I Can Speak (South Korea, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

Kim Hyun-seok’s heart-wrenching and thought-provoking feature I Can Speak begins as a comedy and ends as a drama that will leave audiences thinking about the role of collective memory, trauma, and historical revisionism.

Thirty-three year old Park Min-jae (Lee Je-hoon) takes a civil service job to provide for his younger brother (Sung Yu-bin), who is still in high school. The introduction of “Granny” Ok-bon (Na Moon-hee) is hilarious, as a hooded figure sweeps into the district office and Min-jae’s new coworkers turn the other way, leaving the newbie to deal with the woman. Known as “Goblin Granny” to the office workers, she has filed at least one complaint every day for the last twenty years—for petty offenses like keeping a presidential campaign poster up long after the candidate has been elected.

From the moment that Min-jae challenges Ok-bon by having her stand in line and take a number in order to file her complaints, the relationship between the young civil servant and this misunderstood elderly woman takes center stage. Their unlikely bond drives the narrative, as does the community (and the world) reaction when Min-jae’s past comes to light. This is a compelling enough that the subplots threaten to detract from (and even distract the audience). While we, like Ok-bon herself, certainly feel for a local shop owner harassed by “gangsters” and tenants of an apartment building being strong-armed by a developer, these elements feel almost out of place. The romantic subplot with a co-worker is underdeveloped, and is only partially explored at the end.

With well-composed visuals and a strong color palette, the cinematography and lighting reflect the vibrancy of modern South Korea. The film is well structured, with a clear midpoint and high stakes that become clear as Ok-bon’s past comes into view. Beyond just hitting the right plot points at the right times, tension builds and there is a clear chain of causality for each plot point. (For example, when Ok-bon threatens to file even more complaints, Min-jae’s co-workers beg him to teach her English, and he reluctantly relents.)

The movie takes a somber turn when it is revealed that Granny Ok-bon, along with her best friend Jung-shim (Son Sook), was a “comfort woman” for the Japanese Army during World War II, forced into sexual slavery at the age of 13. Suddenly, the stakes are even higher for Ok-bon, who must learn English in order to tell the truth about what happened to her and other girls without the fear of being mistranslated by an interpreter.

Na gives an outstanding performance, made all the more remarkable by the fact that she must show the full range of human emotion. This movie may begin as a lighthearted romp through the monotony of local bureaucracy, showcasing the budding friendship between a young man and an elderly woman, but it ends up going dark places as it examines the lasting trauma of women coerced into sexual slavery, who endured rape when it was a weapon of war.

Because so few survivors remain who remember the horrors of the comfort stations, this film is even more important. Viewers who know little about the “comfort women issue” will have an educational and enriching experience, while those familiar with this dark period in history will find the film refreshing in its lack of sentimentality. Kim hooks viewers through comedy as he explores how society perceives Granny Ok-bon initially—as a nuisance. Then, he holds viewers’ attention as an unlikely bond develops between the orphaned Jae-min and this grandmother figure. Finally, he brings the film to a rousing conclusion as Ok-bon, standing up for justice, faces her fears in order to bring the truth to light on behalf of herself and so many other survivors—and, against all odds, finds her voice.

I Can Speak is showing on July 12 at the New York Asian Film Festival.