Where The Heart Is – Dear Grandma

Ezzah Mahmud sat down in the present with this Korean documentary, and was whisked down memory lane to the past.

This films starts off with a simple and soothing adagio, and the visual of an old notebook with handwritten words on it. From this connotation, viewers can straight away tell that this film will be a very personal one, which intrigues me right away. Shots of a slow track-in, bird’s eye view of the Hwasun, South Joella province in Korea brings us closer to the location of this documentary. The footage are carefully chosen, and the beauty they hold inject a form of nostalgia in me; at the same time, it gives a realistic core and human feeling. As a docu-fanatic, this sort of thing touches me deeply, and I am already hooked in the first minute.

‘Dear Grandma’ is the name of this documentary. It is a beautiful documentary made by Lee So-Hyun, a Korean documentarian. Frankly, it took me a while to write this review, simply because I am afraid I couldn’t do its awesomeness justice. It also made me feel too much, so much so that my paradigm about life really did change, and I am grateful to God that my grandmother is still alive and well until today, as this film reminds me so much of her.

In a way, the storytelling is in participatory mode, showcasing the interaction and moments that the filmmaker shares with her 93 year-old grandmother, Park Sam-soon, after the grandmother had tried to kill herself. We follow Park’s story closely, and I can assure you that she is one hell of a hustler, full of wisdom. The characters or subject matters of the film involved the filmmaker, her grandmother, and close family members.

This documentary will catapult you to its realistic essence, giving you a raw idea of what a Korean family is like. As a young Malaysian who occasionally consume K-Pop material, this film is refreshing because of its sincerity. A real house with real decoration, location and interaction: it gives you an insider’s look that is different from what you may have seen on television dramas. While such purveyors of culture in mainstream media is important in its own way, documentaries like ‘Dear Grandma’ offers an invaluable alternative, one that is unique and raw for the viewer. At times, I feel that not only am I taking a closer look at the homemade and real-life characters, I could essentially smell the Korean household. Having seen it a couple of times, my heart feels the culture, and I now have a better idea of what’s happening.

Given how this is essentially a character-driven endeavour, we focus on the aforementioned Park Sam-soon as the film reveals bit by bit of who Park Sam-soon is. This includes the interaction she has with everything around her, including the people, substance, places, memories and how she changes from the beginning to the end of the film. The transformation she undergoes, and the rollercoaster ride of emotional and physical ups and downs, really gives the audience the feel of empathy, as we root for her until the end.

As the film progresses, you can understand the interaction between the subject matters. One thing that helps is the close proximity of the shots, which really places you in the scene. For example, throughout the film, the viewer will notice how everyone sort of increase their voice while speaking to the grandmother. It initially made me feel a little uncomfortable, listening and wondering why they are ‘screaming’ at their grandmother; after all, she is harmless, and has done nothing wrong. However, this is because of her age and time-worn hearing, and they had to speak with her in that way.

At one time, I felt so sad looking at her during a family gathering. When everyone wants her to sit down, she chooses to be proactive and does this and that. The grunts of frustration from other family members makes me feel like they were annoyed, and I relate to this so much when my grandmother been treated this way. There is no doubt everyone wants what’s best for their grandmother, but it is just heart-breaking to see how she’s been talked to. To be frank, I am guilty of this sometimes, and it hits me hard, thinking how my grandmother would feel.

As the film moves forward, one secret after another were revealed. The filmmaker creatively and subtly talks to her grandmother, with a very casual and intimate approach, and finds out why she wanted to commit suicide. Little anecdotes provides literal and metaphorical values to ponder. For instance, at the beginning of the film, the filmmaker and the grandmother were going through the cupboard and found a broken wristwatch. So-hyun insists on repairing it, but Sam-soon is reluctant, and tells her that it is just a burden that is a waste of money. Fast forward to another scene, So-hyun then returns the wristwatch after failing to repair it, and buys a new watch for her grandmother. Her reaction is priceless. We can feel the happiness that transcends from grandmother to the screen. She looks absolutely delighted, and says something very profound: “This gives me hope to live.” It makes you stand up to applaud. More points to the filmmaker!

There are also moments that brings back childhood memories involving a grandmother’s love. One example is how grandmothers still treat you like a kid they took care of, even when you are clearly in your adulthood; they still want to get for you ice popsicles, give you pocket money and hold you close at night.

The interaction Sam-soon has with the objects around her also tells her story as well. Viewers will be fascinated by how she does things, the little things that provides a big impact. We can see this in how she waters and takes care of her plants, how she passionately prepares kimchi for her granddaughter, how she defrosts frozen fish, and how she starts taking soju (rice wine). From watching this, we can derive what her motivations and aims are in a particular scene.

With regards to the mise en-scene, I find it is such a marvellous compilation of stylised storytelling. The sound throughout the film feeds you emotions, and gives the feeling of intimacy; I’ve never heard the sound of crumpled plastic bags to be more fulfilling than this. At times, the viewer would hear melodic piano music emphasising and heightening the emotions, as well as complete diegetic sounds that gives you a real essence of the surroundings.

The apparent filmic process is among the things that attracted me, directing me to root for the film. These moments included instances when So-hyun accidentally hits her grandmother’s head, as well as how she repeatedly said she will finish the film, and asked grandmother to not think about dying and to just enjoy her life. We see her reflection, holding a camera while wearing just flip-flops, accompanying her grandmother to nearby grocery stores, all while her grandmother asks her why she keeps filming her. So-hyun always answers in the affirmative, saying that her grandmother is pretty, and that she wants to make a film about her. From these moments, we can’t help but to indirectly think about the finished film while watching it being made. The dialogue of the film also feels very natural; it just flows and is not forced.

Overall, the films has a lot of values we can take away from it. It portrays how family actually matters so much more than we can comprehend. Love is a universal thing, and even a family from Malaysia would appreciate the family values that this Korean film shares. It shows how love and hope can prevent you from feeling lonely, and that is what happiness is.

‘Dear Grandma’ is such a wonderful film, one that teleports you to a whole new nostalgia that touches you deeply. I highly recommended it, and kudos to Lee So-hyun for making one of my favourite documentaries of all time!

The film ‘Dear Grandma’ can be purchased here. Keep up to date with news about the film here.

Featured image credit: HanCinema

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