Grandfather / 그랜드파더 (2016) Review


Introduction
It is very rare to see the story of senior citizens, in which they are the protagonist of the story, playout in mainstream Korean entertainment media. The same could be said about Hollywood also. It is as if they do not really exist in the fictional world built upon a community’s cultural output as actors but mere sidekicks or devices to convey wisdom to the “real” characters who are in the prime of their respective lives. This is an interesting phenomenon considering that our communities are rapidly aging on a global scale. The average life expectancy has increased. The period when one is considered to be “old” has been pushed back by a decade or more. Some say “70s is the new 60s” after all. This is the same for the period of so called “maturity.” “Arrested development” anyone? But that is another matter.

This reality seems to not have the effect that one would think it would have had on mainstream culture. One would think that having an older population would mean that this demographic would be presence more in media. In many ways, the result is the opposite. On the demand side, the population seems to want to think of themselves as being young-ish for as long as their heath doesn’t wake them up to the brutal realities of time. On the supply side, there is less room for stories about “elder” characters because actors are able to play “middle age” roles such as “parents” or ”lovers with breeding potential “ far longer than any time in previous generations. Let’s consider the movie “Taken” (2008) which tends to be seen as an “old man vigilante” movie. This is not really true. Liam Neeson was 56 when the movie was released and he was basically playing a role which would have been played by a mid-40s actor 20 or so years ago. The character was a “father” and not a “Grandfather.” It was only in “Taken 3” (2014) when his character entered the territory of “Grandfather” and Liam Neeson was 62. All this means that there is no need to tell stories about “old” characters as vehicles for aging actors or actresses. 

This rarity means that whenever we get a movie about characters who have far less time ahead of them than behind them is something special. At the same time, it means that a movie’s influences and relative differentiation from the others of its ilk is very evident simply because the size of the pool is so small. Movies like any other art form tend to be at least partially made of elements stolen from other movies. Art is all about stealing well after all. “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” I think Picasso said something in this vein. What does this have to do with the Korean movie “Grandfather” (2016)? It steal heavily from “Harry Brown” (2009) starring the great Michael Caine. And, in that movie, he is not constantly quoting a poem by Dylan Thomas. That is a shame! The poem is somewhat apt to the theme of the movie “Harry Brown” (2009) and “Grandfather” (2016). Well… less with that latter but I’ll talk about that later.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
--From “Interstellar” (2014)


The Plot
Grandfather” (2016) is a story about a Korean Vietnam vet set in the present which would place him in his late 60s or so. And yes! There are Korean Vietnam War veterans. Following his return to Korea from the war a long time ago, life has not turned out well for him. He suffers from PTSD which he tried to cope with using alcohol. As you would expect, the result wasn’t good. His wife left him and took his son with her. Since then, his ex-wife has passed and he is still not on speaking terms with his only son and his granddaughter. Now, alone in the world that has forgotten him and ignores the legacy of his youth, he is driving a “constantly on the verge of breaking down’ bus in some backwater shuttling foreign workers around. Not only is the character sad and depressed but, as the audience, it is sad and depressing to see him like this. Then, one day he gets a phone call that his son fell to his death at a construction site. Now there is only one person tying him to the world. It is his granddaughter.

The Senior citizen vigilante
In the area of “Senior citizen vigilante revenge” cinema, there is not really much to hold up as an example. In recent times, you have “Harry Brown” (2009) and “Gran Torino” (2008) placed on each edges of the spectrum. If you go far back, you have the sequels of “Death Wish” (1974) starring Charles Bronson. The first “Death Wish” (1974) still falls in the “father vigilante revenge” category like “Taken” (2008). It was only with the sequels made about a decade later that the protagonist can be labeled a “Senior citizen.” However, those squeals are… let’s say they are something special and not as relevant to our discussion. They were made by notorious Cannon Films after all.

As mentioned just above, “Harry Brown” (2009) and “Gran Torino” (2008) are placed on both edges of the spectrum in terms of theme. “Gran Torino” (2008) is about reclaiming one’s status as a man which was lost by having nothing to protect. This is done by finding something/someone new to protect and pass on a legacy. In contrast, “Harry Brown” (2009) is about the rage of losing all the things that made him a man such as loved ones, legacy, and respect. It is about lashing out with a righteous indignation to correct that mistreatment. The movie is about a British veteran cleaning up the street of the young punks and the middle age corruptors that defile his life’s accomplishment of blood and tears.



