Director: He Shuming
Cast: Hong Hui Fang, Jung Dong-hwan, Kang Hyung-suk, Yeo Jin-goo, Shane Pow
Runtime: 1 hr 30 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Mature References)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 27 October 2022
Synopsis: Auntie (Hong Huifang), is a middle-aged Singaporean woman who has dedicated the best years of her life to caring for her family. Now widowed with her grown up son, Sam (Shane Pow) who is about to fly the roost, Auntie is left to contend with a whole new identity beyond her roles of daughter, wife, and mother. A solo trip to Korea becomes a wild adventure for Auntie where she embarks on an unexpected roller coaster ride where hearts flutter and unlikely bonds are formed.
Ajoomma arrives under a wave of expectation, including as the first co-production between Singapore and the Republic of Korea, as a production by Singapore’s award-winning filmmaker Anthony Chen, as the recipient of four Golden Horse Award nominations, and as Singapore’s official submission to the best international feature category at next year’s Academy Awards. And yet this debut from short filmmaker He Shuming would probably do better with less expectation than more, because as assured as it may be, it is at best a heartwarming trifle whose intermittent pleasures are slight and fleeting.
At its core, Ajoomma is a story of a middle-aged widow’s journey of self-discovery through a combination of choice and circumstance. It is the titular Auntie’s choice to travel to South Korea alone, after her twenty-something son Sam (Shane Pow) decides to fly to the United States for a job interview instead of following through on the tour they have been planning for some time. It is however circumstance that will cause her to be separated from her tour group on her first night in South Korea, whereupon she meets the elderly security guard Jung Su (Jung Dong-hwan) and develops an unexpected bond with the widower.
Told largely through the eyes of Auntie (Hong Huifang), the film works best portraying the loneliness of middle-aged women like her, as exemplified in a strong first act. Through daily routines such as morning exercise classes, binge-watching Korean TV dramas in the afternoons, and preparing dinner for her son but having to eat alone because he often works OT, He illustrates Auntie’s sense of loneliness with heartfelt empathy. A later scene when Auntie describes how she gave up her job as a cashier to look after her husband and mother who both fell ill and have since passed away is tender and even heartbreaking, as it reinforces just how she has tried her best to cope with what life had dealt her with.
Not quite so well-defined are the supporting characters whom Auntie will encounter while on vacation. Local tour guide Kwon Woo (Kang Hyung-suk) regrets his estrangement from his wife and daughter due to his loan shark problems, but neither is given sufficient treatment for us to fully relate to his anxieties. It isn’t so clear too whether Auntie truly cares about Kwon Woo’s troubles – on one hand, she leaps into the driver’s seat at a petrol kiosk after seeing him being held against his will by the loan sharks at the back of their car; on the other, she doesn’t feel compelled to intervene when Kwon Woo’s boss fires him for accidentally leaving her behind at the residential apartment complex where he had made an unplanned stop to visit his wife and daughter for the New Year.
The same can be said of Jung Su – whilst it seems he is at a similar stage in his life, having also lost his spouse and seeing his children flying the roost, Jung Su appears to be much more well-adjusted with a job, a pet for company and a hobby of wood carving. It isn’t clear therefore if the reason why Jung Su goes out of his way to take care of Auntie is that he sees her as a kindred spirit or if he is simply being a good Samaritan. Though there is beauty in ambiguity, especially given the warm chemistry between Hong and Jung, we are ultimately left hanging when Jung Su changes his mind about accompanying Auntie the rest of her tour and decides to leave that very evening after seeing her rejoin the group.
Despite these shortcomings, Ajoomma gets by on its low-key charms. A dinner conversation between Auntie and two Mainland Chinese travellers in the same tour group is engaging and often amusing, especially when Auntie starts opening up after a few glasses of soju. The halting conversation between Auntie and a fellow security guard who claims to know how to speak Chinese is unexpectedly hilarious, especially when the latter tries to tell her to follow Jung Su home. And last but not least, the road trip that Auntie, Kwon Woo and Jung Su embark on through the countryside to get to Gangwon is ethereally beautiful, not only because it allows each of them to come to terms with their regrets and losses but also to share however briefly in one another’s unassuming company.
Like we said, it is probably better not to approach Ajoomma with too much expectation, in order not to be disappointed by what is ultimately no more than a simple and unpretentious coming-of-age story. There is no grand drama here, no grand set-up, and certainly no life-changing resolution; this is, after all, a humble story about a middle-aged woman who finds herself after getting lost in a foreign land. Those hoping for a stronger reel and real connection will probably be disappointed – except for a sequence where Hong imagines herself as the birth mother whom Korean star Yeo Jin-goo’s character is reunited with, there is little more which connects Auntie’s love for Korean dramas with her actual trip in Korea. It is not likely we will get into the Oscar nominations with this film, but those who do not mind a modest dramedy with a good dose of uplift will find Ajoomma good, if not warm, company.
(Blessed with a generous, heartfelt performance by Hong Huifang, this unassuming coming-of-age story gets by its tad too simple story with its own modest, low-key charms)
Review by Gabriel Chong