A good film provides thoughtful insight on any one subject. The 86th Academy Awards honors the best films released in the past year. However, the Best Foreign Film category is unorthodox. Unlike other categories where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vote to nominate entries, the nominees for this category are based off film entries submitted by different countries for the Academy’s consideration. One criteria is the film must be predominantly in a language other than English.
Korea’s submission for this year’s awards was the film, Juvenile Offender. This film directed by Kang Yi-kwan was released on November 2012. It stars Seo Young-joo as the troubled teenager Jang Ji-gu and singer Lee Jung-hyun as his mother Jang Hyo-seung. Although the story revolves around Ji-gu reconnecting with his mother, the film does a decent job in exploring the cyclical nature of their troubled lives.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead]
The story starts with exploring Ji-gu’s problematic childhood so far: he commits crimes with a rowdy group of kids, he has a young relationship with a teenage girl Sae-rom, and he lives with his sickly grandfather. Even while Ji-gu is under probation, he bears a responsibility caring for his grandfather. Ji-gu eventually finds himself detained for ‘accidentally’ assaulting an elderly lady after robbing her house with his friends. The court scene is especially revealing of his past history of ‘accidental’ assault. Although Ji-gu pleads for one more chance to demonstrate good behavior, he is shipped off to the juvenile detention center under the guise of needing better stewardship. This plea notes a trend where Ji-gu has a bout of irresponsible action followed by a request for an extra, last chance to redeem himself.
After 11 months in the institution, Ji-gu finds out that his grandfather passed away. Through his death, he is able to reconnect to his birth mother, Hyo-seung. She decides to take care of Ji-gu, but has trouble following through; her actions hint at her whimsical nature and foreshadow a closer semblance to Ji-gu’s personality. Hyo-seung seems to be unsure of her abilities. She is dependent on others to stay afloat, like her roommate/boss from whom she borrows money and asks for board for Ji-gu. Hyo-seung doesn’t plan ahead but often has short term desires she wishes to actualize.
The movie is heavy with parallelism between Ji-gu and his mother. Despite not knowing each other for most of their lives, they share similar faults. Both have a pent up anger issues. Both wish to take responsibility for their actions. Both end up faltering due to their bad habits. Hyo-seung can’t seem to be responsible in her job and money: her constant search for a home for her family mirrors her aspiration to provide, but the fact that she can’t maintain rent is a testament to her irresponsibility. Eventually, both Ji-gu and Hyo-seung fall back into old habits. Ji-gu’s combative nature returns. He fights a familiar face from his past and ends up back in the juvenile center. Hyo-seung ends up working for a new boss but is seemingly in a similar dependency reminiscent of her last job.
This film is wrought with commentary on the cyclical nature of delinquency. Once you become a part of the system, the way society is built almost keeps you there. Schools become less available to these kids. The general public’s attitude inhibits these teens from accessing a means of social stratification. Along with this criticism of the cyclical system, the film also lays blame to the irresponsibility of the parents and delinquent kids. It highlights the problematic nature of instant gratification and a lack of long term planning as habits which prevent many offenders from not repeating their past.
There is prominent use of off-screen sounds to set a placid tone. Large periods of the movie are devoid of dialogue. The tone becomes an important device in presenting the hopelessness Ji-gu and Hyo-seung both face in overcoming their issues. The off-screen sounds seem to overpower the viewer and main characters; the sounds of life moving ahead while the characters seem stuck in to their past.
Because of the heavy presence of off-screen sounds, the presence of dialogue becomes important in understanding the emotional struggle of the characters. The camera is constantly moving throughout the film and the continual use of close up shots expound the emotional performances. Especially noteworthy is Lee Jung-hyun. Her portrayal of Hyo-seung as the young mother who acts cutely to get her way is unique because of the fragility of her facade. Her faked smile can unravel once she loses control over her emotions. Lee Jung-hyun did a fine job in bringing up this duality of character during the film.
Juvenile Offender was a simplistic movie with a touch of stylistic flair. Although the ending had a clever scene in symbolizing the continuance of the cycle, I wish there was a more poignant end. I don’t think Ji-gu’s admittance back into the institution was a satisfying conclusion for his story. Also, I was left a bit puzzled when Sae-rom found Ji-gu’s mother at the end. Was she possibly revealing that she was pregnant again, or was she desperate for a place to stay? The movie was great in presenting this pattern of irresponsibility, but I was left hoping for a bigger emotional payoff at the end.
Overall score: 4/5.
(Hancinema, National Human Rights Commission of Korea, Finecut)