Na Moon-hee and Lee Je-hoon star in a comedy-drama from director Kim Hyun-seok.
A pleasant comedy-drama makes way for bald-faced histrionics in Kim Hyun-seok's overly calculated new offering I Can Speak. Veteran name Na Moon-hee and younger star Lee Je-hoon are an engaging pair at the film's center but when the story's true intentions are revealed nothing is safe from the manipulative wrangling taking place behind the scenes, which seeks to elicit a strong emotional reaction from local viewers.
Min-jae, a fastidious young civil servant, takes on a new post, eager to impress in his new district while he takes care of his younger brother at home. Little does he expect that he will end up locking horns with the elderly Ok-boon, who terrorizes the office with innumerable complaints on a daily basis. However, before the rivalry gets the best of either of them, Ok-boon discovers that Min-jae is a great English speaker, and since she desperately wishes to reconnect with her long-lost brother in America, she makes him a proposition: a moratorium on abusing the office's resources in exchange for English lessons. Before long the two grow close until some long-buried secrets make a very public return to the surface.
When it comes to issues-based commercial cinema, there's a fine line between between examination and exploitation. Korean cinema is nothing if not an industry that constantly seeks to reflect back on itself and if you watch a few dozen of the most successful local films of all time, you'll find that half of those can give you a solid footing in understanding the country's history and society. Cleave too close to the ideological hearts of these titles however, and you may find a few negative traits.
I Can Speak is a film that completely switches up its game and tone a little past the midway point and to honestly discuss it there's no way to avoid revealing the territory it explores. Therefore, consider this a spoiler warning for the rest of the review.
As it turns out, Ok-boon isn't just any cranky and lonely old lady, as the root cause of her behavior turns out to be her past as a comfort woman, which is to say a wartime sex slave for the Japanese military. Not only that, she is Lee Yong-soo, a comfort woman who famously spoke before the US Congress in 2007, and this event is where the tale repoints its compass.
With the general rise of Colonial Era tales in Korean Cinema, so too has the comfort drama seen a dramatic surge in popularity, particularly with indie hits such as Spirits' Homecoming and Snowy Road breaking out. As it truncates the issue into a lengthy final act, I Can Speak doesn't give itself the time to properly explore the issue and instead relies on its mere mention to enrage viewers. It doesn't help that a lengthy sequence set in Washington DC is packed with subpar American actors and laughably evil Japanese diplomats.
While it was clearly designed around the comfort woman issue, it's a shame that the film we're first introduced to is thrown out the window. The first half of I Can Speak is filled with well-timed comedy and engaging side stories. It's mainstream fare through and through but a cut above the usually rote meandering of local comedy-dramas.
Director Kim has had a rocky but steady career and the first two thirds of the film are among his better work, alongside YMCA Baseball Team and Cyrano Agency. Meanwhile, the rushed and garbled final act, even aside from its thematic content, is more in line with the miscalculations of 11 A.M. and C'est si bon. The same can be said of Miss Granny star Na and Lee of The Phantom Detective, as after forging a strong bond through their exacting performances, they begin to look a little lost once the story switches gears.
While the prior balance and pathos of the narrative are torn asunder as it stomps through a hysterical final act, it can at least be said that I Can Speak is entirely successful in its aims. After employing all the collective filmmaking ability of the cast and crew to lure viewers in, the film pulls an about face as it jams on the breaks and swerves maniacally into the hot-button comfort women issue. Kim and co use every trick in the book to anger their audience and fan the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment. And it works, absolutely, and a majority of Korean viewers will surely be affected by the tale.