Jo Nam-bong (Lee Soon-jae, Stand by Me) and his wife, Lee Mae-ja (Jung Young-sook, Be-Bop-A-Lula), share a cramped apartment with their son, Jin-soo (Cho Han-cheul); his wife, Kim Jeong-hee (Bae Hae-sun); and their daughter, Eun-ji (Lee Ye-won). Money is tight, but while Nam-bong, Jeong-hee, and even Mae-ja find work, Jin-soo does little more than drink with his friends and daydream of landing an academic job.
One day Mae-ja collapses while giving the neighbor women permanents. She visits a neurologist and learns that she has vascular dementia. After a violent episode in which she confronts her husband over the death of their daughter, Nam-bong insists that the family institutionalize her. He soon sees how unhappy his wife is, and decides to bring her home, at which point he discovers that he, too, suffers from the debilitating illness. Jeong-hee, concerned for Eun-ji’s safety, takes the little girl and leaves. Jin-soo soon follows, leaving the elderly couple alone to fend for themselves.
Despite its conventional storyline, Romang is never boring or unoriginal: For example, as their conditions worsen, the elderly couple discovers they must communicate by leaving notes for one another during their fleeting moments of lucidity. Suddenly, the film becomes Il Mare (Lee Hyeon-seung, 2000) as two characters (re)unite and grow to love one another. Realism flies out the window as film focuses on the private lives of its two leads. While this refusal of verisimilitude may perplex or irritate some viewers (their son and his wife neither call nor visit, their granddaughter doesn’t notice her smart phone is missing, no friends or neighbors stop to chat or check in), Lee seems to be providing the couple (and the audience) with a much-needed, albeit illusory respite from suffering – in the same way that Kim Tae-yong allows the doomed lovers of his Late Autumn (2010) one afternoon of cinematic happiness, or Leo McCarey gives the elderly parents of Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) a few last, beautiful hours together, before a tragic final act.
Cinematography by Lee Jung-in is breathtaking, especially the film’s final twenty minutes. The cast is first rate, with Cho, perhaps the most under-rated performer in Korea, giving a remarkable performance, as he reliably does, despite being given such a thankless role. His scenes of emotional breakdown are marked by a heartbreakingly realistic intensity.
Although director Lee’s first feature film has met with gentle criticism in Korea for its somewhat traditional treatment of a familiar subject, it has likewise been praised for its outstanding performances and stunning cinematography. Lee and Jung, both legends, have careers that extend back four decades; thus, audiences familiar with Korean film and TV drama will likely feel an especially strong emotional connection to the film. It is perhaps because of this familiarity, because the stars’ faces – especially Jung’s, whose ethereal beauty is unrivaled – still radiate with the same intensity as they always have, that when the film’s action shifts briefly to a senior living center, the viewer becomes acutely aware that what is unfolding onscreen is unmistakably a performance: At the entrance to the building, an elderly woman (a real resident?) sits in a wheelchair and stares directly into the camera, unblinking. Her stare, at once shocking (extras are instructed never to look at the camera) and touching (the viewer is left wondering whether the look on her face is one of sadness, confusion, loneliness, or simply numbness), communicates more about crises facing the elderly in Korea and elsewhere than any performance might.