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[Herald Review] ‘Mal-Mo-E’ has heart, comedy, great characters and a beautiful story

A disclaimer: It is possible that bias may have influenced this reviewer’s opinion that Eom Yu-na’s directorial debut, “Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission,” is one of the best films of the decade. Depictions of the people who fought to keep the nation’s spirit alive against foreign suppression always stirs patriotism in the hearts of South Koreans.

But as someone who found the 2015 film “Assassination” a bit clunky and 2014’s “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” a bit too emotional, I can confidently say that Eom’s period piece has all the elements of a great movie and marks the young director’s successful transition from quality screenwriter to director.

The film takes place in 1940, when the Korean Peninsula was still colonized by the Japanese. While fighting World War II, Japan tried to squash Korea’s identity by banning the teaching of the Korean language -- and ultimately, its use as well.

“Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission” (Lotte Entertainment)
“Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission” (Lotte Entertainment)

A handful of scholars, including Ryu Jeong-hwan, played by Yoon Kye-sang, attempt to keep the language alive by publishing a dictionary. He runs across Kim Pan-su, an illiterate man played by Yoo Hae-jin who has turned to petty thievery to support his children, and the two end up working together.

This does not prove easy under the ironfisted Japanese authorities in a country where young children are forgetting Korean and Hangeul, the Korean writing system.

“Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission” (Lotte Entertainment)
“Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission” (Lotte Entertainment)

Although “Mal-Mo-E” has many great qualities, I have to start with the director. Writing a good story and telling it in cinematic language are very different arts. As a case in point, I marvel at Park Hoon-jung’s ability to cook up creative stories, but I do not have great expectations when he is the director.

Eom, however, exceeds expectations on every level. The screenwriter for 2017’s “A Taxi Driver” showed that she can tell stories cinematically as well as she can write them.

The character development felt natural and the film was well-paced. The film had some hard-hitting scenes, but the director knew better than to let them get too emotional. The lines were on point and had a powerful ring. The story had interesting subplots, but the director was careful not to let the main plot get sidetracked. It had humor, but the director could control herself to avoid turning her film into a joke.

If I were to nitpick, the first act felt a little bit rushed -- a bit hasty in establishing the character of Ryu. But it quickly got back on its feet and galloped onward.

Some may think Yoon’s acting as Ryu is underwhelming in contrast to Yoo’s standout performance, but Yoon pulled his weight in depicting a young character faced with a dilemma. I like that the film does not spell it out for the audience and instead allows us to read the characters and the situation.

As for Yoo, he is just awesome.

He is one of those actors who can tell a million stories and convey just as many emotions with only his face -- and his tone, body language and pacing make every line feel real. Beyond that, Yoo is incredibly funny but still manages to pin viewers to the spot when the right moment comes.

Woo Hyun, Kim Hong-fa and the rest of the supporting cast are great. I did not mention the great chemistry between the two leading men -- Yoo and Yoon – because, honestly, there was almost no bad chemistry in this film.

But to nitpick once again, Song Young-chang’s very minor character was not especially impressive considering his acting talent.

I could tell that the production staff put a lot of effort into recreating colonial-era Korea as well, particularly the set and the language choices. The different dialects felt natural, and although I’m sure the Korean actors were not speaking perfect Japanese, as a non-native speaker I couldn’t really tell.

Overall, this movie told a beautiful story that felt real, backed by great acting and production staff instead of relying on a big-name cast and a fancy set to sell tickets. I particularly loved the fact that not many tears were shed, but the emotions were so strong that they overwhelmed many in the audience. I’ve always thought that the strongest tearjerker is one that makes the audience weep without being all weepy itself.

Having said that, one of the film’s biggest strengths may end up hurting its box-office success. Despite his brilliance, Yoo as the lead actor is limited in his potential to sell tickets, and Yoon is the only person who would attract any paparazzi.

Although I doubt the movie will break any box-office records, I really believe it should.

“Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission” opens in theaters Jan. 9.

By Yoon Min-sik