“Children…” is another of the true life crime dramas which Korean cinema seems to do so consistently well, this time revolving around the shocking unsolved murder of five young boys in the rural Daegu region back in 1991. Written and directed by Lee Kyu Man (“Return”), the film has an interesting and bold twist in that it goes beyond the actual facts of the case and draws its own conclusions as to the identity of the never-caught killer, even going so far as to name him. Unsurprisingly, the film makes for fascinating viewing as a result, and has a suitably impressive cast of stars adding weight to the controversial material, including Park Yong Woo (“Handphone”), Ryu Seung Ryong (“Battlefield Heroes”), Sung Dong Il (“Foxy Festival”), Sung Ji Ru (“No Mercy”), and Kim Yeo Jin (“Vegetarian”).
Beginning with the unfortunate children heading up into the mountains, never to return, the film then moves ahead a few years and shifts its attention to Park Yong Woo’s producer Kang, an award winning documentary film maker whose career hangs in the balance after being caught out for faking footage. Exiled to Daegu, he decides to make a film about the disappearances, hoping to uncover dark secrets or at least to find the still missing bodies of the children. When the local police prove positively hostile, he teams up with a professor (Ryu Seung Ryong) who suspects that the father and mother of one of the boys may know more than they have been letting on.
Given its subject matter and the fact that the case was never solved, the most obvious comparison for “Children….” is inevitably with Bong Joon Ho’s “Memories of Murder”. This is perhaps a little unfair, partly since Bong’s film is one of the undisputed masterpieces of Korean cinema, and partly since the two are quite different despite their apparent similarities. Lee does take his own unique approach, playing things deadly straight instead of for darkly ironic humour, and allowing for a wider, more human view of the case and its developments through the years instead of focusing on the incompetency of the police investigation that led to the murder managing to avoid detection. Obviously, in naming a potential killer, the film does run the risk of blurring fact and fiction and of playing rather loose with serious real life events. Thankfully, Lee handles this aspect very well, and its conclusion never comes across as being arrogantly definitive or as having been thrown in for cheap narrative closure or shock value. The film as a whole is well balanced, and asks some very interesting questions about the case, highlighting its many oddities and inconsistencies, and although it does provide answers of a sort, it wisely still marks itself as an exploratory and speculative effort.
At the same time, the film works very well as a suspenseful mystery and detective yarn, with a neatly pulled together structure that moves between the many different perspectives of those involved in and affected by the situation. Through this, Lee weaves a complex and engaging story that gives the impression of covering every angle of the case quite comprehensively, dealing with the media, police, academic experts, and of course the parents of the children themselves. Although Park Yong Woo and Ryu Seung Ryong have the most screen time, neither turn in showy performances, and this helps ensure that the film has an all-important grounded and believable air. This is also true of Lee’s subdued direction, which makes good use of the local scenery and rural isolation of the mountains to generate a melancholy, at times eerie mood, and though the film could have done with a little trimming of some of its needless later flashbacks of the boys’ happier moments, it keeps its emotions generally in check.
Thankfully, unlike many other Korean directors working in the genre, he never pushes the melodrama too far and “Children…” is all the more powerful and hard-hitting for retaining its gritty, realistic air through to the depressing end. Whilst not exactly cheerful viewing or up to the standards of “Memories of Murder”, the film is certainly one of the better real life crime dramas to have come from the country of late, succeeding both as a gripping investigatory thriller and as a brave postulation as to what might have happened to the tragic young victims.
Kyoo-man Lee (director) / Kyoo-man Lee, Hyeon-jin Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Yong-woo Park … Kang Ji-seung
Seung-yong Ryoo … Hwang Woo-hyeok
Dong-il Song … Detective Park
Ji-ru Sung … Jong’s father
Yeo-jin Kim … Jong’s mother
Byeong-eun Park … Kim Joo-hwan