'Cherry Tomato' a stark, painful story
By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: May 20, 2008
"Cherry Tomato" depicts the poverty-stricken life of an old man and his granddaughter in a realistic way that evokes a strong sense of sympathy. But the ultimate emotion the film triggers is, for better or worse, helplessness.
The debut feature by former television producer Chung Young-bae wastes no time highlighting the key theme: poverty. Park-gu (played by veteran actor Shin Gu) is barely scraping by with his granddaughter Da-seong (Kim Hyang-ki), and their life is unbearably miserable.
Living in a shabby, rented single room, they do not have enough money to feed themselves. Park-gu works as a porter for a shopping mall in Seoul but he soon finds himself kicked out of the place. In his 70s, Park-gu tries to survive by collecting papers and recyclable material on the street, but the money he earns is always too small to buy a decent meal.
His granddaughter, 6, seems mature for her age, possibly due to her trouble-laden life. After her mother left away years ago and her father was put behind bars, she has been raised by her foul-mouthed grandfather.
What is remarkable -- and emotional -- is that Da-seong knows her friends happily go to kindergarten and lead a life very different from hers, but she does not complain to her grandfather or anybody else.
She feels always hungry, but hunger is not the only problem. Suffering a form of congenital corneal opacity and deprived of specially designed glasses, she frequently stumbles and falls flat on the ground. Yet she does not cry much.
The trouble doubles when her father Chun-sam (Kim Young-ho) abruptly returns home. Da-seong, however, gets only a small pot of cherry tomatoes when her father steals the tiny sum of money her grandfather has so far saved and runs away.
As if testing the sympathy level of audiences, director Chung stacks up another layer of challenge for Park-gu and Da-seong. One day, a redevelopment company, flanked by hired goons, attack the villagers to push ahead with an apartment construction project.
In Korea, this type of land redevelopment project generates highly lucrative profits for wealthy real-estate businessmen, but the old villagers are usually forced to leave their houses with nominal compensation. Many of them often end up living on the streets.
The confrontation between villagers and the hired thugs destroys Park-gu's bicycle-drawn cart, his sole tool for making money. Confronted with this shattering development, Park-gu decides to face up to the president of the construction company, Kap-su (Kim Byeong-chun), but through a chain of unexpected events he and his granddaughter sneak into Kap-su`s luxurious mansion while the owner is away on a trip. Hiding inside the house, Kap-sun and Da-seong enjoy nibbling at expensive cookies and other delicacies.
From this point on, the movie constantly contrasts the hunger of Park-gu and Da-seong with the luxury imposed on Kap-su's dog. It turns out that this wealthy man cares so much about his pet, he spares no expense to give high-quality food to the dog. Every day, a package of meat is delivered to the house, and Kap-su`s household manger Dong-hun (Choi Dong-gyun) has to feed the dog on time.
But Dong-hun does not respect his boss. In fact, he hates him so much so that he develops a scheme for revenge: poisoning the meat bowl for the dog at a slow pace in an attempt to break Kap-su's heart.
What Dong-hun fails to forecast is that the meat bowl might be consumed by somebody else -- people who are hungry enough to touch their hands on that tantalizingly well cooked meat.
In the movie, to be released on May 29, Shin Gu has taken the first silver-screen title role in his 45-year-long acting career, and delivered a realistic character who can be easily sympathized with. His far younger counterpart, Kim Hyang-ki, also pulls off an equally convincing portrayal of a character.
The movie's emphasis on the ethos of the have-nots raises an important question about whether Korean society takes care of the poor properly, offering a great starting point for discussing thought-provoking social issues. But the plot does not take the audience much further, as if symbolizing the perennial trap for those living and struggling under the poverty line.