In what plays like Singapore’s answer to “About Schmidt,” never-too-late-to-live dramedy “Ajoomma” follows a widowed housewife as she steps out of her comfort zone by making a solo trip to South Korea. This upbeat debut from director He Shuming — whose title is the Korean equivalent of the all-purpose Asian term of respect “Auntie” — offers longtime TV actor Hong Huifang (“Housewives’ Holiday”) a chance to shine in the title role, which has already netted her a Golden Horse Award nom. Selected to rep Singapore at the Oscars, affable “Ajoomma” is more of a dark horse in that race, albeit one with art-house sleeper potential.
Mrs. Lim’s life is light on excitement. What it lacks in drama, she fills by bingeing on Korean soap operas — a not-at-all-uncommon obsession among Asian women (and a growing number of Americans, thanks to services like Kocowa and Viki). “Auntie,” as most of the other characters call Hong’s character, fusses a bit too much over her only son, who long ago agreed to accompany her on a special tour of Seoul. Now, mere days before they’re to depart, he backs out for a job interview in New York — one that would put some much-needed distance between the closeted young man and his overly suffocating mom.
Auntie is anything but independent, and the thought of going on the trip alone intimidates her. But when she realizes that the tickets are nonrefundable, she decides to go anyway, showing up late to the airport and inconveniencing everyone else in the process. This sequence ought to be hilarious, but is the first of several clumsy set-pieces (the most awkward being an unlikely car chase featuring Auntie at the wheel): While the others wait on the bus, tour guide Kwon-woo (Kang Hyung Suk) tracks down the straggler, plops her on a baggage cart and rolls her to the group. Then again, if K-soaps are your jam, what could be more charming than being thus squired through the airport terminal?
Once on the bus, we learn that Auntie has opted for a “Secret of the Stars” tour, which, as the name suggests, serves to introduce fans to key locations from Korean TV series. For the benefit of the uninitiated, He presents a few endearingly corny scenes from such a show, enlisting Korean heartthrob Yeo Jingsoo (“Hwayi: A Monster Boy”), whose impossibly chiseled chin and cheekbones are an unspoken part of the joke (Koreans stars are notoriously sculpted). As the film goes on, Auntie starts to project herself into the small-screen melodrama, which is a cute idea, à la “Nurse Betty,” even if her real-world adventures are wacky enough.
It’s New Year’s Eve, and though chronic screw-up Kwon-woo should be tending to his tour group, he’s instead preoccupied with trying to patch things up with his ex-wife. Ergo, he re-routes the bus to his mother-in-law’s apartment, failing to notice when Auntie disembarks to take a call. Hong gives a fine enough performance, but lacks the tricky gift for farce that would have made her performance more comedic. We neither laugh at nor believe in her reaction when the bus pulls out and she frantically tosses her cellphone in the air (a gesture that conveniently leaves her with no way to call her son).
Suddenly stranded in a place she’s ill-prepared to navigate on her own, Auntie lucks into meeting the nicest man in Korea, a kindly security guard (Jung Dong-hwan) who takes it upon himself to help her rejoin the group — only, He and co-writer Kris Ong have complicated the plot just enough to give these two seniors a chance to connect. Auntie knows a few Korean phrases she picked up from her favorite show, but the two communicate mostly through a mix of gestures and broken English. The guard takes her to dinner, then back to his home for a few scenes of quiet, understated intimacy. He takes the floor and offers her his bed. By the time they find Kwon-woo and the others, the two have bonded enough that the only mystery is what they’ll do about the lovely cross-cultural friendship that has started to bloom. The last few scenes have less in common with K-soaps (or producer Anthony Chen’s award-winning art films) than a late-career Judi Dench movie. To be honest, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine her starring in a remake.