Written by Ivan Chin
As He Shuming’s debut feature, Ajoomma is a funny and heartfelt film that seamlessly blends Singaporean flavour with elements of Korean culture. It’s a journey of self-discovery in a foreign land that takes a lighthearted tone, juggling the dramatic with humour, with even a smidgen of theatrics.
While inspired by Shuming’s own experiences, Ajoomma is a film that many can relate to. Shuming started working on the script more than six years ago, and it’s a testament to the Hallyu wave that Ajoomma still feels extremely relevant. The titular ajoomma Lim Bee Hwa, played by veteran actress Hong Huifang, is obsessed with Korean drama and fawns over the male leads. She joins Zumba exercises while jamming out to popular K-pop songs.
Despite leaning on the influence of Korean dramas and filmed mostly in Korea, don’t mistake this film as something that simply fantasises over it. The titular middle-aged widow has given most of her time and effort to her family, but has not pampered herself much. The trip to Korea allows her not only to break away from her routine life back home, but gives her the courage to try new things again. While she’s initially a lot more hesitant, she becomes more outgoing and embraces new experiences.
While there are many heartfelt moments that tug at our heartstrings, the comedic scenes give this film that extra boost of fun. Some of it stems from language barriers that sometimes cause unintentional but hilarious misunderstandings, but others go back to the effective basics of visual comedy. It’s also the on-screen chemistry between Huifang and the cast that help to land the punchlines.
For many, the impression of Korean dramas is typically melodramatic, tear-jerking romances. In Ajoomma, Shuming even wrote and filmed scenes belonging to a fictional drama that Bee Hwa was addicted to. While the film occasionally leans into that aesthetic for effect, the result is less melodramatic. As we explore Korea through Bee Hwa’s eyes, our experience is based on hers. As such, while Shuming keeps things in perspective, he infuses it with a blend of his own ideas.
For example, Bee Hwa’s friendship with the security guard, played by Jung Dong-hwan is marked by the shared experience of being a parent despite the language barrier. She even takes a fancy to his artistic wooden carvings. With the tour guide played by Kang Hyung-seok who is about her son’s age, she takes the role of a maternal figure, a source of both caution and wisdom.
Their exchanges are thoughtful, and Ajoomma not only shows Bee Hwa’s transformation as a character but also how her influence rubs off on them. It’s certainly interesting to see how a director works with a story that has both Singaporean and Korean cultures. This marriage of influences gives the film a colourful personality, and it feels like there’s less of a need to stick to convention when telling such a story.
Ajoomma is an impressive co-production between Singapore and Korea that is the labour of love of those involved. It’s a film that can be appreciated by the young and old, and especially by other ajoommas. This tender story of self discovery is bolstered by its comedic nature, and is a definitive feel good movie if you ever need one.
This review is published as part of *SCAPE’s Film Critics Lab: A Writing Mentorship Programme organised by The Filmic Eye, with support from the Singapore Film Society and Sinema.
About the Author: Ivan Chin has a penchant for Hong Kong cinema and science-fiction films, but enjoys anything from blockbusters to the avant-garde. His favourite directors include Johnnie To, Denis Villeneuve and Stanley Kubrick. He also fervently hopes to see local films blossom. In his free time, he can usually be found wandering around cinemas.
About the Movie:
Directed by: He Shuming
Cast: Hong Huifang, Kang Hyung-seok, Jung Dong-hwan, Yeo Jin-goo, Shane Pow
Duration: 1h 30min
Language: Mandarin, English, Korean
A widow obsessed with Korean soap operas travels abroad for the first time in her life to Seoul, and gets thrown into an adventure with unlikely companions.
Ajoomma is screening in all Singapore cinemas with an NC16 Rating.