Way Back Home (South Korea, 2019) [OAFF 2020]

Park Sun-joo graduates from making short films with her debut feature Way Back Home. It’s adapted from her 2017 short Mild Fever, which won the Asian Short Film and Video Competition Grand Prize at the 19th Seoul International Women’s Film Festival. Taking on the potentially incendiary topic of a woman confronting the emotional fallout from her rape, the film uses a more subdued tone to deliver a realistic depiction of survivors moving on.

The story follows Jeong-won (Han Woo-yun), a swimming instructor who is happily married to her carpenter husband Sang-u (Jun Suk-ho). The future seems to promise new horizons for the couple as they are about to move into a larger home and welcome a child into the world. However, Jeong-won’s happiness is thrown off balance when she receives a call from the police informing her that the man who sexually assaulted her ten years ago was recently caught and they need her to provide a statement. Jeong-won had kept this incident a secret from Sang-u and now it threatens the stability of their peaceful married life.

What happens from the first phone call to the end of the film is the process of Jeong-won having to accept this horrific act after keeping it at a distance for such a long time. That effort includes how she treats friends and family, some of whom are kept at arm’s length out of a myriad of emotions such as shame and guilt. The process of talking to those around her who also feel various strains of emotions, from a loyal mother and sister with whom contact is dodged to her devoted husband who has been left in the dark. This provides ample drama by exploring the different nuances in how a survivor moderates her feelings towards herself.

One might expect histrionics and melodrama from the topic but director Park carefully and quietly depicts people trying to navigate such a difficult issue. Using static framing and long shots, she allows the actors to portray a complex array of their emotions. This means that a glance away from a loved one, the pursing of lips in frustration or walking into the rain in confusion have a suitable impact.

The rape isn’t shown but the emotions are felt when Jeong-won thinks back to it. At these junctures, the camerawork feels subjective, as if matching the control and loss of it Jeong-won feels. Crucially, this happens when men try to dictate or burrow into the narrative she constructs for her world without her permission. Her secrecy and will to live is an act of defiance against the attack.

Subtle and realistic is how this film is best described. its depiction of a marriage is not marred by grandstanding arguments and wall punches for the sake of drama but the struggle of people to overcome resentments and open up emotionally to each other. There is the refreshing quiet determination to provide support and care not seen enough in cinema. The relief at the end is genuinely cathartic, making this a refreshing and meaningful drama.

Way Back Home is showing at the Osaka Asian Film Festival on March 11 and 15.