Romantic fantasy “A Werewolf Boy” emerged as of the biggest Korean hits of 2012, not to mention the country’s biggest grossing melodrama to date. Written and directed by Jo Sung Hee, his second feature after the much-praised art house indie “End of Animal”, the film follows the odd relationship between a young girl and a strange feral boy in a twist on the ever popular ‘pure love’ theme. Taking on the all-important lead roles are up and coming stars actor Song Joong Ki (“Penny Pinchers”) and actress Park Bo Young (“Speedy Scandal”), with support from (Jang Young Nam, “Hello Ghost”), Kim Hyang Gi (“The Grand Heist”) and Yoo Yeon Seok (“Re-encounter”).
The film kicks off in the present day in the US, with an elderly Korean woman called Suni receiving a call about the sale of her old family home back in Korea. Returning to the rural house in the countryside, the memories come flooding back from 1965, when she was a rebellious teenage girl (now played by Park Bo Young), who moved there with her widowed mother (Jang Young Nam) and younger sister (Kim Hyang Gi) to try and help her regain her health. One day she comes across a wild boy (Song Joong Ki) lurking around the property, who can’t speak, read or write, and who acts more like an animal than a human being. With it being assumed that he is a war orphan, the family decide to look after him in until a permanent solution can be found, and he gradually forms a bond with Suni, who takes it on herself to train him, giving him the name Chul Soo. This doesn’t go down well with their sleazy landlord Ji Tae (Yoo Yeon Seok), who has designs on Suni himself, and the unpleasant man does his best to bring out the worst in Chul Soo.
Though many viewers will hear ‘teen fantasy romance’ and think “Twilight”, there’s thankfully a lot more to “A Werewolf Boy”, which actually turns out to be a much more nuanced, not to mention stranger film than expected. Of course, nostalgia-tinged melodrama is still the main order of the day, with most of the running time being taken up with the burgeoning romance between Suni and Chul Soo and the inevitable angst, jealousy and innocent love that this entails. However, Jo Sung Hee proves to be a pretty good fit for the material, retaining his indie sensibilities and preventing the film from ever getting too sappy or cutesy. The two young stars also help, with solid performances that keep things respectably in check and display enough chemistry to make their paring believable. While for viewers outside the target audience the film is unlikely to be terribly moving, it does hit a lot of surprisingly strong emotional beats along the way, and its heartstring-tugging is far more palatable than might have been expected.
Mainly this is due to the film’s more leftfield elements, which are hinted at early on by the fact that the house was owned by a weird scientist who appeared to be doing experiments on wolves. This actually turns out to be a fairly crucial part of the plot as the film develops, Jo working in some pretty bizarre elements that lean towards horror and science fiction, making for a kind of beauty and the beast type feel. This is accentuated by his excellent direction, making great use of shadows and colour, mixing the gloss of melodrama with an at times more gritty genre look. The whole war orphan motif also crops up a few times, and though Jo doesn’t really expand upon this, or indeed the historical context in general, the metaphor is clearly there, and this adds a pleasingly subtle layer of depth.
The young stars and threat of melodrama shouldn’t put open minded viewers off “A Werewolf Boy”, as it’s really much better and more entertaining than expected, and though younger audiences will certainly get more out of it, there’s still plenty here to enjoy. Jo Sung Hee proves a talented writer and craftsman of a director, and the film is well made and despite its somewhat odd collection of elements makes for a solid and satisfying package.
Sung-Hee Jo (director) / Sung-Hee Jo (screenplay)
CAST: Young-nam Jang
Bo-yeong Park … Soon-Yi
Joong-ki Song … Chul-Soo
Yeon-Seok Yoo … Ji-tae