Part of Connor McMorran's coverage for MKC of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (June 19-30, 2013).
As much as we may like to think society is for the most part a well-oiled machine, there are still far too many people who slip through the cracks. Abandoned, unable to change themselves or the situation they face, they seek to reintegrate into a society which has no desire to welcome them. For most of its life, and especially since the end of World War II, film has been used to highlight and discuss the daily problems faced by those who exist on the outside of society. From the Italian neo-realists and their pleas to humanity, through to the angry white males of British kitchen sink dramas reacting violently in protest to the systems of society, film is used to give these people a voice that would otherwise go unheard.
Kang Yi-kwan’s second feature Juvenile Offender continues this long history of cinema as a tool for social reconsideration. It tracks the actions of Jang Ji-gu as he commits some petty crimes with some of his friends, is caught and sent to a juvenile detention centre, before being reunited with his mother who left him many years ago. Though this narrative could easily create a variety of excuses for his actions, the film instead takes a less preachy approach, allowing both Jang himself and society in general to be responsible for his actions.
In terms of society, the message here is one of an overwhelming disinterest in forgiving Jang. He is constantly rejected when trying to gain some kind of foothold on the ladder of society. When he asks both a judge and a cop (at different points in the film) to “forgive him, just this once”, he is met with stern rejection. However, is Kang really criticising the law in this film? After all, while they are the ones who ultimately decide to place him in a juvenile centre, it is Jang’s own actions which get him arrested in the first place. Whether or not he would have performed such actions if he had been welcomed back into society is left ambiguous, but the film seems to be focusing more on society in general rather than attacking law enforcement in any way. Instead, Juvenile Offender seeks to highlight the prejudices which exist in everyday life and prevent people from being able to re-enter society.
Naturally, the broken family plays a large part in this film. Jang’s long absent mother is also rejected by society, abandoned by her lover and her parents upon discovering she was with child. Though there is clear intention from both the mother and son to reconcile and start life anew, the reality of daily life causes them to be pulled further apart. Again, Kang doesn’t seem to be suggesting the lack of a normal family is to blame for Jang’s actions, but rather that Jang acts out of desperation from being maintained in a lifestyle that he is unable to break free from. That the film deviates from narrative conventions, even those of the realist genre, shows Kang’s commitment to providing a wake-up call to society.
Juvenile Offender is a film which places its message right at the fore, and makes no apologies for doing so. It creates a complex and highly realistic portrayal of society, with an cast of characters full of differing motivations and daily ordeals. It features no heroes, no magical saviour and no melodramatic climax – and why should it? What happens to the message of a film if the audience is allowed to experience a joyful resolution denied to people in everyday life? Juvenile Offender presents the hopes and dreams of its characters, and just like real life, they are constantly prevented from achieving them. However, it is in its unbiased approach that the film really excels, condemning the individual actions of the characters every bit as much as the lack of forgiveness in society. In doing this, the film presents a thoroughly engaging character piece that stands out as one of the most intriguing realist works in recent memory.
Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).
To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.