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[Movie Review] I Can Speak tells the story of a woman finding her voice

Last year’s I Can Speak, from director Kim Hyun-seok (C’est Si Bon, Cyrano Agency) and starring Na Mun-hee and Lee Je-hoon, is a comedy-drama that takes its viewers on an unexpected but moving journey. Lee plays Min-jae, a disaffected but diligent lower-level civil servant newly transferred to the ward office where Na’s character Ok-boon files multiple civil complaints a day, to the staff’s endless exasperation. When the newbie takes her seriously instead of hand-waving her concerns like everyone else, she zeroes in on him as her new target.

Thus begins a hilarious all-out siege of paperwork and stakeouts, until Min-jae accepts the obvious fact that he’s no match for Ok-boon’s stubbornness and reluctantly agrees to teach her English. As their lessons progress, there’s a lot of delightful bonding between the no-nonsense Min-jae and the cantankerous but generous-hearted Ok-boon; she even manages to bring him closer to his semi-estranged high-school-aged brother, who is his only family in the world. The first half of the movie is mostly about lonely souls in the awkward and funny beginning stages of friendship—possibly even a new family unit.

That lighthearted tone shifts about halfway through, once we find out why Ok-boon actually wants to learn English. The revelation transforms what seems at first to be a heartwarming comedy about found family into a deeply affecting drama about trauma and healing and finding one’s voice. Still, I didn’t find the shift in tone jarring the way I sometimes do with Korean films that advertise a rom-com and give me a cancer melodrama (I’m looking at you, Fighting Spirit. Also, don’t worry, this is not a cancer melodrama). Because despite the humor of the first hour, the movie is peppered with moments of melancholy, and even before we learn about Ok-boon’s story, we know that she, Min-jae and his brother have little to anchor themselves in the world other than daily routine, and as time passes, each other. So when things do get heavier, the change is more about the audience finding a deeper significance in the details we’ve been seeing all along, the new information giving us a different perspective on Ok-boon and her relationships.

If anything, while there were some very funny moments in the first half of the movie, it has an inertia that doesn’t quite let it get going until we get to the meat of Ok-boon’s secrets, the meaning that English holds for her, and what learning the language can allow her to do. The film might have been served better by shortening the slow-moving first half, or felt more balanced if we were given more insight into Min-jae’s life, his disappointed dreams, and his relationship with his brother, which are brought up but given only a cursory exploration. Ok-boon’s story is deservedly the main plot, and I appreciate the way the reveal is held back while she and Min-jae get to know each other, but the necessity of keeping such a large part of who she is in reserve until halfway through makes the story feel as though it lacks momentum up to that point. (There’s also some awkward English dialogue from supposedly native speakers, though it’s only a minor distraction.)

Still, that climax takes us somewhere far beyond where I was expecting this story to go, and addresses an issue that—although this based-on-true-events project is set a decade ago—is still relevant and moving today. As expected, national treasure Na Moon-hee gives a skillful performance, certainly deserving of all the best actress awards she received for this movie. She is the heart of this story, bringing both its laugh-out-loud humor and its moments of deepest pathos, convincingly portraying this lonely old woman who hides her soft and damaged heart under crustiness and overzealous regulation of her neighborhood.

The rest of the characters might fade into the background in comparison given their thin characterizations, but Na is the kind of actor who, rather than exposing her co-stars’ weaknesses, tends to bring them into her own reflected glow. That means that her interactions with even minor characters such as a resentful neighbor or a grumpy city official take on the flavor of real human interaction. And Lee Je-hoon, of course, is the perfect foil for her; his disappointed young salaryman who opens his heart to a cranky but adorable old lady may be a cliche, but he pulls it off as well as he does all of his roles.

I Can Speak is ultimately the story of a woman who finds her courage and her voice in the twilight of her life, and in the process realizes that taking the chance to speak might offer rewards even beyond what she expected. It’s an inspiring and unexpectedly rewarding viewing experience—just make sure to keep some tissues close at hand.

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