Film review: Ajoomma reminds us that life is what we make of it

It opens in cinemas on Oct 27.

Amanda Tan

Skills include buying the same jeans in different colours.

Published: 27 October 2022, 10:39 AM

Warning: Spoilers ahead

An unpredictable yet cathartic take on misplaced happiness and what it means to reconcile with oneself, Ajoomma is undeniably well-deserving of the international acclaim it has garnered. 

At its core, the film – He Shuming’s feature directorial debut – is a story about a widowed Singaporean auntie (played by Mediacorp actress Hong Huifang) and her journey towards self-discovery during a solo trip to South Korea.

Through a series of mishaps and difficult conversations, she contends with a whole new identity beyond her roles of daughter, wife, and mother – titles she’d confined herself to for most of her life.

In the beginning of the film, it’s clear Auntie submits herself to the daily humdrum of being a housewife, with catching her favourite K-drama (starring Yeo Jin-goo) on television as her sole enjoyment in life.

Her upcoming trip to South Korea with her son is also what keeps her busy for the most part of her days. Excited for her “Secret of the Stars” tour, in which she’ll get to see sets from her favourite K-drama series, she begins to shop for winter essentials.

However, disappointment comes when her son backs out of the trip at the last minute due to a job interview in the States. She feels neglected and is evidently upset with her son’s decision to prioritise work over her. That said, it’s important to note that while her son seems absent, he is not unfilial. 

Pushed by a non-refundable policy by the tour agency, Auntie uncharacteristically leaves Singapore without her son, clinging onto the hope that he’ll join her eventually. 

From there on, it’s a tumultuous journey for Auntie as she grapples with loneliness whilst in a tour group full of Chinese tourists.

Abruptly enough, a subplot revolving around the tour guide Kwon-woo (played by Kang Hyung-Seok) and his strained relationship with his family comes about. It felt forced at some points and unnecessary apart from giving reason to Auntie’s temporary departure from the tour group – a scene which I honestly felt was also rather convenient and clumsily written.

Nonetheless, getting separated from the group marks the start of Auntie’s road towards self-liberation as she meets a quiet, genial security guard named Jung-su (played by the brilliant Jung Dong-hwan) who takes it upon himself to help Auntie find her way back to the tour group, and to herself.

Hong Huifang does a stellar job of portraying the curt and yet endearing auntie persona we Singaporeans know of. Throughout the film, we hear her speak in a blend of English, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Korean that is somehow not jarring and if anything, feels familiar and oddly comforting.

The gripping performance by Jung Dong-hwan is also what made the whole film far more enjoyable. His gentle and compassionate character served as a great foil, highlighting Auntie’s overly-dependent and expectant nature – which ostensibly is a result of years of devotion to her loved ones that she no longer has a life for herself.

The duo spends most of their time together in comfortable silence, so intimate, it almost felt intrusive watching as an audience. But I do think that this is the film’s greatest strength. In these scenes, Director He manages to have them say a lot while saying nothing at all.

While it’s mostly quiet, the two also have their comedic moments such as during a spontaneous car chase, in a zealous attempt at saving Kwon-woo from a group of thugs. This sequence is also the first real instance we see of Auntie taking the wheel – both literally and figuratively. 

Intermittently, the film slips scenes from the aforementioned K-drama series.

In the drama, the main character goes in search of his birth mother. With him, is nothing but a photograph of her with him as a child.

Upon closer inspection, the woman in the photograph is Auntie. While this parallel does an effective job at mirroring Auntie’s desires of reconnecting with her son and also with herself, it was confusing at some points and detracted from the film’s quality.

The film concludes with Auntie, back in Singapore, cruising along the highway after a driving lesson with her student, bopping along to an upbeat K-pop melody with empowering lyrics (which we hear a snippet of at the start of the film).

It’s needless to say she has finally found herself, and done something for her happiness.

In some ways, Ajoomma reminds me of producer Anthony Chen’s Wet Season (2019), in which both films are centred around an older protagonist, lost in life. The two also wrap up with a warm, bittersweet feeling, perfectly encapsulated by shots of the protagonists on the road, heading towards a better stage in life.

All things considered, Ajoomma is a stunning, thought-provoking piece that comes as a breath of fresh air in our local cinema, after the rage-inducing films by you-know-who. I’d highly recommend you make a trip down to your nearest cinema as the film opens on Oct 27.

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