Based on true story, “Little Brother” marks the debut feature of Korean director Lim Tae Yong and is another in the ever popular family melodrama genre. This time around the film focuses on the familiar subject of life threatening illness, as a twelve year old boy called Han Byeol (Seo Dae Han) is hospitalised with a brain tumour, leaving his aggressive and mischievous younger brother Han Yi (talented young actor Park Ji Bin, also in “A Family”) to try and cope in his absence. With his parents (played by Bae Jong Ok and Park Won Sang) all but ignoring him, the poor lad makes his best efforts to get their attention, while slowly coming to terms with the sad situation.
Director Lim doesn’t waste much time in getting the tears rolling, and “Little Brother” is an emotional ride right from the first few scenes. The matter of Han Byeol’s illness is never sugar coated, and the film never shies away from the difficulty and pain of the treatments he goes through, with plenty of fairly graphic depictions of medical processes and surgery. As a result it can make for hard going at times, and the viewer is forced to run the gamut of hope and fear along with the characters. A sub-plot involving a fellow sick child called Wook Yi also works well and adds another layer of worry and concern, as it is pretty obvious that at least one of the two unfortunate kids is unlikely to last the whole film. Mercifully, it’s not all doom and gloom, and their courage is inspirational and moving, in a believable and less patronising fashion than is often the case with this kind of film.
Obviously, Han Yi is very much at the centre of the film, and although he is a little young for life lessons, his gradual maturation, or at least his slow realisation that his brother might in fact die, makes for a satisfying if inevitable character development arc from bullying brat to concerned sibling. To be fair, although Han Yi acts badly, Lim never shies away from the fact that he does have his own life turned upside down by something he can barely comprehend, and as such it is easy to feel sorry for the little tyke and even to forgive him for his initial selfishness.
Although the film is predominantly seen from Han Yi’s perspective, it also shows how Han Byeol’s illness affects their parents, putting considerable strain on their marriage and leaving them in a constant state of near hysteria. However, Lim focuses mainly on their emotional stress, and only mentions in passing potentially important issues such as the high cost of medical bills and the mother having to give up her job – this might have given the drama a little more depth, though on the other hand it might also have dragged things out unnecessarily, as the film certainly benefits from its comparatively short running time and brisk pace.
Thankfully, there are some laughs too amongst the never ending tears, mostly at Han Yi’s childish behaviour, and these serve well to occasionally distract from the fact that the film is essentially a wait to see whether or not poor Han Byeol dies or not. Also helping to lift the mood somewhat is a strange fantasy sequence involving a flying hermit who lives in the woods behind Woo’s house and who seems to have a magic water flask. This again provides another brief respite from the rather claustrophobic hospital, and though it is very much at odds with the realistic tone of the rest of the film, since it is obviously being seen from the point of view of a child it works well enough.
It’s little touches like this that make “Little Brother” a good film for family viewing rather than a grim terminal illness drama, though it is perhaps not too suitable for younger children as it pulls admirably few punches and would no doubt lead to awkward questions regarding life and death – parents be warned. A well made, ne plus ultra tear-jerker, the film is pretty much guaranteed to satisfy any fans of the form, and indeed it would take a pretty hard heart not to be moved by the plight of such brave children.
Tai-hyung Lim (director) / Eun-Jeong Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Chong-ok Bae … Mum
Woo-hyeok Choi … Wook-yi
Jin-bin Park … Jang Han-yi