Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"For a film based around a distressing situation, Canola incorporates a lot of comedy, poking fun at stereotypes of islanders and city folks and drawing on its solid supporting cast for character-based humour."

Which is bigger, the sea of the sky? If you want a real answer to this, it’s pretty clear: the sea has a total volume of around 1.3bn cubic kilometres, whereas the sky amounts to around 19.3bn cubic kilometres. To a small girl sitting on the rocks at the edge of the canola fields, however, it seems that the sea goes on forever. Her grandmother goes diving in there, holding her breath for ten minutes at a time as she searches for oysters. The girl watches dolphins dance among the waves. Can they make wishes come true?

Grandma (Youn Yuh-jung) is poor and Hye-ji doesn’t have her parents present in her life, but it’s an idyllic kind of life in its way, the middle-aged woman doting on the child. The fact they’re on an island means it’s safe for the child to wander, ducking in and out of the bright yellow flowers, even if she does get scared when Grandma briefly vanishes in fog. The mainland is a different matter, however. Director Yoon Hong-seung keeps us so involved in the lively interactions between the two, so focused on the moment, that we barely notice the moment when she slips away. Suddenly, Grandma is alone in a crowded marketplace, desperately searching, calling out a name which will echo in vain for the next 12 years.

Skipping forward, we find ourselves in the city. A teenager named Hye-ji (Kim Go-eun) is living a difficult life, sharing a tiny basement room with a friend, making ends meet by shoplifting, often going hungry. When she’s pressured into participating in a robbery and it goes wrong, she travels to the island, presenting herself as the long lost girl whose picture she has seen on the side of a milk carton. But what might seem to be a simple story about an imposter – another [10272]The Return Of Martin Guerre[/film] – turns out to be rather more complicated. This Hye-ji has the same bracelet that the child was wearing when she disappeared. She’s carrying the same gold-coloured crayon. Could she actually be the same person after all?

The mention, early on, that a DNA test will be conducted ensures viewers are aware that events are going to come to a head one way or another. Meanwhile this troubled, restless Hye-ji moves in with the happiest Grandma on the island. The bulk of the film is built around the relationship which develops between them and the transformational effect it has on both their personalities. As the old woman discovers a new appetite for life, the teenager, initially defensive, gradually opens up, learns responsibility and, with the help of a dedicated teacher (Yang Ik-joon), discovers that she has a talent for art.

For a film based around a distressing situation, Canola, which is part of the 2021 London Korean Film Festival line-up, incorporates a lot of comedy, poking fun at stereotypes of islanders and city folks and drawing on its solid supporting cast for character-based humour. Veteran actress Youn gives Grandma an underlying dignity even when she’s being comedically unreasonable. The depth of her performance provides the film with a solid emotional core, and Yoon uses the intergenerational friendship to contrast Korean lifestyles past and present, often critical of romantic notions about good old days. There’s a stunning underwater sequence which briefly takes us outside the main thrust of the narrative and into a parallel world, at the same time highlighting the tough, dangerous life this woman has been forced to live, giving Hye-ji a deeper appreciation of the sacrifices she has made.

Kim is also good in a difficult role, keeping us on side even when Hye-ji is at her most obnoxious. Her character arc might feel a little overplayed to Western audiences, and Yoon has a tendency to ramp up the emotion, but this is nonetheless a film with genuine warmth at its heart. The island landscapes are beautifully shot and reveal a side of Korea that we don’t see much in cinema today. If you like films that leave you feeling hopeful and a little sentimental whilst still delivering on mystery, this is one for you.

Reviewed on: 04 Nov 2021
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Canola packshot
Many years after a little girl's disappearance, a teenager arrives at her grandmother's home,, claiming to be her, but something doesn't feel right.

Director: Chang

Starring: Youn Yuh-jung, Kim Go-eun, Lee Seul-bi

Year: 2016

Runtime: 116 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: South Korea


London Korean 2021

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