I Can Speak
Na Mun-hee, Lee Je-hoon
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…neorealistic and romantic…
At first, director Kim Hyun-seok, sensitively leads viewers into a typical light-hearted Korean situation comedy, where daily routines of certain characters are enacted in a way that manages to put a smile (or even laughter) on our faces. Viewers are introduced to a working-class marketplace in the middle of Seoul. Facing a redevelopment crisis that threatens the life of the local people, the market is brought to life by the necessary existence of Ok-boon, an elderly woman (nicknamed Goblin Granny) who has filed more than 8.000 complaints to the local authority. Ok-boon herself has been a nightmare, until she meets Min-jae, a newbie civil servant who is tolerant enough to handle her cases. They gradually form a friendship, with Ok-boon asking Min-jae to be her English tutor. Why does she want to learn English at her age, we may ask ourselves? As the story progresses, this seemingly Korean comedy turns out to be a persuasive drama with underlying political issues, as viewers dig deeper into Ok-boon’s true motivation behind her willingness to speak English fluently.
I Can speak is neorealistic and romantic in its portrayal of Seoul life. Viewers observe the energy of the market neighborhood and how each individual struggles to earn a living. Through this, social issues are addressed, such as the gerascophobia (the fear of aging) of Korean society, famous for its industry of cosmetic surgery and its own standard of beauty. Ok-boon becomes a seemingly annoying lady, intruding the lives of others, which reflects her loneliness as she grows older each day. Her friend, Jung-sim, suffering from dementia, also supports this lingering fear of social isolation among the elderly. On the other hand, loneliness manifests itself not just with the aging characters but also the younger individuals. Min-jea possesses a typical Seoul lifestyle, working from morning until late evening and always has to eat out or buy takeaway food whereas his younger brother eats uncooked ramen for snacks. Then, at one point, the narrative erases all these fears of isolation when Ok-boon treats the two brothers with her homemade dinner in a much cozier and touching scene, turning Ok-boon into a motherly figure.
I Can Speak is an Asian cinematic experience that balances many styles – comedy, tragedy, social and political issues, all weaved into one film. Conventional melodramatic techniques may be overused and plot convenience too often drives the motivation of the characters forward, but Na Mun-hee (Harmony) as the bittersweet elderly woman enthusiastic about learning English at the heart of this politically themed film will certainly leave an impression.