“The Forgotten Child: Shin Sung-Il is Lost” is the first film from director Jane Shin, and is quite possibly the strangest piece of cinema to have come from Korea in recent years. The film is a resolutely eccentric affair with definite cult appeal which has enjoyed a successful run at a variety of international festivals, screening at Vancouver, London, Hong Kong and Berlin, where it picked up the Reader Jury of the “Berliner Zeitung” prize. Although it is far from easy to figure out the film itself, it is easy enough to see its attraction, offering as it does a well crafted and unconventional art house alternative to the genre films which have of late dominated Korean cinema.
The story begins at a run-down orphanage in an abandoned town somewhere in Korea, where the children are ruled over by adults who strictly enforce their own version of Christianity which treats eating as a sin. Although there does appear to be plenty of normal food around, the poor children are made to feel too guilty to eat it, leaving them to subsist wholly on a diet of chocolate pies which they consume while hiding under beds and in cupboards. Despite the harshness of this regime, one child, the titular Shin Sung-Il (an excellent performance from first time actor Hyun Sik-Cho) somehow manages to remain overweight. Spurred on by the arrival of an outspoken young girl and a growing suspicion that the director of the orphanage is secretly gorging herself on forbidden food, the children begin to plot a rebellion to reclaim their right to eat.
Whilst this may sound fairly straightforward, this basic plot is really only half the story, as the film is intercut with scenes of Shin Sung-Il wandering homeless on the city streets, refusing food from all who offer it to him, usually sending them packing with a quote from the wacky orphanage gospel. The two narratives constantly overlap, with the same actors playing different characters in both, and with a series of linking motifs and themes which seem to be hinting at some kind of bigger picture.
As should be clear from this synopsis, even for weird film veterans, it is very hard to work out exactly what “The Forgotten Child” is about, both in terms of narrative and theme. As far as can be discerned, it seems to be a dark, satirical fantasy about the world as seen through the eyes of a child, which aims to expose the hypocrisy of adults and which revolves around a bizarre interpretation of Christian doctrine to satirise modern society’s obsession with consumption, with food being depicted in determinedly fetishistic fashion.
However, since the film is packed with obscure symbolism, much of which appears to be religious, and bounces about between different perspectives, or quite possibly between different realities with wild abandon, it may well be about something else entirely or indeed nothing at all. Thankfully, although wilfully enigmatic and making no concessions to traditional cinematic forms, the film is actually quite fascinating, and the gloomy, claustrophobic atmosphere of the orphanage scenes give the proceedings an almost hypnotic pull. The viewer is captivated throughout, waiting to see where poor Shin Sung Il will end up next, or at least to find out whether or not anything will be explained.
Shot on a mixture of handsome black and white and colour digital video, the film has a striking look, flitting between the two without warning in a manner which further disorientates the viewer, as does the fact that words from the script have a tendency to appear on-screen at irregular intervals, sometimes seemingly with nothing to do with what is actually being shown. There are a number of fantasy sequences scattered throughout, including the appearances of bloody angels, and in one standout scene, a classroom full of exploding children, all of which work well to keep the viewer interested and to add to the continuing air of dream-like unpredictability.
Such strangeness is quite at odds with the otherwise naturalistic and almost documentary like feel, and this odd combination of visual techniques pushes the film firmly and deeply into the realm of the surreal. The overall effect is a film which is at once baffling, admirably original, and somehow endearing, mainly since it is hard not to feel sorry for the poor children, whose treatment (real or not) verges on abuse. Whilst its satirical elements might have been more effective if director Shin had provided a few more hints as to exactly what she was attempting to satirise, “The Forgotten Child” stands as a bold, intriguing slice of avant-garde cinema which serves as a timely reminder that Korea is capable of producing far more interesting fare than the usual gangster films and melodramas.
Jane Shin (director) / Jane Shin (screenplay)
CAST: Hyun-sik Cho … Shin Sung-il
In-kee Jung … Man in Pizza Store
Young-soo Jung … Min-ki
Min-jae Kim … Boss
Wang-geun Kim … Drinking Man
Seul-ye Moon … Lee Jung-ae