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South Korea 2006


Oh Dal-gyoon

Yoo Seung-ho
Kim Hyang-ki
Ahn Kil-kang
Jeong Min-ah
Jo Deok-jae
Seo Yeong-hwa
Kim Kyeong-rae
Kim Dong-yeong
Yoo Jin-ah

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Heart is...

aka Hearty Paws

Story: Chan (Yoo Seung-ho) is a little boy, who already has to put great responsibility on his shoulders at his young age. His little sister Soi (Kim Hyang-ki), as well as himself, suffer from the fact that their mother left them one year ago. They never lost hope that their mother may come back for them someday, but deep down inside Chan knows, that this day will never arrive.
The two children live at the house of some distant relatives. Chan fondly takes cares of his sister and even gives her a puppy at her birthday, which she so much wished for all the time. Soi names the dog Maeumi, which means something like "Heart". With this new friend at their side, life seems more joyful. Until something terrible happens one day...
To make things worse Chan's relatives move out, so that he has no one to turn to anymore. However, he now has the address of his mother, and so he goes to Busan to look for her. Eventually he ends up as a beggar on the streets. Feeling down and being torn by grief, Chan even casts out his dog Maeumi, who yet keeps following him at every turn. In the end his dog proves to be a true loyal friend and rescues Chan on more than one occassion, even when the boy has to deal with the dangerous leader of a beggar gang.

Review: How cute! A movie about a dog! And two cute child-actors in the main lead. A true film for the whole family!
Far from it! "Heart is..." is a drama through and through. In fact, the movie lies so heavy in your stomach, that it becomes almost unbearable. Even though I was prewarned about the high kleenex consumption the movie claims, the film just merely remains within the border of what's bearable. If you like to shed some (or some more) tears while watching a drama, then this one is what you are looking for. "Heart is..." may obviously aim at manipulating its audience, but it manages to do so surprisingly well, without feeling too forced or contrived. Of course there are some scenes, that are a bit too overdramatic, but all in all everything falls into place. The drama around man's most loyal friend is luckily no typical dog-movie, but instead focuses on the protagonists, of whom one by chance happens to be of the four-legged species. A movie full of emotions and heart-wrenching scenes.

First, you might feel led to believe that "Heart is..." is in fact a family movie. There is a cute puppy, that makes its first lumbering footsteps into this new world, and there is the girl Soi who is also cute as a button. What's following in the first half hour is an introduction into an everything but intact, yet happy family life. This joyfulness is naturally emanating from Maeumi, who proves to be a great and loveable playfellow. But there is a reason why this movie is titled a drama. After this nice heart-warming introduction the catastrophe that comes hits us especially hard. What happens in detail is nothing to be written about here - to avoid any spoilering, of course - but when you think about it again, it's also pretty obvious. Still, when we have to watch one of the protagonists meeting his fate, then this scene is nonetheless quite shocking and emotionally involving. Additionally, from this moment on, everything goes down to hell. The feeling of being choked by all the sadness won't leave you until the very end, since director Oh Dal-gyoon lets Chan suffer a true ordeal of a drama.

For some reason Chan doesn't get broken by all the strokes of fate he has to endure. Once again it shows that a child's heart maybe isn't as fragile as many might expect. Nevertheless, we suffer along with him - and Maeumi - and we don't get any break or chance to breathe either. Maeumi is getting mistreated by his former owner, because Chan feels himself reminded of the tragedy that happened, every time he sees his dog. Partly he also blames the dog for it. Nonetheless, Maeumi remains loyal to Chan, and this in such an enthralling way, that it can really go near to your heart. That is also because the labrador retriever is one of the strongest actors in the movie, and that's saying something, since the rest of the actors are all delivering performances on a high niveau. The director - and mainly the dog trainer - manage it to let Maeumi look astonishingly human. You can even read the emotions in the eyes of the dog actor, which is almost frightening. Normally I'm no friend of manipulative dog movies that are going for some easy tears, but "Heart is..." doesn't feel like such a film in the end. The scene when Maeumi, apparently for several days, follows the tracks of a train, only to find his master in an other town, really is heart-wrenching.

Chan himself ends up in Busan, eventually, where he looks for his mother. It's not easy to imagine a mother abandoning her own two children, but director Oh Dal-gyoon by no means draws a hackneyed picture of an evil mother. In fact the mother is plagued by her feelings of guilt later on, and rightly so, but it's already too late to change anything or elude the tragedy.
Anyway, in Busan Chan runs into a group of child beggars, who found shelter at the home of someone who seems to care for them, but also flagrantly exploits them. He turns the children into a professional organisation and keeps most of their daily income for himself. Somehow, this part of the movie feels a bit odd, as it aims at creating an unnecessary climax at the end. The leader of the beggar gang is the all-too-apparent villian, who in some pretty harsh scenes not only beats up Maeumi with a baseball bat, but as already mentioned also mistreats the children. Of course, he also owns a dog himself, who engages into a fight to the finish with Maeumi. This may not feel as out of place as one might think at first, but it's still an unnecessary insertion, as well as the contrived finale, at which Maeumi enters the stage as the knight in shining armor, of course.

However, throughout the film director Oh develops a fine sense for how he can emotionally involve his audience into the scenes on screen, which is why we can forgive some of the obvious flaws. Still, the finale feels too stretched and doesn't seem to know where to put things to an end. The dog factor, which underlines the themes of fidelity and loyalty, also works in a motif of reconciliation and remedy. In the end, the movie will emotionally drag you down so much that you'll get an uneasy feeling in your stomach. Apparently, the filmmakers did get aware of that and tried to give "Heart is..." a sweet touch at the end, too, maybe too qualify the drama. But it doesn't work out. We still remain deeply emotionally exhausted and have to take a break after the credits roll over the screen.
No question about it: "Heart is..." is a movie for drama-enthusiasts. Dali, who is playing Maeumi, looks extremely human and crystallizes as the biggest upside of the film. The child actors, and I don't just mean Yoo Seung-ho, also deliver great performances and make this drama so worthwhile.
From a technical point of view, there is little to none to criticize. Sometimes the movie may seem somwhat manipulative in its approach to move the viewer, but it also proves to be surprisingly captivating and emotionally engaging. Friends of tearjerker-dramas shouldn't miss this one!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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