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Way Home (Erick OH, 2008)

Reviewed by Darcy PAQUET

The hero of Way Home is a dung beetle who rolls a ball of dung over a long distance (in beetle terms) towards his mate, who is waiting for him at home. It’s a film partly about perseverance and effort; we follow closely as he pushes the ball with his hind legs up and down hills and across barren landscapes, sheltering it from the rain when necessary. At one point he must pay everything he has to a larger insect to fly him and the ball up a steep incline. The beetle is drawn in simple outlines, but his fluid movement expresses an endearing dedication and energy, such that we can’t help but feel drawn into his odyssey. A lilting, repetitive musical score becomes more and more poignant as the film progresses.

But this heartwarming portrait of the beetle’s heroic effort is set within a broader and less sentimental context. There is a moment early in the film when the beetle inadvertently rolls his ball of dung over a fly who has just returned home, carrying food to its mate. It’s a troubling (and prophetic) echo of the beetle’s own journey. There is a moment when the beetle looks down at the crushed fly and its panicked mate; the violence was unintentional, and surely the beetle can feel sympathy for the fly’s tragic fate. But he has his own mate waiting for him, and so he sets off again without delay.

This juxtaposition between the empathetic portrait of the beetle’s journey, and the unfeeling forces of nature and self-interest, lie at the heart of Way Home. It can also be seen in other works by director Erick Oh, which encompass both still imagery and animation. Oh’s visual style has evolved greatly between his years spent as an independent animator in Korea to his time studying at UCLA and working at Pixar. His work has grown steadily more refined, surreal and abstract. But his interest in the cruel but dynamic forces of nature has remained constant.

Visually, Way Home is presented in a mostly but not completely monochrome palette: blues, reds and oranges sometimes appear in the sky or in other corners of the screen. It seems an appropriate mirror of the film’s sparse but complex emotional palette. Like many other films by Oh, there is also a circular quality to Way Home’s narrative. The end brings us back, in many ways, to the beginning. This is not only question of aesthetic form, but it also suggests a kind of natural cycle in the events that we see on screen. However upsetting the ending may be, we sense that it fits within some larger pattern. It’s heartbreaking, but at the same time there may be some odd, slight comfort to the thought that all the efforts and sufferings of the individual are part of some greater cycle.

Darcy PAQUET is the founder of the website and the author of New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves (2009, Wallflower Press). A former correspondent for Variety and a contributor to the film magazine Cine21, he currently works as a consultant for the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy and the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain. He also recently appeared as a supporting actor in Im Sang-soo's The Taste of Money (2012). A native of Massachusetts, Darcy has been living in Seoul since 1997.

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