BiFan 2022 Review: A GOOD BOY, Layered Korean Indie Explores a Teacher's Worst Nightmare
Teachers often go beyond their remit to educate, especially if they notice something wrong with the children they've been charged with. In Son Kyoungwon's debut film A Good Boy, a well-meaning teacher learns just how dangerous it can be to take an active role in a child's life.
Noticing that 12-year-old Yohan (Oh Hankyul) may be having some trouble at home, Soohyun (Sohn Suhyun) shows him a little kindness, but when that attention is returned it doesn't take long for her life to go off the rails. Yohan follows her home and attempts to grope an embarrassed Soohyun, having learned that behaviour at home, where his mother is engaged in a torrid relationship with an aggressive man who regularly beats him.
Soon after Yohan accuses Soohyun of hitting him and while her colleagues initially take her side, her boss, fretting over an upcoming promotion, doesn't accord her the same level of trust. Also on Soohyun's side is her fiancé, but, increasingly distracted by her complicated situation at work, she looses focus on preparations for their upcoming nuptials.
Prior to her troubles, everything was going quite well for Soohyun. She's a considerate and tactful young woman with a good job on the verge of being married an attractive young man, also a teacher. If Soohyun's life could be seen as stable, Yohan's was anything but. His guardians are poor and abusive alcoholics and his upbringing has only taught him to be antisocial.
He's a victim of domestic abuse, but also an inveterate liar, which positions him as a character at a curiously opaque point on the spectrum between protagonists and antagonist. Soohyun is the only person in his surroundings who showed him any kindness and he doesn't have the ability to reciprocate.
The only emotional interactions he witnesses at home are coarse and erotic, so when he touches Soohyun's breast we can infer that he probably means well, but Soohyun hasn't seen his home life the way we have. Rejected and confused, Yohan acts out in a destructive fashion.
A Good Boy presents an intriguing concept which is tidily executed by the young Son (she was all of 24 during production last autumn), but it's also an idea that's been doing the rounds for a few years in Korean media.
The domestic abuse angle was covered in the brilliant drama Mother and hit indie Miss Baek, both released in 2018, while the empathetic teacher versus troublesome student thread was given a philosophical treatment in 2020's Good Person, to mention only a few similar works.
The treatment remains topical here and Son gets a compelling performance out of Sohn in the lead role, but on the whole the film retraces the steps of its predecessors, without either adding something new to the mix or surpassing what's come before it.
But for anyone who hasn't done a deep dive in independent Korean cinema, A Good Boy more than holds its own as a thoughtful piece of cinema. Original or not, the story remains one fraught with the tension and psychological complexities that arise from the paradoxes found within Korea's rigid social structure.
If Son can craft a capable and layered film like this at her age one wonders what she might do when she strikes upon a more novel idea with a little more experience under her belt.