‘I Am Loh Kiwan’: A Cinematic Quest for Freedom Starring Song Joong Ki

In the heart of New Delhi, Director Kim Hee-jin unveils a gripping cinematic narrative with the opening scene of Song Joong Ki’s character, Loh Kiwan, cleaning a blood-drenched street, a visual metaphor setting the stage for a profound journey of a North Korean defector’s quest for asylum in Belgium.

Based on the poignant novel “I Met Loh Kiwan” by Haejin Cho, the film delves into the liminal space of a man trapped between identities and countries. The cold touch of bureaucracy tells Loh Kiwan that he must endure an agonizing one-year wait for his refugee application to be processed; a year filled with uncertainty and the burning desire for freedom.

A harrowing experience of taking shelter in a public restroom and rummaging through bins for sustenance marks the beginning of Loh Kiwan’s struggle in a land alien to his own. His desperate situation intensifies when he is robbed of his wallet, carrying not just money but the invaluable reminder of home—a photograph of his mother.

The thief is none other than Marie Lee, portrayed by the talented Choi Sung-eun, a young Korean girl entangled in the dark web of narcotics and crime. Once proud as an Olympic shooter, she now finds herself as a piece in a dangerous game played by her gangster boss.

An emotional battle ensues as Kiwan implores Marie to return his stolen wallet. It is in that exchange, viewers glimpse a sliver of humanity in Marie’s icily detached demeanor. In a turn of events, the retrieval of his wallet compels Marie to sink deeper into the clutches of the underworld.

Marie’s own narrative unfolds as that of a motherless child from a wealthy expatriate background, now a stranger to her father and caught in a spiral of self-destruction. For Kiwan and Marie, two lost souls in Brussels, a silent camaraderie takes root, leading to Kiwan securing employment through Marie at a meat packing facility.

As the story progresses, Kiwan’s refugee application meets an unjust rejection—a dismissal based on his Korean Chinese identity, challenging him further to prove his true North Korean origins. It is here that the film plateaus, veering into an unexpected romantic subplot that seems more a divergence than a narrative necessity.

The essence of the film resurfaces as Kiwan’s battle culminates not in the desire to stay but in the poignant realization that the true struggle is the ability to leave—to claim the most fundamental human right: freedom. Reminiscent of his mother’s exhortation, “Live proud and strong with your name,” Kiwan’s perseverance resonates with a universal plea for dignity and autonomy.

Song Joong Ki’s portrayal of Loh Kiwan is, unequivocally, the axis on which the film spins. With a nuanced and resonant performance, he embodies the fortitude and empathy of a man standing at the crossroads of life, an individual seeking nothing more than respect and the means to forge his own path in the world. He elevates the narrative, driving the emotional core home with finesse.

Parallel to Kiwan’s plight, Marie’s character demands from Choi Sung-eun a layered performance, one that she delivers, despite the character’s constrained emotional range within the script. Together, Kiwan and Marie represent a microcosm of survival and solidarity against the brutal backdrop of their circumstances.

Despite its handful of narrative detours, “I Am Loh Kiwan” skillfully weaves through its compact 120-minute duration without forsaking the emotional weight it carries. It consolidates a poignant and thought-provoking exploration of displacement, identity, and the inherent struggle for freedom, led by the compelling performances of its cast, with Song Joong Ki standing out as both the pulse and the pathos of this stirring filmic endeavor.

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