Sunday, June 23, 2013

KCS Korean Movie Night: A Werewolf Boy

Chul-soo is either Korea’s Kaspar Hauser or its Teen Wolf.  He is old enough to be a war-era orphan, but even for a wild child he seems a little odd.  Yet, a sickly teen-aged girl forms a deep connection with him in Jo Sung-hee’s A Werewolf Boy (trailer here), which screens this Tuesday night as part of the Korean Cultural Service’s ongoing free Korean Movie Nights in New York.

Soon-yi, her mother, and her younger sister Soon-ja have moved to the countryside in hopes the clean air will improve her health.  Unfortunately, the big move was facilitated by Ji-tae, the entitled son of her late father’s business partner, who now feels at liberty to pop over whenever he feels like it.  He assumes Soon-yi will eventually marry him for the sake of his wealth and social status.  However, Soon-yi is not impressed.

She does not think much of the feral Chul-soo either when she and her mother first find him snarling in the garden.  With the relevant social welfare agencies passing the buck, Soon-yi’s mother reluctantly takes him in.  Slowly, he starts to grow on the family, once they clean him up and curtail his rougher instincts.  Soon-yi even starts teaching him to read with the help of a dog training manual.  However, a rich jerk like Ji-tae cannot help making trouble, especially when his ego is bruised.

Chul-soo’s true nature is quite strange and uncanny, but Jo de-emphasizes the genre aspects of his story to focus on his young tragic love for Soon-yi.  Told in media res as the decades older woman returns to the fateful country house, Werewolf Boy has all the elements of a good weeper, so it is not surprising it was a monster hit at the Korean box office.

In truth, the film is at its strongest when portraying the innocent ardor of Chul-soo’s relationship with Soon-yi.  In contrast, the ridiculously vile Ji-tae is little more than a clumsy class warfare tool that quickly grows tiresome.  When the shoot-first military finally arrives on the scene, they at least have the virtue of being considerably less cartoony and more fully dimensional than the silver spoon villain.

Still, Song Joong-ki and Park Bo-young develop rather touching chemistry as Chul-soo and Soon-yi, respectively.  The former shows both tremendous physicality and sensitivity as the young wolf-man, in an almost entirely nonverbal performance.  Likewise, Park is radiantly expressive as Soon-yi.  Jang Yeong-nam is also memorably charismatic yet down-to-earth as her mother.  Unfortunately, as Ji-tae, Yoo Yeon-seok is stuck with a flimsy character and takes it embarrassingly over the top in every scene.

Werewolf Boy demonstrates how genre elements can be shrewdly repurposed to tell a highly relatable story rooted in human emotions.  Frankly, Soon-yi and Chul-soo’s impossible love would resonate without Jo Sung-hee so conspicuously stacking the deck against them.  Nonetheless, A Werewolf Boy is recommended for those who enjoy a shaggy-haired teen-aged romance, especially when it screens for free this Tuesday (6/25) at the Tribeca Cinemas, courtesy of the Korean Cultural Service in New York.