Review: A Melody To Remember (오빠 생각)

Courtesy of Next Entertainment World
Courtesy of Next Entertainment World

I’m a sucker for any film that’s going to make me cry and I knew as soon as I read the description for A Melody to Remember (오빠 생각), also know as Thinking of Elder Brother (the literal translation of the Korean title), I knew I was going to cry buckets. And the film didn’t disappoint. 

In fact, it was much better than I was expecting due to how real the characters seemed, how easy it was to connect to them and the story, and the complexities shown. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

**Warning: There may be spoiler so read at your own risk if you haven’t seen the film.**


Based on a true story and set during the Korean War, A Melody to Remember follows the story of Lieutenant Han Sang Yeol as well as that of a young brother and sister, Dong Gu and Soon Yi. At first, their tales are separate – Lieutenant Han loses his family in a particularly horrific manner and most of his platoon in a battle; while Dong Gu and Soon Yi become orphans and outcasts in their village after their father is beaten to death in front of them for being a North Korean sympathizer.

However, with the transfer of Lieutenant Han to an orphanage on a military base in Busan, the storylines are brought together and we see some good in all the devastation of war. Lieutenant Han, who was a music major prior to the war, brings the children together to try to heal and protect them by forming a choir, along with the orphanage manager/teacher, Ju Mi. In the process, he also heals himself a little. 

It’s not quite that simple of course, as not all the orphans live at the orphanage and the Lieutenant wants to help everyone. And interestingly, especially for a war film, the villains are just the enemy that the army is fighting.

My Thoughts

The film starts out depicting not just the stark horror of war but the terribleness of a country fighting itself and neighbours fighting neighbours. I think the realities of war are hard to truly grasp for those of us who have never served or seen war outside of history books but the starkness, the death and the emotional devastation in the film seemed realistic to me. If you caught one of the trailers of the film that just shows the cute kids singing, the film, especially the first 15 minutes or so, will be a bit of a shock as it is a war film – just one that also tells the story of hope and redemption.

And that’s what sets the film apart from other war films I’ve seen is the contrast of the sweetness and lost innocence of the orphans with the horrors of war. The hope and the desire to rebuild oneself that the children engender in those around them creates a bond. The fact that caring for someone other than themselves helps many of the characters, primarily two of the main ones – Lieutenant Han and Dong Gu – to rise above the misery and seek something more. Plus, many of the kids are just cute. Scenes like the little girl who attaches herself to the Lieutenant because her deceased father was also one are at once sweet and poignant, as are when the orphans do a group hug to the Lieutenant after one of his nightmares.

You might have noticed that I’m talking more about the characters than the story, and that’s because it’s the characters that truly brought the film alive for me. Some of the characters simply made you smile but it was the complexity of the Lieutenant’s character that made the film for me, despite how very much I didn’t want Dong Gu to die. In fact, it was the Lieutenant, played by Siwan (시완) and Dong Gu, played by Jung Joon Won (정준원), whose depth of character and caring of others that often made tears run freely.

Even the villain in film, Galgori or Hook as he was also know, played by Lee Hee Joon (이희준) was multi-dimensional and while he had no problems stealing or putting young children to work for him, there were lines he wouldn’t cross. He was bad but the rich kid was truly evil.

All in all, it was a bittersweet film that had many of the elements I enjoy in cinema – characters one can connect with, scenes that make one laugh and scenes that make one cry, as well as some complexity in the story. But there was one scene that bothered me as it was just too predictable. The scene in the forest, with the buildup leading up to it, you just knew someone was going to get shot or killed or both. And the foreshadowing didn’t lie as much as I’m sure no one in the audience wanted it to happen. 

Final Thoughts

Bring tissues. Seriously! There is no way you’ll make it through the film without crying and if you’re someone like me that tears up easily, you’ll sob buckets. Other than the tears, it’s a good film based on a true story with characters you can connect with. And no, you don’t need any knowledge about Korea or Korean culture to enjoy the film, other than the fact that there was a Korean War (which was a civil war).

As a side note, there was apparently some controversy over ticket sales in Korea but as that has nothing to do with your possible enjoyment of the film so I’m not going to comment.

Have you seen A Melody to Remember? What did you think?

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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