The sins of the parents
This good-looking and tightly edited little Korean film is unobtrusive little gem lacking the European-style sophistication of Hong Sang-soo or the spectacular fireworks of Park Chang-wook but instead choosing to take a quiet but discerning look at social issues. Kang Yi-kwan tells a domestic tale about the attempt to survive social errors in a culture with little tolerance of them. The focus is on the relationship of a 16-year-old boy, Ji-gu (Seo Yeong-ju, a TV actor, actually only 14), child of a one-night stand, who’s been in a detention center for a year and his childish, unmarried mom Hyo-seung (actress-pop star Lee Jeong-hyeon), who abandoned him to his grandfather but is pressed by authorities to take him in on his release. She was herself only 17 when the boy was born and now, in her thirties, still hasn’t grown up. She’s working at a hairdresser’s as a trainee and living with her spoiled boss (Gang Rae-yeon), and she and the boy must share her room there. The boy discovers his own one-night stand before detention (for breaking in a house with some other boys) got the girl pregnant and she’s had the baby, put it up for adoption, been kicked out of school and ostracized by her family. Ji-gun seeks out the mother of his child, Sae-rom ( Yeon Ye-jin ) to apologize and take responsibility, with mixed results.
This is an orderly society — the detention centre seems clean and quiet, and its head (Jeong Seok-yong) is kind and helpful. This positive treatment of social services together with a focus on social problems may be explained by the film’s sponsorship by the National Human Rights Commission of South Korea. ,Ji-gu and Hyo-seung are a good-looking pair. But the situation is dicey. The mother is flirty, irresponsible, and unstable, and her son emerges as just as much in charge of her as the other way around, as was also true when he lived with his diabetic grandfather, who died while he was in the centre. But he is still only a boy, and he has not had good parenting.
The extreme youth of the actor Seo Yeog-ju (though of course he’s a good actor and quite poised) helps to underline the contrast between his character’s lack of preparedness and the big issues he has to face as he tries to become more respectable and responsible. And as his mother, Lee Jeong-hyeon becomes a complex character, but perhaps more lost and immature than her son.
It is the harsh Korean winter. Underneath its surface of good-looking people and its appearance of a prosperous, well-ordered society, the world of Juvenile Offender provides an experience as heart-wrenching as any Italian neo-realist film, and the understated, often light and humorous story, has considerable complexity. Megan Lehman of Hollywood Reporter nails it when she writes “the film sails close to being hopeless, but is saved by the affection the director clearly feels for his flawed characters.”
Beom-joe-so-nyeon, 107 mins., debuted at Tokyo, winning the Best Actor award there for Seo Young-ju as well as a Special Jury Prize in the Competition Section, was also shown at Taiwan and Toronto, and opened theatrically in South Korea 22 Nov. 2012, though overshadowed, by reports, by bigger, more commercial Korean releases of the same period. This is Kang’s second feature, his first in eight years. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, 25 April-9 May 2013.
Director: Yi-kwan Kang
Stars: Jung-hyun Lee, Young Ju Seo
Runtime: 107 min
Country: South Korea