The Korean movie “Grandfather” (2016) starring veteran actor Park Geun-hyung (age 76) lies somewhere between these two edges of the spectrum but definitely leans towards “Harry Brown” (2009). Its story structure and ultimate theme of the story are of “Harry Brown” (2009). In addition, there are scenes and characters that are reminiscent of those on “Harry Brown” (2009). At the same, the theme of reconnecting with the world displayed by “Gran Torino” (2008) is in this movie especially in the first 50 minutes of this movie –Part 1. It is as if the movie tried to merge “Gran Torino” (2008) into the story structure of “Harry Brown” (2009).In theory, this is not an impossible task. I would even call it a worthwhile task. There is something dramatically interesting with giving someone wallowing in misery hope. Then, take it back. Step away and see the carnage. It is just a matter of balance in terms of execution. This is where “Grandfather” (2016) fails.

The Part 1
For the first 50 minutes (Part 1), our protagonist reconnects with his granddaughter and finds meaning to his life again while making peace with his obsolescence as a person in the eyes of society. The tone of the movie, while there are a few moments of noir sprinkled in, is that of a Korean family drama. And this is the best part of the movie! You feel the “feels”!

It portrays the lost and sadness of getting old well. It portrays the process of a grandfather and his only kin forming a bond in a very endearing light. Park Geun-hyung, who played “grandpa,” and Ko Bo-Gyeol, who played the granddaughter, have decent chemistry together. Veteran actor of the silver and small screen Park Geun-hyung gives a heartwarming performance. This is not a surprise given his long filmography. Actress Ko Bo-Gyeol gives a decent performance although the movie doesn’t push her beyond her comfort zone. She is playing a troubled high school student. I cannot get my head around the fact that she is 28 years old. She really looks like a high school student. Back to the point, this first 50 minutes (Part 1) are the most competent part of the movie. In many ways, it could be a standalone short drama special on its own. It has its beginning, middle, and an end. I would be satisfied if this 50 minutes were expanded into its own movie. There is enough room to expand upon.



The problem is that this 50 minutes is just the beginning act of this movie in terms of the overall story. And the movie is 92 minutes long. The remaining two acts of the story have to be crammed into the remaining 40 or so minutes. This is a problem. At the end of the day, “Grandfather” (2016) is a clone of “Harry Brown” (2009) and not “Gran Torino” (2008). This mean that the movie spent 50 minutes or 55% of its run time just on setup which is not the meat of the story. In contrast, “Harry Brown” (2009) only took about 15 minutes to get through its setup. And it was a 103 minute long movie. The movie spent the rest of its runtime on the bloody revenge and its aftermath; the meat and bone of the story. The result is that “Grandfather” (2016) ends up being an uneven “two parter” movie. The strands sowed in the first part are not followed up on in the second part while plot and character arc central to the second part is not fully developed in the first part.

The Two Parter
In the first part of the movie, topics such as PTSD, Vietnam War, spousal abuse, alcoholism, the situation surrounding foreign workers in Korea, and state of veterans in Korea are mentioned. These are interesting topics especially since Korean mainstream media doesn’t really deal with them and no one mentions them from the perspectives of senior citizens. It does give flavor to a story that, in truth, is very by the book. It is very typical of the genre. Seen “The Equalizer” (2014) starring Denzel Washington? You’ve seen a lot of what will happen in “Grandfather” (2016). What is a missed opportunity is that none of these topics really go anywhere. Even the PTSD that our protagonist suffers isn’t fully integrated into the character’s motivation. It is just stated as character exposition.

In the second part of the movie, the plot is rushed through. This covers all the genre elements you would expect from this type of movie. All the searching and exploration this type of thriller vigilante movie has is compressed and thus makes the plot too convenient and easy. Some of these plot elements were introduced in the first part of the movie. However, they are never fully developed. One example of this is the unhelpful cop character that the protagonist interacts with over several occasion during the first part of the movie. Watching this character on screen, you never really get the sense of his story function. Part of this is because the actor was not good in the role. However, he was not given much to do also. When comparing “Grandfather” (2016) and “Harry Brown” (2009), you see a cop character in each movie and they seem to have a similar purpose story wise. They are meant to be the sympathetic to the protagonist but ultimately passive and useless. They are meant as a representation of us and society. At least, actress Emily Mortimer plays the role in that vein in “Harry Brown” (2009). The cop in “Grandfather” (2016) is just useless and irritating. You could cut him out and nothing would change.


