We often associate Kim Hyun-seok, a South Korean film director and screenwriter, with the 2000 Park Chan-wook feature Joint Security Area, for which Kim co-wrote the script. The audience might also recognize the filmmaker for his feel-good films such as When Romance Meets Destiny (2005), Cyrano Agency (2010) or C’est si bon (2015). The newest Hyun-seok’s production, which received Best Director Award, Best Actress and Popular Award for Na Moon-hee (Miss Granny, Harmony) at the 38th Blue Dragon Film Awards, is I Can Speak.
Unexpectedly, I Can Speak turned out to be one of the biggest hits of 2017, both among Korean audiences and film critics. It was probably due to the narrative itself and its marketing before the nationwide release – film happened to consists of a two-layered storyline, which – at the end – merged together well and guaranteed the film’s success.
Na Ok-boon (Na Moon-hee) is an ordinary pensioner, who has a lot to say about the injustice surrounding her local area. She also is the bane of the employees of a local office due to numerous complaints that she files almost every day. Ok-boon meets a young official, Park Min-jae (Lee Je-hoon), who sticks to rigid office procedures, but he also believes that it is vital to take the old lady’s concerns into account. They slowly form a liaison that blurs the boundaries between the two generations. While dealing with the local issues, Na Ok-boon also makes Min-jae teach her English. Initially, he does his best to discourage the lady; however, the young man engages more when he learns about her true reasons behind studying the language. (Spoilers below!)
I Can Speak blends comedy with drama; most of the drama culminates at the end of the film though, when the story reaches deeper. The surprising twist is that Na Ok-boon’s past is connected to the events of World War II; Ok-boon was one of the victims of sexual violence during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and as a heroine and survivor she is invited to Washington, to take part in a historical trial aimed at recognizing the crimes that the Japanese inflicted on Korean women during the war.
Na Moon-hee created one of the best female roles of 2017 – her genuine portrayal of a pensioner is sublime, natural and believable. The rest of the performances, including that of Lee Je-hoon, were decent, but got overshadowed by Na Moon-hee.
The PR behind I Can Speak was cleverly and carefully organized; the film’s full storyline was hidden well during the advertising campaign. Undoubtedly, it was a good move, as in the last 40 or so minutes, the viewer gets grabbed by the throat by the unexpected twist.
Unfortunately, the inscriptions at the end of the film, informing us about the modern state of affairs, felt too cliche and newfangled and treated the audience like students who have never heard of comfort women. I Can Speak should have remained as a film about moral values with regards to history, focusing on how to build a bridge between the old and the young generation. However, even with a couple of imperfections, I Can Speak makes for an interesting and uplifting new work by Kim Hyun-seok.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
All photos © Lotte Entertainment