Review: The Highway Family

Character actors, especially those who specialize in villains, are by definition cast within a fairly narrow range, while marquee stars prefer to work in their wheelhouses because that’s what makes them and their movies money. Jung Il-woo is one of Korea’s most bankable leading men whose career has mostly been in TV historical dramas and fairly light romantic stuff. In Lee Sang-moon’s feature debut, he plays the paternal head of a homeless family of four whose mental capacities seem to be at a diminished level. The kind of subtlety the part demands would be a challenge for any actor, and while Jung can often be affecting in ensemble scenes, he inadvertently overwhelms the movie with a pathos that burns a little too brightly. 

Jung plays Ki-woo, who, along with his pregnant wife Ji-sook (Kim Seul-ki) and two young children camp out at highway rest stops in the Korean countryside. For food, Ki-woo cadges cash from motorists, saying he lost his wallet and will pay them back later. Most people are good, though a few demand more answers than Ki-woo is willing to give, so he keeps the kids nearby for sympathetic reinforcement. Lee develops the story slowly so as to provide some idea of how this family gets by as a family, and for the first 45 minutes Ki-woo’s motivations remain a mystery. If anything, he comes across as the storied hippie subjecting his family to some sort of whim about free will and independence. But then he’s arrested after a middle aged Good Samaritan, Young-sun (Ra Mi-ran), gives him a large amount of money and then spies him begging again at a different rest stop and calls the police. The authorities detain him but not his family, and, feeling responsible, Young-sun puts the three up in her used furniture store. Having herself lost a son recently, Young-sun and her husband informally adopt Ji-sook and the two kids, who, it turns out, cannot read or write. As they warm to their new surroundings, Ki-woo simmers in jail and his nascent mental illness manifests as violent paranoia. He escapes to reclaim his family.

As with many Korean debut dramas that attempt to tackle a social issue, The Highway Family has a tough time maintaining an even tone. Though Ki-woo’s escape is meant to highlight the fragile state of his mind, it’s played almost as slapstick. More problematically, Lee gradually unspools the back story that got this family into the situation they now find them in, and it’s rich and affecting enough to make the melodrama and thriller aspects feel unnecessary and distracting. Ki-woo, as it turns out, has had a tough time of it, as has Ji-sook, but the frantic climax seems imported from another movie, and Jung’s determination to do it proud only makes matters worse.

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).

The Highway Family home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Seollem film, kt alpha Co., Ltd.

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