Juvenile Offender: Tokyo Review

Fine acting bolsters this smart and involving character study.

Seo Young-ju turns in an award-winning performance as a teen law-breaker in South Korean director Kang Yi-kwan’s nicely restrained second feature.

TOKYO -- Tightly written and delicately wrought, the affecting South Korean family drama Juvenile Offender, winner of the special jury prize at the recent Tokyo International Film Festival, wears its social conscience lightly.

The raw ingredients read like another big-screen indictment of a society that casually forsakes its weakest. But the second feature from director and co-writer Kang Yi-kwan, about the tricky reconciliation between a teenager on probation and the mother he thought was dead, emerges as a smart and involving dual character study that also won the best actor award in Tokyo for Seo Young-ju.  Further festival awards seem certain and the film will lure Korean audiences attuned to its restrained naturalism when it opens there on November 22.

Seo Young-ju, a regular on Korean TV dramas, embodies the growing pains of adolescence as 16-year-old Ji-gu, a young man hovering between rebellion and responsibility. Living with his sick grandfather, he falls in with the wrong crowd and ends up doing time at a juvenile detention center for burglary. When his grandfather dies, the institution manages to track down Ji-gu’s mom Hyo-seung (actress-pop star Lee Jung-hyun), who abandoned him after giving birth at the age of 17 after a one-night stand.

Hyo-seung would be carded at any self-respecting nightclub and appears to have the emotional maturity of a toddler, alternating between coquettish giggling and tantrum-throwing to get her way.

When she takes Ji-gu to live with her in an apartment she shares with a former schoolmate, Ji-yeong (a nicely exasperated Gang Rae-yeon), alarm bells sound: Hyo-seung is surviving on Ji-yeong’s largesse and can barely look after herself, let alone her troubled son.

Shot in a naturalistic style in modern-day Seoul during a bleak winter, the film sails close to being hopeless, but is saved by the affection the director clearly feels for his flawed characters, who are simply looking for viable ways to survive. Beautifully written scenes in which Hyo-seung and Ji-gu swap roles as wounded and protector are dropped like little blossoms onto the constantly shifting sands that underpin their evolving relationship. The strong central performances are bolstered by fine supports including Jun Yejin as Ji-gu’s young girlfriend Sae-rom, forced to live in a shelter after falling pregnant to him and giving up the baby.

Produced by the National Committee of Human Rights, which previously commissioned Kang to do a short film about a teen runaway, Juvenile Offender provides an intimate look at the larger problem of single moms, societal stigma and institutions that let troubled but essentially good-hearted individuals like Ji-gu fall through the cracks.   

Cast: Seo Young-ju, Lee Jung-hyun, Jun Yejin
Production company: South Park Film
Director: Kang Yi-kwan
Screenwriters: Kang Yi –kwan, Park Joo-young
Producer: Park Joo-young
Executive producers: Kang Yi-kwan, Hyun Byung-chul
Director of photography: Byun Bong-sun
Costume designer: Han Yeah-Joon
Editors: Park Yoo-kyung, Kim Jin-hee
Music: Kang Minkook
Sales: Finecut, Seoul
No rating, 107 minutes.