The new movie “Keys to the Heart” follows a familiar formula. An estranged mother and son struggling to reconnect, an autistic savant whose raw musical talent astounds everyone who hears him play, a washed-up boxer struggling to climb back to the top of the mountain, an abusive father/husband figure and a former piano prodigy who can’t find the heart to play anymore after suffering from a terrible accident.
On reading this, this can seem like a lot to take in and makes for a muddled mess of a movie with an identity crisis. Each one of these themes alone can fill the plot for a whole movie and yet, to the director and writers enormous credit, however, they’ve managed to weave all these apparently disparate threads into a cohesive fabric that makes for an enjoyable movie that can seem a little overcrowded with tragedy.
Jo-Ha, played by Lee Byung-hun whom you may remember as the t-1000 from “Terminator Genisys”, is a disgraced former Asian welterweight boxing champion. Desperate for work and income, he turns to an old friend for a meal and by random chance, he comes across his mother whom he has not seen since she fled nearly twenty years ago from an alcoholic an abusive husband. With no roof over his head, he agrees with extreme reluctance to live with his estranged mother, In-Sook portrayed by Younh Yuh Jung, and a brother named Jin-Tae played by Park Jung-Min who suffers from autism but has an inhuman talent for the piano and video games.
What unfolds, is a story of familial reconciliation, redemption, forgiveness and overcoming disabilities to excel at a craft. If you noticed that I wrote disabilities instead of the disability, it is because, through another suspiciously “random” encounter, Jo-Ha meets a prodigy pianist who suffered an accident and can’t bring herself to play anymore.
The way the plot sets itself up feels familiar and each character is a cliché that you’ve seen over and over again in many movies. What makes this one particularly enjoyable, however, is just how damn convincing each character is. Jo-Ha is a swirling maelstrom of emotions and prone to angry outbursts punctuated by periods of quiet brooding, introspection and an instinctive protectiveness to his family that as much as he tries to hide and suppress, keeps coming to the fore.
Jin-tae, who comes off as simple, blunt and honest has some deceptive depth as a character and I have to absolutely give it to Park here for his amazing portrayal of an autistic person. It felt genuine, authentic and scarily realistic at times. Coupled with his over-protective mother who has struggled all her life to care for her son and who finally has a chance at redemption with her other son who shows resentment, anger, callousness and coldness who refuses to be engaged at first. Despite the constant tragedy train that keeps rolling, there are oddly whimsical moments such as when Jo-Ha and a neighbor constantly getting trounced by Jin-Tae at video games, how they constantly eat black bean flavoured ramen, Jo-Ha getting Jin-Tae to help him hand out flyers to great comedic effect and more.
As mentioned before, all portrayals of the immediate family of Jin-Tae and Jo-Ha was so believably authentic and genuine that if I hadn’t known better, I could have believed that they were a real family. Heartwarming moments such as a drink between mother and son, how Jo-Ha finally accepted how amazing Jin-tae is at the piano and resolved to help him. However, due to all the interweaving stories of tragedies and shattered dreams, some things do fall by the wayside and without being too specific, some character specific storylines end abruptly and some dreams seem to get sidelined equally abruptly.
It cannot help but feel as although this story seems to be told from Jo-Ha’s point of view, every character only serves as a side character or a character prop for Jin-Tae as the arguable apex of the movie was all about Jin-Tae and with the other characters quite literally regulated to the benches as he takes the centre stage. While this does create a “feel good” storybook style feel for the movie, I had a lot of questions about why certain threats, issues, problems and personal dreams are seemingly abandoned without any of the characters seeming to notice or care.
For example, at the start of the movie, the landlord in raised the rent of their apartment in an almost moustache twirling evil sort of way but by the end of the movie, any animosity or her threat of raising the rent by an astronomical amount is never mentioned again and the characters never move out or get kicked out. In fact, the landlord becomes a friend and an ally by the end of the movie without anything really happening to change her mind. Eh? What happened? Did something happen off screen?
There was also a whole story about how one of the characters would move to Canada but the costs involved prevent him from doing so. Yet, any viewer would realize immediately that there was no way the character would end up moving despite that character just deciding on a whim to up and leave without any mention of how they would cover the costs. Once again eh? This felt wholly unnecessary and if it were completely cut out of the movie, it would have been more time spent towards other characters and stories.
Verdict: Heartwarming charm
But if you can overlook these niggling issues, “Keys to the Heart” is definitely an enjoyable one. It is heartwarming, charming, and has the ability to move you to tears. Even if you are a cynical person like me, for you not to feel your gut wrench at points at all must mean you are quite cold-hearted. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable movie that I had a lot more fun watching than I thought.
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