Sunday, December 29, 2013

PSIFF ’14: Juvenile Offender

When is it too late to turn your life around and stop being a screw-up? That point seems to come awfully early for those caught up in South Korea’s juvenile justice system.  To be fair, the system is not willing to cut many breaks for the main characters of Kang Yi-kwan’s Juvenile Offender (trailer here), one of many official foreign language Oscar submissions screening as part of the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Awards Buzz programming section.

Jang Ji-gu has had to be responsible since an early age, but he never really got it right.  While taking care of his diabetic invalid grandfather, he fell in with the wrong crowd and amassed quite a record.  His latest misadventure leads to a long stretch in the juvenile detention center.  While he is serving his time, his grandfather dies and his girlfriend Kim Sae-rom disappears.  However, the mother he assumed was dead unexpectedly re-enters the picture.

In truth, Hyo-seung is not great maternal material. She could possibly pass for the Korean Blanche Dubois, except she is practically still a child herself.  She has been sponging off her boss and reluctant roommate, an old classmate who barely remembered her. Naturally, taking in a surly teenager destabilizes the arrangements.  Still, Hyo-seung tries to make it work as best she can, but she and Jang cannot help sabotaging themselves.

In a way, Juvy is like a more realistically grounded and socially conscious alternative to Kim Ki-duk’s Pieta.  Despite all the crime involved, there is absolutely nothing lurid about the film.  It is resolutely naturalistic, but also rather understated.

Seo Young-joo (fourteen years old at the time, playing sixteen) has a quiet but forceful presence as Jang.  Viewers have the uneasy sense he is giving himself an ulcer and could snap at any time.  Jun Ye-jin’s work as Kim is also quite moving.  However, former techno-popstar Lee Jung-hyun is the real revelation as Hyo-seung.  The term hot mess perfectly applies to her, but Jun is never overly showy, eschewing cheap theatrics.  Instead, she shows the slipping façade of a desperate but tragically immature woman trying to keep it together.

Subtlety might be Juvy’s greatest strength and weakness.  Obviously, Kang and co-writer Park Joo-young have a lot to say about the Korean juvenile rehabilitation system (or lack there of), as well as society’s general attitude towards unwed mothers.  On the other hand, all the time allowed for quiet observation leads to a decidedly slack pace.  It is fully loaded with good intentions and strong performances, but it is still more of a sociological duty than a pleasure to watch.  Recommended for those with a taste for street-level social drama, Juvenile Offender screens this coming Saturday (1/4) and the following Monday (1/6) as part of this year’s PSIFF.