Film News Review Singapore

★★★★★ Review: Ajoomma 《花路阿朱妈》 dir. He Shuming

Hong Huifang shines in poignant film about finding strength and hope in life.

As the world recovers from the ruins of a global pandemic, life can often feel hopeless and bleak, as we’re left to wonder about the uncertain future, and the increasingly pointless drudgery of daily living. Yet every so often, a work of art comes along to summon a sense of hope that lies long-buried within us, to remind us that there is always a better tomorrow, if we find it in us to reach out and find the fundamental strand of connection with fellow human beings. That work of art happens to be Ajoomma, by local director He Shuming in his feature film debut.

Ajoomma centres on widowed housewife Lim Bee Hwa (veteran local actress Hong Huifang) who spends her days working out at linedancing classes set to upbeat K-pop numbers with fellow ‘aunties’, before returning home to cook and clean while watching K-dramas (staring Yeo Jin-goo). While she lives with her son Sam (Shane Pow), the two are somewhat distanced, but have an exciting trip planned – a well-deserved holiday to South Korea with a tour group over the Lunar New Year, with the hope that the two will rekindle their mother-son bond and quite simply, have a good time.

But when he is suddenly given a job opportunity overseas he can’t pass up, faced with a non-refundable trip, Bee Hwa finds herself making the bold decision to make the trip alone and enjoy herself, even without Sam by her side. What should initially be a simple tour turns into the adventure of a lifetime when a series of mishaps sees Bee Hwa losing her way, but somehow, finding herself in the process.

As far as protagonists go, Bee Hwa is a rather unusual one for any film. As a lonely housewife, one is inclined to feel pity for her from the get-go. Even though she seems mostly content to lead a simple life, a shadow of dissatisfaction always seems to linger over her, wondering what more there is to life. We feel her immense disappointment when Sam breaks the news to her, but just like the rest of the burdens she’s been saddled with throughout life, she initially soldiers on, determined not to let it get to her.

Yet, the hints of the strength that lies behind her loneliness are there from the start. There is a fierce sense of independence that belies the simplicity of her mindset – she finds it in herself to replace broken lightbulbs by herself at home, drags her son to the temple to pay respects to his deceased father to uphold tradition, and chooses to hold her tongue and keeps it to herself when she accidentally discovers a secret that could change her family forever.

It is this same hidden strength that gives her the determination and courage to travel to Korea on her own, the only Singaporean amidst a group of Chinese travellers. There is a humility to her, never daring to think of herself as anything more than a housewife, even writing it down under her occupation when she fills out her immigration card. But over her time in Korea, Bee Hwa comes out of her shell, from something as simple as allowing herself to let loose and drink alcohol, to externalising the resilience she had within her all this while, when she finds her way back to the tour group after being accidentally left behind, relying only on her own perseverance, the kindness of strangers, and a bit of luck. There is no need to know every detail of her life, but from the little that we’re given, we become aware and appreciate that she is finally ready to move on, and forge a new identity for herself by throwing herself boldly and fully into every new experience.

In what is perhaps a career-defining role, actress Hong Huifang has been perfectly cast, and captures every aspect of Bee Hwa’s character. While better known for her auntie roles on local television, which she brings to the silver screen with comedic timing she nails, not only does Hong evoke immense sympathy for Bee Hwa’s burdens, but also brings out her unwavering strength, compassion and charm. There is plenty of opportunity that Hong takes to go above and beyond in showing off her acting abilities, as she layers Bee Hwa with a quiet strength and deep wisdom that allows her to blossom into a winsome and inspirational figure.

Hong also has excellent chemistry with her onscreen co-stars, including Jung Dong-hwan, who plays a security guard Bee Hwa winds up travelling with on her misadventures. Even with a language barrier between them, with things lost in translation, the two always find a way to communicate in non-verbal, unspoken ways that manage to deepen their friendship. It is the sincerity and compassion, the trust and honesty that exists between them that allows them to find a thread of connection they hang on tightly too, bonding over their shared losses, and basic human kindness they show towards each other.

Jung Dong-hwan himself turns in an award-worthy performance, with the subtlety of his acting; simple and wholly natural, yet finding it within him to craft a character with nuance and history. There are several times within the film he even gets to show off his comedic chops, with a particularly memorable and surprise chase scene that turns both Hong and Jung into temporary action heroes. By the end of the film, even when the two part ways, there is a sweet awkwardness between the two that quickly dissipates with how comfortable Bee Hwa makes him feel again, allowing them to have a proper goodbye.

Making up the last of the main cast is Kang Hyung-suk, who plays Bee Hwa’s tour guide Kwan Woo, and is given enough backstory and time dedicated to have a fully-formed narrative. While seemingly exasperated, non-committal and aloof on the surface, it’s not long before Kwan Woo’s own domestic issues emerge and spill into the main story, leading to a plethora of setbacks. In many ways, Kwan Woo’s story perhaps parallels Bee Hwa’s, and even though the two live in completely different countries from different generations, it is the film’s way of saying how we are all living with our own problems, and it is only with compassion, forgiveness and understanding that we can learn to move forward.

As his feature film debut, Ajoomma not only shows He Shuming’s technical ability to craft and direct a powerful work with a coherent, well-paced story (co-written with Kris Ong), but also evidences the amount of tenderness he has for his subject matter. From the careful choice of costuming, lighting and colour palette to reflect each scene’s mood, to the loving homage to Korean soaps in the in-universe K-Drama, to even the subtler details of how Sam buys Bee Hwa a bigger TV because all he knows of her life is her love for watching shows, every cinematographic aspect of Ajoomma has been given the due respect and diligence it deserves to make it so affecting.

In a world that has become increasingly complex and overwhelming, one of the strongest and most poignant aspects of the film lies in its commitment to reminding us of the little things in life, and how joy can be found in the simplest and smallest of moments. The careful juxtaposition of devastation and wonder is key to what makes this film work, and one particularly evocative moment sees Bee Hwa’s mood lift when she hears a familiar K-Pop song from her linedancing classes, and spots the first signs of snow. She suddenly, inexplicably decides to leave the car, and regresses into a simple, child-like version of herself as she dances, a moment of pure bliss. As Kwon Woo and the security guard watch her, they realise that as unexpected as this encounter with this Singaporean ajoomma has been, she has found a way to touch their lives, become a symbol of hope, and gives them the belief that everything will be ok.

To speak anymore would be giving the whole plot away, but suffice to say, while ostensibly a road trip movie, Ajoomma feels like a unique entry and triumph for the genre. By its final scenes, we realise that just as Bee Hwa has touched the lives of all she’s met, the film too has somehow found its way into our hearts, leaving us feeling light-footed, hopeful, and brimming with energy, determined not to let anything get us down. Ajoomma is one of the more endearing and hopefully, enduring local films to have emerged in recent years, and allows viewers to come away firm in the belief that there’s always still more to life.

AJOOMMA opens in Singapore cinemas on 27th October 2022. Tickets available to Golden Village screenings here

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