulates him, and the grandfather looks a little brighter than before. 

Although he still does not speak and movie much except for when tending to his small green garden full of vegetables and fruits, the grandfather seems to be pleased to be surrounded by his family members again, and his grandchildren get to know him bit by bit. They spend much of their time exploring his house, which is filled with a sense of long history. Leisurely observing the mood and details, I could not help but think of the house of one of my deceased uncles, which, in addition to looking quite similar in many aspects, was also full of old stuff. Sadly, that house was gone from us not long after my uncle died and then his senile wife was taken to a facility for old people; several certain details in the film including the brown wooden interior of the house made me a bit nostalgic about those little moments I had at that house.

As the movie slowly builds up its main characters, we get to know a bit more about the current economic hardships of Ok-joo and her family. At one point, Ok-joo tries to earn some extra money for herself by selling one of her father’s imitation sneakers without his knowledge. Not so surprisingly, that eventually puts her into a little trouble with the police, and leads to a rather humiliating moment for her and her father, who is not angry at all about her misdemeanor. Instead, he is hurt by his daughter’s dishonesty.

After vividly establishing its main background and characters with the soothing summer atmosphere, the movie slowly shifts itself onto a little more serious mode during its second half. As the grandfather’s physical condition becomes more deteriorated than before, Ok-joo’s father and aunt begin to discuss what they should do with their father, and what they will have to do with his house if he is really sent to a facility for old people. While they are not heartless people, they're reluctant about taking care of their father as busy with each own matter, and they soon come to consider the possibility of selling their father’s house.

More emotionally attached to her grandfather and his house than ever before, Ok-joo is not so pleased about what her father and aunt will probably do to her grandfather and his house, and this also affects her relationship with her younger brother. Like any innocent boy around his age, Dong-joo does not see any problem with whatever his father and aunt are going to do, and he also has no problem with meeting his mother, of whom Ok-joo is still quite resentful because she left her kids shortly after the divorce. 

While the situation eventually becomes more dramatic, the movie maintains its low-key tone, and director/writer/co-producer Yoon Dan-bi, who makes her feature film debut here after two short films, continues to handle her story and characters with a sensitive humane touch. As a matter of fact, you will be so immersed in Ok-joo and her family members’ emotional circumstance that you may be caught off guard when a certain key scene around the end of the film suddenly ends with a small twist.

As the heart and soul of the film, young performer Choi Jung-woon is commendable in her unadorned natural performance, and she is also supported well by the four other main cast members surrounding her, who are all convincing in their plain but undeniably memorable roles. As Ok-joo’s loving father and spirited aunt, Yang Heung-joo and Park Hyun-young are particularly touching during a small private scene where their characters happen to let out a bit of their old personal feelings to each other. Young performer Park Seung-joon is irrepressible in his plucky appearance, and Kim Sang-dong often speaks volumes in his mostly wordless acting, which gradually looks inseparable from his character’s old house and its cozy mood and environment.

Apparently influenced by the works of Edward Yang and Hirokazu Kore-eda, “Moving On” is a charming and moving movie, and I chose it as the best South Korean film of last year without any hesitation. When the committee assembled by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC) included it in the short list for Best International Feature Film Oscar in last October, I was certainly delighted to say the least, but then they chose “The Man Standing Next” (2019) instead. In my humble opinion, considering that they had to choose between these two films in the end, this is the dumbest choice since when they chose “The Age of Shadows” (2016) instead of “The Handmaiden” (2016).

Like Hollywood and many other local film communities out there, South Korean cinema has been hit hard by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, but it had another interesting time in the last year. Sure, last year was certainly less exciting compared to all the cheers and excitements surrounding Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019), but, besides “Moving On,” we had a number of other wonderful films ranging from Hong Sang-soo’s “The Woman Who Ran” (2020) to Kim Cho-hee’s “Lucky Chan-sil” (2019), and I noticed that many of my favorite South Korean films of 2020 are driven by strong female characters or directed by emerging talented female filmmakers. As I said before in my piece on Kim Bo-ra’s “House of Hummingbird” (2018), the future of South Korean cinema indeed lies in the hands of many promising female South Korean filmmakers besides Kim Bo-ra and Yoon Dan-bi. I strongly believe that their films mark the new beginning of South Korean Cinema in its post-"Parasite" era.

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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