June 16, 2024

Family will break your heart and bruise your heart and mend your heart like no one else can — not always in that order, and sometimes all three at once. In his exceptional, happy-sad-funny debut film “House of the Seasons,” Oh Jung-min creates a beautiful tapestry of intimate sprawl, as three generations of a meddlesome, quarrelsome, loving Korean clan experience all the colors of familial life while the hills of their village home phase from lush green to copper and russet to stark, snowy white.

Through clean bright clouds of clearing steam, we’re invited into the small Daegu Village tofu factory owned and run by the Kim family. Hae-sook (Cha Mi-kyeong), the careworn, efficient wife of the factory’s flighty current boss Tae-geun (Oh Man-seok) is taking special care with this batch, as tonight it’s to be part of their Jesa ceremony — an annual ritual commemorating the spirits of dead ancestors. Back at the nearby house, her newly pregnant daughter Mi-hwa (Kim See-eun) declares the fresh tofu delicious. But it does not pass muster with Hae-sook’s formidable mother-in-law Mal-neyo (Son Sook) who samples a sliver with a connoisseur’s discernment and declares that Hae-sook used “too much brine.” 

It’s a hot summer’s day and, toiling over a frying pan inexpertly making savoury pancakes for the feast, Mi-hwa begs her grandmother to turn on the air conditioning. In response, Mal-neyo clicks the fan to a higher setting. Luxuries are not to be wasted, and certainly not, it is implied, on the working women of the family, nor their husbands idling in an adjoining room. They are all waiting for an arrival that means more even than the ritual itself, summed up when venerated Grandfather Kim (Woo Sangjeon) glances at his assembled brood and asks impatiently “Where is Seong-jin?” 

Seong-jin (Kang Seung-ho), the treasured only grandson of the family, lives in Seoul pursuing his acting career, and is at that moment throwing up in a taxi en route. He claims it’s carsickness, but his father Tae-geun cackles that he’s not able to handle his drink. Surly and slouching, the way we all are as young adults when dragged by duty back to our recently fled childhood homes, Seong-jin does however perk up when he sees his doting grandmother. He gifts her a novelty karaoke microphone, which she immediately uses to announce “Seong-jin is here! Seong-jin is here! Turn on the air conditioning!” Aside from all its other loud and quiet pleasures, “House of the Seasons” fields an unusual take on the pressures and stresses of being the favourite child, a status that is Seong-jin’s blessing and his curse, even as, over the course of a year that will encompass two more trips home in the wake of his beloved grandmother’s sudden death, he gradually becomes deserving of it.  

There is no hand-holding here and no big exposition-drops that explain the characters’ backgrounds. Instead, with remarkable skill for a first-feature writer-director, as the seasons change and Mal-neyo’s death sows division in the family over the whereabouts of a contested bank book, Oh rewards the attentive viewer with little plosive puffs of revelation that emerge the way they would in life between people who already know each other’s stories: in a stray sarcastic comment or a late-night confidence or a drunken argument. In such a manner we discover the nature of the accident that put Seong-jin’s uncle in hospital long-term, as well as the undercurrents of disappointment that flow between the men of the family with regards to running the factory. And in a moving scene between grandfather and grandson, it’s also how we learn why, when going to bury Mal-neyo in the family plot, there were no other Kim remains to be found.  

The delicacy of this approach, creating an intricate lattice of connections that is sturdy yet invisible from some angles, like a spider’s web, pulls Oh’s film back from melodrama or mawkishness. The restraint is mirrored in DP Lee Jinkeun unobtrusively superb photography, which is sparing in its use of close-ups, lending even the most torridly emotive moments composure and dignity.  As a whole package, Oh’s film is most reminiscent of the work of the late Taiwanese master Edward Yang (“Yi Yi”), and there can be little higher praise. 

As the gentle mystery at the root of the increasingly intractable recent schism is revealed, like so many of the Kims’ mysteries, to result from a touching, if misapplied, gesture of intergenerational care, the credits roll. An old man walks slowly off, to be finally swallowed up by the snowy landscape and we realize that Oh’s last act of grace is to leave the film’s year incomplete. “House of the Seasons” encompasses a sweltering summer and a vivid autumn and even if we depart on a pang of midwinter melancholy, there is shimmering, restorative comfort in knowing what comes next. 

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