Kang Yi-Kwan’s muted “Juvenile Offender”, South Korea’s official Oscar submission features an award winning, career making performance by young actor Young-Ju Seo. The film, which won the Special Jury prize at the 2013 Tokyo International Film Festival aims to entertain against a backdrop of timely social issues.
Yi-Kwan and co-writer Joo Young Park’s script transcends the teen-at-risk genre, creating two memorable characters. With a neo-realist flavor, they personalize the statistics behind the issue of teenage mothers.
16-year-old Ji-Gu is the sole caregiver for his grandfather. His young mother Hyo-Seung (actress-pop star Lee Jung-Hyun, herself an at-risk teen mother of 17 when she gave birth, abandoned him to his grandfather’s care, (he’s the product of a one-night stand, in order to make her way.
Although Ji-Gu is a lackadaisical student, he manages to romance grade-A student, upwardly mobile Sae-Rom (Yejin Jun), whose father (Lee Yoon-Sang) disapproves.
Hanging out with his posse after school, he lets Jae-Bum, the charismatic leader of the pack, convince him to break into a “family home” with the rest of the boys. In fact Jae-Bum (Choi Won-Tae) intends to rob and trash his uncle’s house, in revenge for a family inheritance dispute. Jae-Bum’s auntie (Kim Geun-Young) comes home, recognized the fleeing school friends, and Ji-Gu pushes her down, earning him trespass, burglary and assault charges. “Can you forgive me just this once?” he asked the judge hopefully as he’s being sent down, unaware that his journey to maturity has just begun.
While doing time in the Juvenile justice system, his beloved grandfather dies, and his guidance counselor Teacher Kim (Jung Suk Yong) reunites him with his mother, Hyo-Seung.
Hyo-Seung hasn’t doing very well. Crashing at the house of her old school friend-now boss, beauty shop owner Ji-Young (Kang Rae-Yeon) she treats her job as pin money. Still as flaky as she was years ago, Hyo-Seung’s survived by cadging off old girl friends, but her luck runs out when she has to find a home for Ji-Gu.
She wheedles aggravated Ji-Young with puppyish charm, hoping her long time benefactor will forget her mounting debt, but even the most forgiving friend will snap eventually.
As bad as Ji-Gu’s judgment is, Hyo-seung’s is worse. She’s unable to hold a job, responsibilities are a foreign currency, and when the chips are down, she throws hysterical tantrums, expecting others to pick up the pieces. If anything is going to season Ji-Gu, it’s this appalling view of his mother. But they are together now, for better or worse.
What’s more, while he was in stir, Sae-Rom discovered she was pregnant with his child. Her unforgiving father tossed her out, refusing to pay for her education, and Sae-Rom gave the baby up for adoption.
The more time Ji-Gu spends with his mother, the more he realizes the multi-generational dysfunction he’s participating in. Ji-Gu decides to take responsibility.
As good as Young-Ju Seo’s performance as the uncommunicative Young-Ju Seo is, Jung-Hyun Lee is even more remarkable.
Yi-Kwan Kang’s sensitive script and measured approach quietly indicts the system, yet he creates good people inside the system, like Teacher Kim. Yi-Kwan Kang offers slim hope for the characters to escape the dead-end life of stigma they face but an open ending gives a bit of relief. Every incidental character, including the pair’s motel manager and the Sushi restaurant manager reflects the dire effect of the Global financial meltdown and globalization on South Korea’s disadvantaged or working poor.
Commissioned and produced by the National Committee of Human Rights to express the human rights of offenders, Yi-Kwan Kang film is no do-gooder treatise. He attacks the social problem, but never at the expense of his character’s personal journey. Each is fully realized, unpredictable. Each decision seems motivated by specific circumstances. In a season where I saw many films each day, the characters stayed with me long after I saw this film.
Kang Yi-Kwan directed an earlier short about teenage runaways for the National Committee of Human Rights.
Played the Palm Springs Film Festival on Tuesday, January 7, 2014 1:00 PM Regal Palm Springs 9 and Thursday, January 9, 2014 10:30 AM Regal Palm Springs 9.