Juvenile Offender, Kang Yi-kwan's delicately observed, tightly written, deeply humanistic small-scale drama is one of the must-see films of this year's New York Asian Film Festival. Bracingly tough-minded, this film deftly avoids the traps inherent in its narrative material, especially in a Korean cinema context, of devolving into overwrought melodrama. It does so by concentrating on its characters, and the complex interactions between them, and not forcing it into the mold of a contrived plot. The indelible impression left by this narrative strategy is bolstered by great performances all around, by both its lead actors and others in smaller roles, creating an environment that feels truly realistic.
Juvenile Offender begins by introducing us to Ji-gu (Seo Young-ju), a 16-year old who lives with his ailing, diabetic grandfather, and has grown up without knowing his parents. He has already been in trouble with the authorities, and must check in regularly on an automated phone line to inform juvenile probation officers of his whereabouts. He meets a girl, Sae-rom (Jeon Ye-jin), who he brings over to the house for a one-night stand, but with promises for a more lasting relationship. However, Ji-gu still hangs with his old crowd of delinquent troublemakers, and is soon arrested after he participates with his friends in a home break-in. Having now flagrantly violated the terms of his probation, Ji-gu is sent to a detention center for a year, despite his pleas to the judge for leniency.
After Ji-gu is released from the detention center, he learns that his grandfather has died in the interim. The institution tracks down Ji-gu's mother Hyo-seung (Lee Jung-hyun), who abandoned him after giving birth to him, the result of a one-night stand when she was 17. Hyo-seung apologizes effusively for abandoning him, and takes him in to live with her. It turns out that she's barely more mature than her offspring, and far from financially stable; she lives in a small apartment with Ji-yeong (Gang Rae-yeon), an old classmate who has given Hyo-seung a job as a trainee hairdresser at the salon she owns. With the wheedling, cajoling, and coquettish begging she uses to borrow money, Hyo-seung persuades her very reluctant friend to let Ji-gu stay with them at their place. Thereafter begins the difficult emotional pas de deux between the mother and son, as they struggle to build a relationship and where the roles of caretaker and dependent switch back and forth between them. Complicating matters even further, Ji-gu learns that Sae-rom got pregnant after their night together, gave up her child for adoption, and is now living in a girls' shelter after being disowned by her family. The cycle of hardship and misery now threatens to extend into another generation.
Set in an a wintry setting thematically appropriate to the often harsh lives of its central characters, Juvenile Offender is a gem of a character study that is full of beautifully rendered moments that fully illuminate the nuanced complexities of its relationships. Kang Yi-kwan's second feature (after 2005's Sa-Kwa), produced by the Human Rights Commission of Korea, expresses in every frame its deep sympathy for its characters, making us feel invested in their fates. Kang elicits impressive performances from all his actors, but Lee Jung-hyun's revelatory turn is particularly essential. Her multi-faceted portrayal of a young woman who can't help sabotaging her own efforts to make something substantial out of her life is continually riveting; her performance is Juvenile Offender's greatest asset.
Juvenile Offender screens on July 11, 6pm at the Walter Reade Theater, preceded by Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong's short film Day Trip. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center's website, and NYAFF's website.
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