20 years after his debut Motel Cactus, Park Ki-yong returns with his 8th feature Old Joy, a contemplative work that proves to be director's strongest since his early days as one of the pioneers of the nascent Korea indie filmmaking scene.
A Korean woman returns from Canada after a long absence and as she smokes a cigarette outside the airport terminal she meets an old college friend, whose child has just left on another journey. After a brief catch-up, the pair decide to meet again and gently retrace the memories they shared in the past and meet their old theater friends, though none in the group have survived as actors.
The reunited protagonists of Park's film, played by Yoo Jung-ah and Kim Tae-hoon, meet at a transit point by chance, after having been separated by decades of choices which led them along different paths, neither of which seem to have come to the destinations they'd hoped for. The location of their meeting is symbolic of their being caught in life's journey without a clear trajectory. This is compounded with images of being stuck in a place of transit, such as when the man can't find his car, as if there's no way out.
Much later in the film, during another journey outside of town, they sadly drink alone and share their pain, while another group of travelers is gathered under the same roof, wiling the evening away with mirth. They are a young theater group and it doesn't take long for the elderly man to insert himself in their conversation.
He announces himself as a former actor to cheers but as he imparts his questionable wisdom over several glasses of soju, he becomes a source of irritation and soon sadness as desire to share his knowledge makes way for the excavation of his personal disappointment and sorrow. Much as he would like to, he is unable to fit in, separated by a generational divide and all the choices his audience has yet to make.
A film about ageing, the passing of time and missed opportunities, Old Joy proceeds with a deliberate pace that won't be to everyone's liking, while the regretful, almost mournful quality of the atmosphere hardly makes it a pleasant journey. Yet Park's unadorned style ensures that it feels real, and one can sense how the director is bearing his own soul as he muses over the path that his own life has taken.
Like Kim Dae-hwan's The First Lap, an award winner at the Locarno International Film Festival this year, Old Love also features its characters attending the candlelight rallies in the dead of winter that led to former president Park Geun-hye's impeachment. Society is changing around them and while their participating in the protests may indicate their desire for this to happen, it also has a melancholy aspect, as any change, no matter how positive, will likely deepen the separation between this world and the one they knew in their youth, when their drive and optimism had yet to be worn down by life's meandering vacillations.
Ultimately Park's film is about displacement, not merely of individuals, but of an entire generation that existed during the years which are now maligned by today's youth. As the man says at one point during the story, "I'm a guest wherever I go."