Monday, 12 March 2007

Hearty Paws 마음이 (2006)

Lassie come home!

Dogs may be man's best friend, but in Korea, they're man's best dish. You'd probably remember a minor fracas during the 2002 World Cup, where FIFA's officials had to beg the South Korean government to do something about the restaurants selling dog and cat meat and sparked off a national debate, with South Koreans young and old rising to defend their culture, and eating more pet meat in defiance of alleged Western imperialist cultural meddling. In the end, the government reluctantly complied with FIFA's requests, banning the sale of dog meat in restaurants in Seoul - an irony surely, since the Korean government actually banned the consumption of dog and cat meat as well as dog and cat farms, in 1991.

Perhaps attitudes are slowly changing after all: Hearty Paws stars the first ever Korean dog to be raised for acting instead of being raised for your dinner plate. It's a sort of Korean Lassie movie, featuring a loyal white Labrador who sticks with his human owners, a pair of young orphans living in penury in their family home. Through thick and thin, Hearty the dog endures hardships with his young master Chan, tracking him across the vast country after the accidental death of younger sister Sol-i drives a wedge between boy and dog. Unlike the Lassie or Rin Tin Tin movies, Hearty doesn't save his owners from certain deaths and huge trouble, but I'm sure modern children will be more appreciative of dogs that are just there for their owners. But like the classic Lassie and Rin Tin Tin movies, there's a grittier and more serious subplot, where the dog is eventually expected to save the owner. In Hearty Paws, this comes when the brother ends up as a beggar on the streets of Seoul after a failed search for his long-lost mother, and joins a gang or syndicated of child beggars run by what appears to be a Korean Fagin, who serves as the antagonist for the rest of the movie.

On the whole, a dog movie like this should appear to the children below the age of 12, with its oh-so-cute leading dog role, its emotional storytelling, and very simple and predictable plot (though still not that simple and predictable to the point of cliche). Parents, be warned though that while this is ultimately a children's movie, Hearty Paws is first and foremost a Korean children's movie. What would seem normal and acceptable for a children's movie in the Korean cultural context may seem a little out of place elsewhere. Think about whether your young ones may be traumatised to see a caged dog-fight sequence (no, not Snoopy vs the Red Baron dog fight, but more like a cock fight, but with dogs, and behind a steel cage!), or whether they'd be turned off at the many scenes where the star dog is presumably kicked or beaten with a metal baseball bat, Old Boy style. I bet you may not expect scenes like this to take place in a children's movie, so I'm letting you know in advance.

Fans of the Korean wave may find some joy in identifying the really cheesy bits of the movie. No, not the predictable and heartwarming bits, but the prerequisite elements that make Korean movies uniquely Korean: there's a tragic death from a debilitating illness that's accompanied by the melodramatic "body goes limp in the arms of the beloved" death scene, the completely unexpected by prerequisite death from a speeding vehicle, and the casual violence. Unfortunately here they just jolt the young audience out of the illusion that this is a children's film, and serve to highlight that for a movie industry with so much talent in creative scriptwriting and directing, there is way too much cheese...

Frankly, I'm already impressed that the Koreans have actually made a movie with a dog as a hero. After all, you'd think that a movie about a pair of poor orphans living with a dog in their house would be a short movie - they'd cook the dog when they run out of money.

First published at incinemas on 15 March 2007

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