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Produced and supported by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, “Juvenile Offender” is a humanistic and socially aware look at the country’s youth justice system, and more importantly at the struggle of a troubled mother and son to rekindle their bond. The film was directed by Kang Yi Kwan, and is only his second feature, despite his relationship drama debut “Sa Kwa” having won several awards back in 2005. Nearly seven years later, his latest effort proved equally popular with critics, winning the Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Tokyo Film Festival, where star and former child actor Seo Young Joo, known for television dramas such as “Can You Hear My Heart” and “Fashion King”, was the youngest ever nominee to win the Best Actor Award for his impressive performance.
The film opens with Seo as 16 year old Ji Gu, who lives with his seriously ill grandfather, spending his days getting in trouble with the law, a botched burglary with his gang of friends, resulting in him being sent to a juvenile detention centre. While incarcerated, his grandfather dies, and his case officer manages to track down the mother Hyo Seung (Singer-actress Lee Jung Hyun, who featured in Park Chan Wook’s iPhone-shot “Night Fishing”), who abandoned him after giving birth. In financial difficulty and living a chaotic life herself, Hyo Seung brings him home to the small room she rents from a friend, and the two attempt to make up for lost time. Things aren’t easy however, and Ji Gun finds the past starting to repeat itself after he runs into trouble with his girlfriend Sae Rom (Jun Ye Jin).
Although its setup might sound like a recipe for a typical Korean weepie, “Juvenile Offender” is thankfully a measured and thoughtful film, which for the most part steers away from cheap melodrama and predictable tears and reconciliations. The film is instead very much a character rather than plot driven affair, and a reasonably unconventional one at that, and while its theme of the present repeating the past is nothing new, it’s handled in a sensitive and effective manner, suggesting a difficult to break cycle and dealing with real world problems faced by many.
This is very much cinema with a conscience and without moral judgements, both Ji Gu and Hyo Seung being sympathetic protagonists who the viewer really comes to care for, despite them being flawed figures who seem doomed to keep making the same mistakes and bad decisions. Though Kang Yi Kwan never wallows and does work in glimmers of hope and moments of happiness, the film is essentially a downbeat affair, believably so, and presents a convincing picture of the increasingly desperate situation facing the economically disadvantaged in modern Korean society. Kang is subtle in his criticism, the film never delving too deeply into Ji Gu’s time or experiences in the detention centre, and focusing instead on the clear fact that his time inside has clearly not been either constructive or healing.
Though it meanders a little too much and at times loses dramatic momentum, building towards an open ended conclusion which some viewers will find unfulfilling, the film benefits hugely from a pair of very strong lead performances. Seo Young Joo delivers a real breakthrough turn as Ji Gu, often uncommunicative, though speaking emotional volumes through looks and gestures. Lee Jung Hyun is similarly excellent, painting Hyo Seung not so much as a tragic figure, but as a young woman who has to date failed to properly deal with her own problems and the bad hand which life has dealt her. Their changing relationship and the unpredictable turns it takes is very much at the heart of the film, and is both sad and affecting. The script progress by gradually showing them to be more similar than they’d like to admit, and Kang Yi Kwan impresses through adding an uncommon and unexpected level of emotional and psychological depth that make the film engaging, if often painful to watch.
“Juvenile Offender” is a rewarding and substantial piece of humanistic cinema. Down to earth, believable and heartfelt, while it doesn’t exactly offer much fun, it’s a worthwhile and accomplished film which clearly suggests Kang Yi Kwan should step behind the camera more often.
Yi-kwan Kang (director) / Yi-kwan Kang, Joo Young Park (screenplay)
CAST: Won-tae Choi … Jae-Bum
Rae-yeon Kang … Ji-Young
Jung-hyun Lee … Ji-gu’s Mother
Young Ju Seo … Ji-gu
Jun Ye-Jin … Kim Sae-Rom
Jung Suk Yong … Teacher Kim