At first glance, the premise of Ajoomma seems like a recipe for secondhand embarrassment. It follows a K-drama-crazed Singaporean ‘auntie’ embarking on a solo trip to Seoul, landing herself in a series of ill-fated circumstances in South Korea. Going in, one might expect a cringeworthy collection of fish-out-of-water jokes and shallow K-drama stereotypes. But Ajoomma proves itself both thoughtful and entertaining.
We meet our protagonist Lim Beehwa – played by veteran Singaporean actress Hong Huifang and known throughout as ‘Auntie’ – by getting a peek into her uneventful daily life, which she wiles away with dramas starring her favourite actor (Hotel Del Luna’s Yeo Jin-goo) and neighbourhood dance lessons (fittingly soundtracked by the 2009 K-pop hit ‘Women’s Generation’ by SeeYa, Davichi and T-ARA).
Auntie is getting ready to take a long-awaited holiday to Korea with her son (Shane Pow), but he gets a call from a prospective employer in California who wants him to fly in early for an interview (seriously, they couldn’t have done it through Zoom?). Auntie resigns herself to cancelling their trip until she learns that their tour package is non-refundable. After a moment of hesitation, she takes the plunge and decides to head to Seoul alone.
It’s a big step for Auntie. She has spent her life caring for her son and late husband, but is also reliant on them and is intimidated by the thought of travelling by herself. Hong perfectly captures this anxiety in the scene where she arrives at Incheon airport, where you can practically see her mentally chastising herself for not knowing to fill in an immigration form in advance.
Newcomer He Shuming’s sensitivity as a director is palpable in moments like these where the world simply feels like it’s spinning too fast for Auntie. Singaporean productions – or those that make it to the mainstream, at least – have a habit of characterising ‘aunties’, or middle-aged women, as nosy and loud-mouthed. Hong’s Auntie is meek and subdued, reluctant to make a fuss, and exasperated by her own ignorance. It’s an uncommon, empathetic portrayal of the Singaporean auntie, who is too often pigeonholed as a one-dimensional comedic spectacle.
Auntie’s struggles at Incheon immigration are just the beginning. Her scatterbrained tour guide Kwon-woo (Kang Hyung-seok) leaves her stranded in a housing estate, where she meets Jung Su (Jung Dong-hwan), an elderly security guard who can’t bear to be the second person to abandon her that night. They try to overcome their language barrier with broken English and a lot of hand gestures, eventually realising their shared experience as parents whose children have left the nest.
Although it occasionally leans on unconvincing coincidences to drive its characters together, the backbone of Ajoomma is how they learn from and bond with one another. Hong and Jung are phenomenal in their respective roles, their interactions subtle and often wordless, yet brimming with a sense of mutual understanding and respect. Kwon-woo, initially negligent and emotionally detached from his clients, gains a newfound admiration for Auntie when they reunite, re-examining his own approach to parenthood as they discuss their children.
Every emotional experience in Ajoomma, even Sam’s tearful coming out to his mother over FaceTime – a rare depiction in Singaporean media – is handled with respect for those who have lived them. Sure, Ajoomma gets a little wacky at times, but not more than your typical K-drama – and certainly far less than some of Singapore’s most well-known movies in recent memory (a certain military-inspired franchise comes to mind).
Ajoomma could have easily chased box office success by going for the slapstick comedy approach, focusing on the hilarious misunderstandings that arise from cultural and linguistic barriers. Instead, it sensitively explores shared human experiences like parenthood, loneliness, and ageing, highlighting the transcendent, borderless nature of kinship.
- Director: He Shuming
- Starring: Hong Huifang, Jung Dong-hwan, Kang Hyung-seok, Yeo Jin-goo
- Release date: October 27 (Singapore cinemas)