The Way Home

There are two stars in the South Korean film “The Way Home,” neither of whom has acted in movies before but both of whom have screen presence that belies their experience.

First is Seung-ho Yu, who plays 7-year-old Sang-woo, who is possibly the world’s worst child. Whiny and undisciplined, he exasperates his destitute mother (Hyo-hee Dong), who leaves him with his grandmother — whom he has never met — while she searches for work.

Eul-boon Kim is the other lead, and she has said that, prior to filming “The Way Home,” she had never even SEEN a movie. She plays Grandmother, comically stooped over and incapable of speech. She is not mentally disabled, but she is surely simple-minded. Her grandson, who has respect for no one and nothing, treats her with derision. While she labors to carry water to the hillside shack they share in a remote village, he plays video games. When the batteries wear out, he steals her hairpin while she sleeps and attempts to trade it for fresh ones.

Grandmother’s reaction to Sang-woo intrigues me. Many films – American films, in particular – would give her a steely determination at winning Sang-woo over, improving him, earning his love. She would stay strong until the climax of the film, when she would throw her hands in the air and give up – at which point he would finally see the light and end his reign of brattiness.

That’s not what happens here. Grandmother does gradually change Sang-woo, but not because she has set out to do it. She merely does what comes naturally, obeying her maternal instincts and giving Sang-woo the love he requires, even if she never consciously realizes that’s what she’s doing, and even if he never seems to want it.

Writer/director Jeong-hyang Lee, in only her second feature, establishes a situation rife with gentle humor and honest, unaffected love. Sang-woo behaves so badly for so much of the film that I began to feel his rehabilitation could never be enough, that no matter how much he changed, it would not outweigh his prior boorishness. Turns out I was wrong. When it happens, it is sweet and sincere. The lesson, perhaps, is that pure love makes it never too late to have a change of heart.

B+ (1 hr., 25 min.; PG, some very mild profanity.)