The movie is paced slow, but I usually love slower (and good) movies, so I found it no trouble watching through it all. The slowness of the pace is however, very deliberate and seems like it serves a definite purpose – every time the grandma is shown, the movie slows down. But I’m getting ahead of myself! (As usual, spoilers ahead, so do not read if you are planning to watch!)
The Way Home is about a grandma and her grandson. Sang-woo’s mom is out of a job and she leaves her son at her grandma’s for a few months until she can return and pick him up. The kid is from the city and he finds it really difficult to adjust to his new situation. The grandmom (who cannot speak) tries her best to help. Simple premise, but extremely good execution.
The initial scenes of the movie where Sang-woo is intentionally cruel would’ve been tragic and hard to watch if it had come from a grown son. But somehow we immediately forgive him for he is a kid and does not understand what he’s doing. He continues in this vein, ignoring his grandmother’s efforts to please him, eating food he brought from home, abusing her at every opportunity, and not caring at all about the lengths she goes to care for him. The grandmother’s hardship is subtle and not really emphasized in this part of the movie, perhaps correlating with how Sang-woo views the scene.
Sang-woo’s belligerence and aloofness extends to the other kids too. He looks down upon them and plays a joke on an elder kid that results in him getting hurt.
The turning point comes about when he goes on a trip to buy batteries for his depleted game machine and then gets lost. A neighbor brings him home, but he’s crying, has realized that he’s helpless without an adult, and somehow starts to understand his grandmother more.
She takes him to the city to buy his favorite food in a restaurant and he watches as she spends almost her entire earnings to buy him just a single meal. She saves up money to buy him batteries, goes on a long trip in the rain (and then falls sick) to cook him “Kentucky Chicken”, makes an outhouse so that he can go to the loo without her watching, and slowly he starts to understand her sacrifices and comes to love her.
The most interesting bit of the movie for me was the point when he finally understands what his grandmother is trying to say when she rubs her hands over her chest – a frequent action during the earlier parts of the movie. She was trying to say “I’m sorry” and this releases a burst of shame in Sang-woo that culminates in him loving her a lot.
Towards the end, Sang-woo is desperate to remain in contact with his grandmom. She can’t write, so he tries to teach her to write two sentences: “I miss you” and “I’m sick”. She doesn’t seem to be able to form words, so he converts his drawing pad into endless repetitions of these two words with his address printed on the back. “Just post these”, he says and I’ll come see you.
The ending is bittersweet. We realize that Sang-woo’s experience has changed him a lot, but he still cannot hug his grandmother for fear of crying. He refuses to stare at her as his mom comes to pick him up and the bus starts up, but we see him towards the end rubbing his hand over his chest.