Director: Kim Hyun-seok (김현석)
Runtime: 119 min.
Cast: NA Moon-hee (나문희), LEE Je-hoon (이제훈), LEE Sang-hee (이상희), KIM So-jin (김소진), PARK Chul-min (박철민)
Over a span of 20 years, Na Ok-boon (NA Moon-hee) has filled out over 8.000 citizen’s complaints at her district office, earning her the (perhaps less than charming) nickname Goblin Granny (dokkaebi halmeoni). While filing yet another complaint, Ok-boon meets the “new guy” Park Min-jae (LEE Je-hoon), a junior civil service officer. He agrees to look after her complaints, much to the pleasure of the other workers at the office. Soon enough, he comes to regret his choice when he ends up locking horns with the elderly yet (extremely) persistent Ok-boon. They sort it out eventually and, with time, form a liaison that slowly turns into true friendship, blurring the boundaries between the two generations.
When Ok-boon finds out that Min-jae is almost fluent in English, she ‘humbly asks’ (read: demands) him to teach her. She’s been trying to study English at the local resident centre for years, but as the level is too advanced for her, she is asked to drop out. Min-jae declines Ok-boon’s pleas, even going as far as to discourage the elderly lady; Ok-boon isn’t one to take ‘no’ for an answer, though, and so they eventually reach an agreement.
Before long, the two of them grow closer and spend more time together, with Ok-boon preparing dinner for Min-jae and his younger (if a bit estranged) brother Young-jae. When Min-jae finally figures out the true reason behind Ok-boon’s urgency to learn English – thus far, she’d told him she’d been meaning to reconnect with her long-lost brother in the US – he supports her in every step.
Up to this point, I Can Speak plays out like every other generational comedy: an elderly (stubborn) lady meets a distant, slightly awkward young man, and they form an unlikely bond. Though it’s a bit rocky at first, their relationship only grows stronger and more profound with time; they enter into shenanigans, as trust is built and laughter is shared, that way preparing the viewer for what’s yet to come in the second half of the movie. Director KIM has made all the right calls by building up the relationship between Ok-boon and Min-jae first before entering drama-territory. Ok-boon needs Min-jae by her side to support her, to lend her strength, and, as the title already suggests, help her regain her voice after 60 years of silence.
Now, get the tissues out and ready, because after two-thirds of the film, its focus shifts when the story reaches deeper, re-telling the life of activist Lee Yong-su. Through Ok-boon and everything she does from this point onwards, the viewer witnesses the struggles Lee Yong-su went through, trying to make the war crimes committed by the Japanese military during World War II known to the world.
Veteran actress NA Moon-hee (Miss Granny 2014) is nothing short of brilliant as Goblin Granny Na Ok-boon. Her genuine portrayal of the elderly lady is natural and believable, making every scene she appears in memorable and life-like. As she switches between that dokkaebi halmeoni persona and that other side of Ok-boon, a side that’s been hurting and lonely for most of her life, she will definitely elicit some strong emotional reactions from the viewers. Na’s performance in I Can Speak will move you from laughter to ‘ugly crying’ in no time, so better be prepared.
LEE Je-joon (Move to Heaven 2021) does a fine job at portraying Park Min-jae. He’s awkward, somewhat distant, and almost painfully by-the-book. He cares for his younger brother and tries to be there for him in any way possible. When Ok-boon convinces him to teach her English, Min-jae starts opening up to her, showing us another side of him.
One thing is for sure, by the end of the movie, you’ll never think the same of these words ever again: How are you? – I’m fine, thank you. And you?