Grandpa’s Motivations
The separation associated with the two parts of the movie also effects the motivation and characteristics of the protagonist. Considering the drastic actions of “Grandpa” in the second part of the movie, you have to get a sense that there is a barely contained rage simmering underneath the mask of civility within “Grandpa” in the first part of the movie. With Harry Brown” (2009), you can see this in the character because of both how the character was written and how Michael Caine played the role. It didn’t hurt that this great actor had played hard violent men previously through his long career. There is even a subtle edge to the way he portrayed Alfred J. Pennyworth in the “Dark Knight” trilogy.

I didn’t get that vibe from the first part of “Grandfather” (2016). Veteran actor Park Geun-hyung, while a talented actor, does not have the same vibe as Michael Caine. He comes off as more of a goofy old curmudgeon soaked in sadness and resided to the fate of dying in obscurity. I couldn’t really accept that the character in the first part of the movie would have acted or even be capable to act in the manner he was shown to act in the second part. Park Geun-hyung plays “deadly and determined” pretty well. However, he does not really nail the character “devolving” and turning desperate as characters from the TV show “Criminal Minds” would say. I don’t blame the actor for this because this part isn’t written well.

Talking about the writing, the script itself didn’t properly convey the journey of this, at least, late 60 year old man going all suicide vigilante during the second act. Just putting in a few lines of exposition that he was in Vietnam does not suddenly make this old man “Rambo senior!” Talking about Vietnam, Korea was in the Vietnam War. Considering how mainstream Korean media has expunged this piece of history over the last two decades, this would be hard to believe but Korea sent the second largest ground army to Vietnam just behind the USA. Thus, we have a lot of Vietnam vets. However, unlike Americans who have a cultural reference point of connecting Vietnam Vets to bad asses – movies such as “Rambo: First Blood (1982)” did a good job at this – Koreans do not really have this reference point. Just referencing Vietnam War doesn’t mean anything to mainstream Koreans especially in the younger demographics

The Villains
Another issue “Grandfather” (2016) has, caused by its story imbalance, is that it is unsure how to handle the villains. Villains are an important to “vigilante” movies. What role does a vigilante have without a target for one’s rage and indignation? With this type of movie, there is two ways one could go. The first is just making villains cartoon background characters. You tend to go this way when the target of the vigilante is society as a whole. The other way is to make the villains actual characters with development and their own motives. Then, the vigilante’s target is more focused. “Grandfather” (2016) really cannot make up its mind and is stuck in the middle. Thus, not only don’t you get as much catharsis from the villains’ demise but the efforts put into social commentary is just bad. There is no more to say about it other than “bad!”


Conclusion
It is difficult to score this movie in many ways. “Grandfather” (2016) is a clone of “Harry Brown” (2009). In some areas, it improves on “Harry Brown” (2009). In other areas, it is worse. And “Harry Brown” (2009) is not a great movie as it has its own issues. I would give “Harry Brown” (2009) something like a B-. Even “Gran Torino” (2008) has its flaws small and large. What is definitely better with “Harry Brown” (2009) is that it knows what it wants to be and is focused on executing that objective. This also goes for movies such as “Taken” (2008) and “The Equalizer” (2014). On the other hand, “Grandfather” (2016) comes off as more confused of its identity.

Overall I think “Grandfather” (2016) come out of a compromise between the taste of the Korean family drama audience and the tastes of the vigilante genre audience. And usually these compromises do not result in the satisfaction of either audience. Is this the case for this movie? Even with all its problems, I would say that “Grandfather” (2016) is worth the 92 minutes you spent watching it. It is not long. The acting is fine. The overall direction and art design are competent but somewhat workmanlike and old fashioned. And when it comes to the time to see blood, it is sweet albeit short. So, I’ll give it a C grade. For a theatrical release, it is lacking. As a direct to video release that I found in the $5 bin, I would consider it a decent find.


C  (4.5/10)

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