Who is Jo Sung-hee? Judging this young director by his first two feature film may be a lot like pinning down a psychological profile on Dr. Henry Jekyll. Jo's first feature, End of Animal
(2010), was a very idiosyncratic quasi-religious doomsday variation with muddy meaning but clear vision. Contrary to those beginnings, his new film, A Werewolf Boy
, is a not-so-subtle big budget South Korean divergence on the Twilight
franchise that plans on hitting the mainstream right between the eyes. Sold on the fresh faces of Park Bo-young and Song Joong-ki, this coming-of-age melodrama doesn't even seem tempted to step outside the boundaries of familiar film conjecture of boy meets girl. In this case, it is a sweet yet genetically modified feral boy meets strong-willed lonely girl, tossed with a blend of standard motifs that looks to earn an independent filmmaker a measure of market redemption. But what Jo gains in the form of an impressive production in his second feature film, he loses in creative capital.
When aging matriarch Suni is summoned to South Korea from the US to handle the sale of a family property, memories that she had long left behind come flooding back. In a prolonged flashback, the film shuttles us back to the 1960s when Suni (Park) was a teenager. Ailing physically from lung problems and emotionally from the death of her father, Suni, along with her younger sister and now single mother, moved to a large house in the countryside with the promise of fresh air. What the cobbled, quirky family finds is a wild child (Song) hiding in their barn, and a person to fill their emotional gap. Assumed to be an orphan from the war, they take the boy into their home, clean him up, and discover a curious yet somewhat ill mannered and mute naïf. Suni, rebellious by nature, finds solace in this interesting yet beautiful young man they name Chul-soo. Committed to taming his unruly impulses--like eating all the food in sight as soon as it is set on the table--Suni takes it upon herself to train him.
Much of the exposition of the story plays like a rom-com, as Chul-soo gets comfortable with his new family and gets close to Suni. There's a subtle charm to their relationship and an irresistible sympathy toward Chul-soo'd naïve ways. But evil lurks, not in Chul-soo's beastly nature, but in the jealousy of Ji-tae, a foppish young benefactor to the family who expects to marry Suni. Ji-tae's unwanted advances on Suni bring out the guard dog in Chul-soo, exposing his emotionally charged ability to transform. Ji-tae is keen to eliminate his competition and reveal Chul-soo's unnatural powers by exploiting his protective nature. The mano a mano of cunning against virtue that ensues is meant to provide some dramatic thrust of the film, but instead it flattens the dynamic characters into rote recitation of inane plot devices: the covert government science experiment, the trickery of a villainous heart, and the inevitable loss of innocence.A Werewolf Boy
unfortunately never veers from pedestrian paths, delivering a minor fairy tale that merely flirts with genre. Action and violence are fleeting, and the supernatural elements are locked to melodramatic earthly dimensions of the human heart. But those affairs of the heart, as drawn out as they get, have some resonance beyond painting a pretty picture. Back to the present, the final moments of the film emanate an unexpected aura of guilt, regret, and sorrow. Fifty years later, Suni is forced to face the promises she made in her youth and the choices she made in life. The untidy bow wrapped around the epilogue may be the only evidence of Jo's rebellious nature, assuming its still there. Although the film effectively pulls gently on the heartstrings, it struggles to assert a personality within the well-worn confines.
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