Lee Byung-Hun has carved a name for himself inhabiting steely characters with tortured pasts. In Keys to the Heart, he reprises this formula as a down-and-out boxer, who rediscovers family relations with his estranged mum and autistic brother.
South Korea’s heartwarming version of Rain Man takes the same cues from the iconic classic, featuring tropes that are all too familiar. The smash hit (grossing over $25 million) marries predictable plot with Asian sensibilities, giving us a formulaic commercial title.
The story begins when Jo-ha (Lee Byung-Hun) bumps into his mother In-Sook (Youn Yuh-Jung). He is clearly reluctant to her advances in reuniting, sparking questions in our minds as to the reason for the stand-off. A flashback reveals the cause: that the mother had abandoned the middle-school Jo-ha after suffering extensively under her abusive husband.
Little Jo-ha grew up angsty, to say the least, and the gritty lad becomes a tough boxer, only to lose his career future when he assaults a judge at a match. These days, he spends his time sleeping at comic cafes, eating at convenience stores, and distributing in flyers in sloppy active-wear.
As he considers an invite to move to Canada for work, he accepts In-Sook’s offer to stay with them, in an attempt to save up for the trip. When he returns to the small apartment, he meets his half-brother Jin-Tae (Park Jung-Min).
The peculiar behaviour of the autistic sibling quickly gets on his nerves, and one encounter even ends up with a punch to the face. The poor Jin-tae ends up wearing a hockey mask every time his hot-headed brother comes into the room.
Things start to change when In-Sook goes away for a month for work. Revealing Jin-tae’s exceptional abilities at the piano to Jo-ha, she instructs the elder brother to help Jin-tae participate in a prestigious piano contest. During that period, Jo-ha fully realises the superhuman talents of his brother, being a gaming savant, piano prodigy and overall black bean ramen top chef.
Just as life seems to turn around for Jo-ha, a series of upsets and discoveries cripple the inwardly-fragile boxer, and he is faced with a choice to leave for Canada once again, or keep his allegiance with his family obligations, which he himself was never shown.
Director Choi Seong-Hyeon draws out convincing performances from the cast, in particularly Lee as the struggling Jo-ha. He keeps characters uncomplicated, choosing instead to have a larger ensemble to present differing tones. There’s the bouncy but irreverent Soo-Jung (Choi Ri), the landlord’s daughter who calls things as she sees it. Then reckless driver Ga-Yool (Han Ji-Min) also comes into the picture when she injures Jo-ha, but also turns out to be a reclusive but influential pianist who helps realise Jin-tae’s talent.
This not only keeps the main story light enough to be palatable for the mainstream market, but also provides story arcs to better understand the motivations of the brothers.
Newcomer Park also delivers a commendable performance. It’s rare to see a South Korean actor “ugly” themselves in this direction, and although his performance is at times uneven, his crooked fingers and awkward head tilts are still more expressive than exaggerated.
As the name suggests, Keys to the Heart tugs at heartstrings. There’s nothing revolutionary from the age-old plot, but the updated treatment will still appeal to an audience seeking some samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup) to the soul.
Affirmative and nourishing film that plies the tricks of the trade to get the tear ducts going. Glossy production and middleweight performances make this an enjoyable watch.
First published: www.movieXclusive.com