At first, Korean writer-director Jeong-hyang Lee’s The Way Home might seem only a small variation on the most commonly imported foreign-film plot of recent years: winsome tyke thaws the heart of cynical elder. This time, however, it’s the kid—7-year-old Sang-woo—who needs lessons in humanity, and the elder—his illiterate, unnamed grandmother—who quietly gives them. Very quietly, in fact: In addition to being bent alarmingly at the waist from decades of labor in and around her rustic mountain home, Grandma is entirely mute.
The film opens with the journey of Sang-woo (Seung-ho Yoo) and his mother (Hyo-hee Dong) from Seoul to the mountains, first by train, then bus, then van. We never hear the boy’s mother, who looks young enough to be the older woman’s granddaughter, fully explain why she needs to park her fatherless son with her mother (Eul-boon Kim, who’d never acted before) for a time. She simply leaves the two of them to get to know each other, providing Grandma some nutritious elder food and her son a week’s supply of Spam and Coke. When that cache runs out, Sang-woo demands pizza, hamburgers, and fried chicken, dishes that aren’t available in the local village—or even in the larger town to which Grandma occasionally travels to sell melons.
While his grandmother lives silently, Sang-woo inhabits a shroud of noise, much of it generated by a handheld video game. When its batteries give out, the crisis dwarfs even the local lack of “Kentucky chicken.” Forced to turn to village kids for entertainment, Sang-woo is as surly to them as he is to Grandma. But then he develops a crush on a girl who lives nearby, which begins to mellow his disposition. By the time his mother comes to claim him, Sang-woo has even thoughtfully devised a project to help Grandma after he’s gone.
The film’s rough mountain village is a Korea few Americans have ever seen depicted, and it’s probably one many Koreans also don’t know. Most of the recent Korean movies screened in Washington are matter-of-factly urban and hi-tech. With its austere tone and a narrative style that combines folkloric simplicity with avant-garde detachment, The Way Home seems more akin to the products of Iranian neorealism than to contemporary Korean films, even ones as gentle as Jae-eun Jeong’s recent Take Care of My Cat.
Despite the out-of-time setting, however, the relationship between Grandma and Sang-Woo is entirely modern. Rather than demanding respect because of her age, as befits the Confucian code that organized East Asian societies for two millennia, the old woman indulges her grandson as much as her limited means allow—to the point of attempting to make Kentucky chicken without knowing exactly what it is. (She gets the chicken part right.) Sang-Woo is ultimately humbled not by tradition but by his grandmother’s relentless kindness and generosity. Her method, it turns out, is as American as pizza and hamburgers.
Lee’s strategy, however, is more traditional, if not quite ancient. The Way Home is almost a silent movie, with its madrigal-like score (whose composer’s name goes untranslated in the English credits) as central to the experience as the limited dialogue. Sang-woo’s discovery of empathy and cooperation parallels the director’s quest for a more direct, less intrusive form of storytelling. This is only Lee’s second film, but she has tapped into a cinematic tradition that seems as venerable as the village life The Way Home depicts.
In 1976, in one of the most brazen terrorist acts in local history, a bomb went off inside a car at Sheridan Circle. The explosion, which killed Chilean exile Orlando Letelier and American colleague Ronni Moffitt, brought home to Washington an infamy that had been partially planned here: the overthrow and assassination of democratically elected Chilean president Salvador Allende. The case remains unresolved, but then so does most of what happened in Chile after Allende was deposed, as Patricio Guzman’s The Pinochet Case relates in its mannered, overdeliberate way.
Gen. Augusto Pinochet led the Sept. 11, 1973, coup that inaugurated 17 years of military rule in Chile. After Pinochet stepped down, in 1990, Chilean authorities were reluctant to investigate his regime’s murders and tortures. In Spain, however, lawyer Joan Garces began researching the offenses, inspired in part by the fact that Chile had accepted a shipload of leftist Spanish dissidents after Franco seized control of Spain in 1939. (They were met at the dock by a young Allende.) Garces and another attorney, Carlos Castressana, found a basis in Spanish law for charging Pinochet with crimes against humanity.
In 1998, while on his annual London shopping trip, Pinochet experienced back pain and decided to have surgery. As the retired director was recuperating, Spanish authorities asked Britain to arrest him. The British complied, and Pinochet was held for 503 days of legal maneuvering (and visits from pals such as Margaret Thatcher) before Home Secretary Jack Straw ruled that the old thug was too ill to stand trial.
The Pinochet Case recounts the dictator’s brush with justice in rather more detail than is required for filmgoers who read the international news from 1998 to 2000, although those who know little about the episode may appreciate the documentary’s thoroughness. Guzman frames the dry legal parrying with powerful statements from family members of some of the 3,000 “disappeared” and from about a dozen survivors of Villa Grimaldi, the most infamous Chilean detention facility. Their recollections of murder, torture, and rape are as harrowing as their continued testimony is inspiring.
If the movie seems exhausting, it’s just a small portion of Guzman’s work on the subject. The Chilean-born director has lived in Europe since 1973, the same year he was one of thousands imprisoned in Santiago’s National Stadium. In exile, he made five previous films (including the three-part The Battle of Chile) on the coup and its fallout. Chipping away at Pinochet and his legacy is Guzman’s vocation, which may explain why the filmmaker thinks a shot of pebbles rolling down an eroding Patagonian slope is revealing. In fact, the moments in The Pinochet Case that are meant to be stately and contemplative are mostly dull. But the saga of Pinochet and his intrepid accusers nonetheless remains compelling. CP