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Putting age behind silver screen

Senior characters take center stage, evolving into individual characters

“An Old Lady” (Atnine Film)
“An Old Lady” (Atnine Film)

The film “An Old Lady,” dealing with the story of a sexually abused 69-year-old woman, has an open ending, as however old they may be, “life goes on for the aged characters,” said Lim Sun-ae, the auteur of the film.

“The film’s message is not about telling people to respect or pay attention to the elderly, but more about the two seniors becoming aware of their own dignity and supporting each other,” Lim said during a press event held in August ahead of the film’s release.

Older characters are often relegated to the sidelines in films, supporting younger characters.

Things may be about to change: Three new films released this year bring older characters to the center, telling stories not often told in South Korean films.

“An Old Lady,” fronted by actress Ye Su-jeong, 65, shows the struggle of Hyo-jung as she tries to prove that she is the victim of a sex crime, assaulted by a 29-year-old male nurse’s aide while she was being treated at a hospital.

As the title suggests, the “old lady” is the lead character with her own story to tell, not just someone’s comforting mother or grandmother.

“Oh! My Gran” (CGV Arthouse)
“Oh! My Gran” (CGV Arthouse)

In another film, “Oh! My Gran,” which hit the local box offices Wednesday, veteran actress Na Moon-hee, 78, familiar to the public for her roles as elderly mothers and grandmothers in dramas and films, is leading the action-comedy flick.

While Na has starred in several commercial hits, including “I Can Speak” (2017) and “Miss Granny” (2014), this is her first leading role in an action flick in her 59-year acting career, according to Na.

In the film Na plays Moon-hee, the only witness to a hit-and-run in which her granddaughter was the victim, who helps her son Doo-won (played by Lee Hee-joon) chase after the perpetrator. According to director Jung Se-kyo, the actress took on action scenes seemingly impossible for a woman of her age, climbing a tree and driving a farm tractor.

“The Story of an Old Couple” (Seoul Arts Center)
“The Story of an Old Couple” (Seoul Arts Center)

A stage-cinema crossover, “The Story of an Old Couple” is another film revolving around older characters. Based on a popular play of the same title running since 2003, the film depicts the romantic relationship of a couple in their 60s, still a largely taboo topic in Korean culture.

Unlike some films from the past that focus on the vulnerability of the silver generation and the need to care for them, films featuring senior characters these days are increasingly bringing them to the fore, portraying them as individuals rather than as part of the background.

According to film critic Kim Kyung-wook, this trend may reflect changing demographics -- Korea is one of the world’s fastest-aging societies.

“The fact that elderly characters are leads in commercial films shows that there is a significant number of audiences who are either of old age or are facing such age -- in their 40s and 50s -- and thus can empathize with such films,” Kim told The Korea Herald.

Indeed, data from CGV, one of the nation’s top three multiplex operators, showed that the proportion of cinemagoers in their 50s, who made up around 7 percent of the total in 2015, had almost doubled as of May this year.

Actress Ye said she decided to star in “An Old Lady” because it did not stereotype elderly people into a social class, but attempted to explore their lives as individuals.

“Just like the youths, we old people also have different thoughts and unique lifestyles,” she said during the film’s premiere event, saying there was a need for more films that depict the lives of old people in genuine ways.

It seems that it is not only aged people who are fascinated by the stories of their own generation. As of Sunday, data shows that 64 percent of the people who reserved tickets for “An Old Lady” through the portal site Naver were in their 20s and another 27 percent were in their 30s. For “Oh! My Granny,” 74 percent of the total reservations were made by those in their 20s and 30s.

“Watching the film, I realized it is not Hyo-jung’s age -- whether 19 or 69 -- that is important. When Hyo-jung stands strong as herself, nothing can block her way or stop her from protecting her own dignity,” read a review of the film written by an online user in her 20s. 

By Choi Ji-won(