Thursday, January 07, 2021

KBS Drama Special 2020: Trip

This was probably the most poignant episode to date. But not an easy watch.

There are challenges to be met when making a movie about an elderly person with dementia. The most difficult one is to not create an emotional blackmail sob-of-a-story. It's an easy theme to do exactly that - we feel bad, we empathize and the job is done because our emotions do the most of the work. Here, the onset of Alzheimer's disease is just a starting point to explore something more.

We meet Geum Yeong-ran when she's preparing to go outside, putting her jewelry, eating a breakfast - seemingly insignificant and mundane action that, as we learn, is under threat. On the street she meets the fruit seller, have a small talk, grabs some grapes as the "thank you" gift for being a regular customer and off she goes to the appointment. Ad then we see her at the hospital.

To the news that the scans of her brain show early signs of the Alzheimer's disease she reacts in a way probably everyone would. Of course she can't believe it, and she says it can't be right because she was keeping her mind busy. She was a seller and then she had a restaurant, so she always counted numbers and used her brain. Yeong-ran thinks it's incredulous it's happening to her and not people who lead a lazy life not using their brains much. The doctor tries to reason with her that the illness is not a punishment for anything. 

And then we learn why Yeong-ran thinks it might be a punishment. She was a single mother raising two boys and had to take care of her elderly mother who was suffering from dementia. This took a toll on Yeong-ran and led to various unpleasant moments like ones when her mother accused her of starving her and not feeding her. And Yeong-ran, crippled with her own fears, finally gets to have a talk sitting close to her mother's grave. She reproaches her mother with giving her the disease as the hereditary gift, a revenge of the old woman that strikes unexpectedly. Yeong-ram explains, exasperated, that she wasn't able to give her mother "a mountain of rice" with every meal because she had two sons to raise and had to divide the food among all of them. The memory of her sons is not a nice one, as she muses over the possibility to be buried alongside her mother, but the grave is uphill and in the remote countryside and she realizes none of her sons would ever come. And her sons visit her just because of money. Most of the days she spends alone, bragging about the family picture, taken of her sons, their wives and families, so on it, Yeong-ran is smiling and happy. And yet, she's all alone when there is nothing more she could give. Her younger son is furiously asking her whether she will give the money to his older brother who lives abroad with the family.


The friendship with Bang Suncheol is her only human connection she now has, so she nearly forces him to take her along his travels to buy fruits. During which she tries to teach him how to be more cunning in the trade and not the meek and naive as he was. This new side of ther relationship allows him to bashfully ask her to lend him some money for his daughter who demanded it. And Suncheol doesn't even finish his request, he realizes how selfish it sounds so he panics and runs away with plans to explain to his daughter he has no money to give her so she could study.
Yeong-ran uses this opportunity to solve her own problem  - and when Suncheol visits the next day, he finds her unresponsive on the floor, with money in the bag with his name. Yeong-ran is taken to the hospital and brought back to life, and then Suncheol learns she has taken too many pills and that she has the early stage of dementia. Suddenly some of her behavioral quirks make sense to him.

Yeong-ran is furious that he made her come back, that he saved her, because she wanted to go while still being an independent and strong woman - exactly with this image. And now she will slowly turn into the dreaded image of her own mother, plagued by disease.
He also alerts her sons to come to the hospital, but when they meet, they start to quarrel almost immediately. Over money, of course. And then we have Yeong-ran's outburst in which she admits she raised them to be horrible men and maybe it's her punishment. I found this moment to be particularly strong and impactful, because we don't see such situations often. She blatantly states that her two sons are terrible people who only take, take and take from her, as if it was her only obligation to give no matter what. And while the two man ponder over hiring a nurse to take care of Yeong-ran, Suncheol brings her water to drink. The sheer contrast was done through the whisper of the brothers and Suncheol going with the pitcher of water. Perfect.

The episode ends with Suncheol visiting Yeong-ran at the old folks home and taking her to the beach they visited earlier during his work travels. It's visible she is suffering from the disease, but at the sheer sight of the man, her face beams with smile. I liked how this episode put Yeong-ran at the beach, observing her ailing mother, who was standing knee deep in the waves and Suncheol observing Yeong-ran who was very close to the waves as well. The setting sun gave the eerie feeling of Yeong-ran's life also having its sunset.
And the sea here - forever changing yet still the same. Erasing the footprints on the wet sand so that nobody will ever remember who left them.