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[MOVIE REVIEW] `My Father,` a heart-wrenching drama

Finding a long-lost father is an emotional experience. If the father lives in a country across the Pacific Ocean and the reunion takes place in a highly odd place after a two-decade interval, the emotional intensity is bound to be overwhelming.
"My Father," a story based on a real Korean adoptee in the United States who came to Korea to find his birth parents, has all the trappings of a powerful emotion-driven drama. And director Hwang Dong-hyeok seems to understand the obvious danger of too much melodramatic portrayal about a story that is already dramatic enough.
The film starts from a peaceful scene in a picturesque American suburb where James Parker (Daniel Henney) opens up a mail box and finds a letter leading to his quest for his birth parents in Korea. His American parents cared a lot about Parker, and he knows he`s well loved and his life in the United States couldn`t be better, but he still cannot give up his hope of tracing his past.
<**1>As a member of the U.S. army stationed in Korea, Parker appears on a national television program, explaining his case to Korean audiences. His effort does not go unnoticed because he gets a call about his birth father Hwang Nam-cheol (Kim Young-cheol), who turns out to be an inmate -- on death row.
At the high-profile reunion with reporters trying to get a glimpse of the father-son meeting, Parker encounters a stranger in an inmate suit. When Hwang touches his hand, Parker withdraws his hand cautiously, not knowing what to do.
Parker gradually sheds his fear and makes efforts to close the distance with his Korean father. He is also told that he is not supposed to visit his father in the morning because death-row inmates tend to be extremely fearful about any calls from the guard in the morning, not knowing whether it`s a signal for an execution.
Director Hwang does not add too many explanatory details about father-son relationships. Instead, he shows how Parker comes to terms with his formerly unknowable past.
Parker`s present, like many other Korean adoptees around the world, is also saddled with a dilemma. He`s working as a U.S. soldier in Korea, and he barely understands Korean, but his homeland is Korea, and he looks like a Korean -- and a quite handsome one at that.
When a clash of culture occurs between Korean and American soldiers, Parker finds himself stuck in between. He`s neither a Korean nor an American, strictly speaking. Even though he has reunited with his birth father, his confusing identity has not changed a bit.
But Parker has to address a more pressing and personal issue: His Korean father, a death-row inmate, does not have many days to live. Many of the well-crafted scenes that follow are designed to heighten the emotional pitch toward the end of the film, and what is remarkable is that Daniel Henney pulls off an impressive act befitting the confused yet good-hearted Korean adoptee. Henney`s performance -- subtle body gestures and facial expressions -- seem natural for the most part, a dramatic upgrade from "Seducing Mr. Perfect," a ham-fisted romantic comedy where he played an unforgettably wooden character.
Kim Young-cheol equally displays depth as a death-row inmate, with his 10-kilogram weight loss for the film standing out. Kim`s rich acting experience undoubtedly adds more realistic layers that the film needs before presenting a surprise turn in plot.
"My Father," to be released nationwide today, is a slow-paced ride that starts out sad and gets sadder and sadder and then escalates up to the emotional peak so subtly that its heart-wrenching climax leaves a long resonance that is full of emotions.
By Yang Sung-jin