Our second feature in our Korean outing was the shockingly good tear-jerker Keys to the Heart. My only disclaimer on this is that our lives with The Enigma make us particularly attuned to the sorts of problems that people who are handling autistic/brain-injured kids have. We might find it especially moving, in other words, although if The Boy was sniffling next to me, he was echoed throughout the rows and rows behind us.
Keys to the Heart opens with a church service, a choir is singing and a boy, Jin Tae (Jung-min Park), is banging away on the piano. While he’s playing he’s watching Street Fighter V videos on his phone and occasionally vocalizing in an agitated manner. His mother lectures him on the way home that he can be assured of entrance into heaven if he only would put away his phone. Jin Tae tends to respond with a simple “Yup” and “Nope”, straightforward to the point of comedy, but increasing our awareness of his limitations.
The mix of comedy and tragedy here would be astounding, but actually seems to be characteristic of a lot of east Asian narratives, especially Japanese stuff. Even so, we were shocked at times.
Meanwhile, we meet Jo-Ha (Byung-hun Lee, Fortress, The Magnificent Seven), a middle-aged ex-boxer being kicked out of his gym (where he slept?) because he beat the tar out of an Olympic prospect in sparring practice. Reduced to his second job (handing out fliers) and with no place to sleep, he crosses paths with Jin Tae’s mother.
Who, by the way, is his mother.
For whom he has nothing but rage (and no small amount of grief). But a night spent sleeping in the library (all night libraries, maybe in a university?), another night drinking and then being hit by a car and dragged off to a rich person’s mega-mansion for intimidation, and diminishing funds encourage him to let his mother take him in and feed him the next night. He has never met his little brother, but his mother assures him that Jin-Tae is excited at the prospect of having a big brother, and happy to let Jo-Ha have his room.
Which is fine until Jin-Tae wanders in to his old room in the middle of the night and the two end up cuddling. The freaked out Jo-Ha can’t handle the even more freaked out Jin-Tae and suddenly cold-cocks him.
This is funny and horrifying. I mean, seriously. You end up laughing but then, you know, this isn’t a comic book movie. A physically capable boxer knocked his autistic brother out cold. For the next several scenes, Jin-Tae always wears a catcher’s mask in Jo-Ha’s presence. This is also funny—and horrifying. Jo-Ha doesn’t even make the connection till the beginning of the third act, and convinces his brother to take the mask off.
But Jo-Ha has a temper and whenever he rages, Jin-Tae runs to put on the mask.
There are a lot of great comic moments in this movie, but they derive from the drama of the situation, and they all have repercussions later on. Jo-Ha’s roughness and temper is a problem, but it also creates an opportunity for Jin-Tae, and keeps him from condescending to Jin-Tae—who can seriously kick Jo-Ha (or anyone’s) ass in a number of video games, to say nothing of being a master piano player. (Jin-Tae also kicks the ass of the landlady’s coquettish 17-year-old daughter, who tries to tease reactions out of Jin-Tae in a way that astonishingly humanizes both of them. She treats him like a peer, basically, and despite his social deficiencies in a lot of ways, he’s completely unflappable and quick to taunt her with his “new girlfriend”.)
He really looks like he’s playing here, as does Ji-Min Han (the rich person behind the wheel of the car), which might be CGI but also might just be Korea.
Whenever it seems like Jo-Ha is going to warm up to his mom, something will happen that drives the two apart again. And their shared recollection (done separately) of the night she left him with his abusive father is one of the more heart-breaking things you’ll see in film—and the sort of thing I’ve seen before in Korean movies—and it’s really kind of fascinating the way they do things.
We understand mom’s motivations, to some degree. We understand Jo-Ha, certainly, though we can’t entirely excuse his behavior. We understand Jin-Tae by way of his brain problems, but a funny thing happens: We all gots issues, the movie is telling us, and what matters is how we deal with them. There’s plenty of victimhood to go around—and also plenty of victimizing. The movie doesn’t address the issue of whether there’s some cosmic scale balancing things out because for all intents and purposes, that does not matter.
Jo-Ha got a raw deal one way. Jin-Tae another. (And the way autism plays out in Korean society, with its relatively mannered culture, is way different from America.) Ji-Min Han (that’s the actress’s name, I don’t remember her character’s name) got a raw deal. The mom got a raw deal. The dad—well, he’s definitely more on the dishing out raw deal side, but that’s probably because we don’t know his backstory.
Ultimately, all the characters come to a certain resolution which is satisfying one way or another, and Jo-Ha’s transformation is wonderful and played wonderfully by Lee. The movie ends up being a feel-good tearjerker with bunches of laugh-out-loud moments. It’s truly a delight, and a film I could cheerfully watch again despite some of the heavier emotional moments.
The next week, we would end up seeing a Chinese double-feature which would also fare well in our eyes.