Everyone feels lonely from time to time. Ageing folk, in particular, are more likely to experience this as they live out their twilight years with few or no family and friends.
This is the theme tackled by 37-year-old Singaporean director He Shuming in his latest effort, “Ajoomma”, which means “auntie” in Korean. The film premiered at the 2022 Busan International Film Festival last month, and is Singapore’s selection for Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards.
Shot in Korean and Mandarin, the 90-minute drama tells the story of Auntie (Hong Hui Fang), an ageing single housewife who lives with her son Sam (Shane Pow).
Having lost her husband three years ago, Auntie fills her day with a rather mundane routine that consists of group aerobics, cooking, and watching Korean romance soap operas.
One bright spot in her otherwise humdrum life is her upcoming trip to South Korea with Sam, for which she spends her time packing and shopping for winter clothing.
As fate would have it, her son has to fly to the United States – for a job interview, he says – at the very last minute and bails on their plans.
Although deeply disappointed, Auntie keeps her feelings to herself and prays for her boy’s future – until she learns the trip is not refundable, and decides to go on her own.
Auntie soon finds herself in South Korea, amidst enthusiastic camera-wielding tourists from China that make up her tour group.
Her solo adventure gets off to a great start as she bonds with her new travel buddies, gets drunk on Soju, and finds herself stranded in the middle of nowhere as the tour bus leaves her behind.
To compound matters, her phone gets run over by a vehicle, leaving her with no way to contact the tour agency.
Armed with a handful of Korean phrases such as “anyong haseyo” (hello), “kamsahamnida” (thank you), and “saranghaeyo” (I love you), she somehow manages to convey her situation to a kindly old security officer, Jung-su (Jung Dong-hwan).
After failing to find the hotel her tour group is staying at, he invites her to spend the night at his home. She discovers that Jung-su lives alone with an adorable, old and sickly dog, whom he loves dearly.
Over supper, he tries to communicate with Auntie in halting English – a rather charming scene that shows how strangers can form genuine connections with one another despite language barriers.
Sadly, the dog is found dead the next morning, furthering the theme of loneliness. It is heartbreaking to see Jung-su part with a companion that has brought him much joy in his solitary life.
In the meantime, tour guide Kwon-Woo (Kang Hyung-seok) has been looking for Auntie, only to find himself assaulted and kidnapped by loan sharks to whom he owes huge sums of money.
In a bizarre comic sequence, Auntie spots Kwon-Woo with the loan sharks in a van, takes over the wheels from Jung-su, and pursues them to save him.
One thing leads to another and she is eventually reunited with her tour group, after which she visits famous sites featured in popular Korean dramas, joyously posing next to life-size cutouts of actors and actresses.
Towards the end, viewers learn that her son intends to stay in the US with his boyfriend. Sam has been keeping his partner a secret from Auntie, which isn’t surprising given how conservative certain segments of Singaporean society can be.
Auntie, however, doesn’t find the news too surprising – she has, in a way, always known about it, thanks to her maternal instincts and the wisdom that comes with age.
Finally, as the movie goes a little forward in time, Auntie is seen happily working as a driving instructor in Singapore – a vocation that suits her, given her fearless driving skills- while singing along to K-pop songs.
All in all, “Ajoomma” is a heartwarming movie that empowers older people, especially women, to take control of their lives and live it with zest and fervour.
Filled with poignant as well as laugh-out-loud moments, it’s definitely worth a watch, even if you’re not a fan of Korean dramas.
‘Ajoomma’ is screening in cinemas nationwide.