'Adulthood' ('Eoreundogam'): Film Review

Courtesy of Film
Gentle humor assuages unconventional growing pains.

Writer-director Kim In-seon’s debut is an observant coming-of-age narrative centering on an orphaned teenager’s struggle to define her own idea of family.

Families of grifters, swindlers and cheats represent a respectable cinematic tradition, perhaps best exemplified this year by the makeshift clan of small-time crooks gracing Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Cannes Palme d'Or winner and foreign-language Oscar contender Shoplifters. Korean first-timer Kim In-seon goes smaller-scale with her own comedic drama Adulthood, the tale of an orphaned teenager and her scammer of an uncle. Casually observational and gently humorous, Kim’s feature represents a winning combination of sentiment and craft that intuitively nudges her characters toward reluctant self-awareness.

The only other person attending the funeral of 14-year-old Kyung-un’s (Lee Jae-in) divorced dad is his younger brother Jae-min (Um Tae-goo). Kyung-un hasn’t seen her uncle since she was a child even though he’s now in his early 30s, and she feels a bit leery of him when he shows up unannounced at her apartment. Since her mother walked out long ago, the court appoints Jae-min as her guardian, enabling him to swiftly and surreptitiously siphon off her dad’s life insurance settlement.

In these early scenes, Kim instinctively captures the young girl’s restrained grief as she privately weeps over her father’s passing, as well as her innate suspicion of her interloping relative and resentment at his unearned intrusion in her life. Kyung-un doesn’t hesitate to show her disdain or shut her uncle out once she discovers his betrayal, but the guy is just too clueless to take the hint and push off.

Instead, he earnestly explains that he absconded with her insurance payout because he has debts to settle with some loan sharks, then decides to let her in on his sideline running scams by conning gullible women out of their savings. First approaching his targets online to win their trust, he then eagerly romances them in person as he attempts to pull off his deceptions. So far he hasn’t had much luck, however, but now he’s identified a new mark after meeting pharmacist and real estate investor Jun-hee (Suh Jung-yeon) through a fake hiking club he sets up with his equally sketchy buddy.

Warning Kyung-un that if she’s ever going to see a portion of her dad’s insurance money she’ll need to help him out and play along, Jae-min introduces himself to Jun-hee as Kyung-un’s single father after giving them both assumed names. As he gradually enlists his reluctant niece in winning over the initially reticent Jun-hee, Kyung-un’s vulnerability begins overwhelming her tough-kid attitude, leaving her loyalties increasingly divided.

More melodrama than caper movie, Kim’s feature decidedly sides with Kyung-un in her attempt to shake off her grief and find her own place in the world. Jae-min may be her guardian, but he’s barely more mature than a teen himself, desperately seeking some kind of relevance and direction in his life.

Teenage lead Lee already has a string of features to her credit, making her well-prepared to capitalize on a role more nuanced than some of the genre fare in which she’s appeared previously. Capable of both doe-eyed sentimentality and cheeky humor, she makes a fine foil for Um, playing her hapless uncle perhaps too persuasively.

Allowing the low-key narrative to guide the film’s modest ambitions, Kim favors an open, uncluttered approach, avoiding the sometimes artificially obtrusive framing and cutting of many Korean dramas.

Production company: Korean Academy of Film Arts      
Cast: Lee Jae-in, Um Tae-goo, Suh Jung-yeon
Director: Kim In-seon
Screenwriters: Kim In-seon, Park Geum-bum
Producer: Je Jung-joo
Director of photography: Lee Woo-hyun      
Music: Jang Young-gyu
Editor: Kim In-seon
Sales: M-Line
Venue: Hawaii International Film Festival

92 minutes