“My Name Is Loh Kiwan”: A Tale of Romance Overshadowing a Refugee’s Struggle


In the vast expanse of Netflix’s world cinema offerings, there emerges a story that manages to intrigue and disappoint in equal measure. The romantic melodrama “My Name Is Loh Kiwan,” while successfully checking all the boxes for its genre, regrettably falls short of harnessing the full depth of its premise: the tribulations of a refugee’s fight for a new lease on life in an unfamiliar land.

Set against the backdrop of Brussels, the film introduces us to Loh Kiwan, portrayed with palpable earnestness by Song Joong-ki. Kiwan is a North Korean defector whose journey to asylum is not only marked by adversity but also by a quest for a sense of belonging and freedom. The narrative starts with a young Kiwan and his mother fleeing their homeland to China, seeking sanctuary. However, their dreams are quickly dashed as they find themselves detained. From his mother’s selfless insistence, Kiwan makes an excruciating solo escape to Belgium. Here, grappling with the labyrinthine asylum process becomes Kiwan’s day-to-day reality.

The dichotomy of life in Belgium presents a stark contrast to Kiwan’s expectations. Although free from the oppression of his past, he struggles to eke out a bare existence, taking on various menial jobs. His fragile stability is soon disrupted when his possessions are deftly swiped by Marie, a Belgian woman of Korean descent, played with a blend of toughness and vulnerability by Choi Sung-eun. Marie, entangled in her own turmoil as a fallen athlete now caught up in illicit shooting competitions, strikes a peculiar bargain with Kiwan: she will return his wallet if he assists in keeping her out of the clutches of the law.

As the two-hour mark looms, the film settles into a rhythm of fostering the bond between Kiwan and Marie. The slow-burn relationship blooms amidst the grey urbanity of Brussels. Director’s lens often lingers on the delicate emotions of these two, who, as fate would have it, find comfort and resilience in one another’s fraught stories.

Nevertheless, “My Name Is Loh Kiwan” shines the brightest when it presents vignettes of Kiwan’s life as a refugee. The conversations Kiwan has with fellow Koreans in Brussels serve as an insightful peek into the immigrant experience, showcasing the subtle yet significant adjustments required to blend in and avoid unwelcome attention. Alas, such compelling moments are fleeting. The script, sourced from a literary material, exhibits a puzzling reluctance to delve into these narrative gems, often hastily returning to an overarching romantic storyline that feels somewhat shoehorned.

Marie’s arc, though imbued with a rough edge, never quite transcends into a plausible or multidimensional character study. Her entanglement with the shady world of underground gambling and sharpshooting feels contrived, a plot device rather than a meaningful exploration of her desperation and struggle.

In their shared grief over the loss of their mothers, Kiwan and Marie’s kindred spirits have the potential for a far more grounded connection. Yet again, the script leans towards dramatic, almost cinematic, moments to fuel the romance, forsaking the opportunity for a more authentic portrayal of their burgeoning relationship.

It’s undeniable that “My Name Is Loh Kiwan” possessed not only the potential but the narrative ingredients for a rich and layered tale. Yet, by opting to chase the sweeping tides of romancedrama, the movie settles for a tried-and-tested path, delivering a less impactful experience than what its initial premise promised.

Audiences in search of a contemplative insight into the life of a refugee or a richly textured romance may find moments of satisfaction in “My Name Is Loh Kiwan.” However, those yearning for a tale that delves into the complex fabrics of personal and cultural identity, the quest of escaping one’s past, and the present struggle for a better future, might see the film as a missed opportunity. Despite commendable performances and a story that threads through emotional and geopolitical landscapes, this feature remains a case study in how a film’s reach can sometimes fall short of its grasp.

“My Name Is Loh Kiwan” is available for streaming on Netflix, offering a bittersweet viewing experience that somehow suggests both promise and unfulfillment.

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