This year’s opening film for the Korean Film Festival in Australia, which I caught at the sold-out KOFFIA opening night in Sydney, is Jo Sung-hee’s A Werewolf Boy. It’s a great choice for an opening film — it’s a genre crossover (romantic melodrama with werewolves!) with stars in lead roles, it’s got a fresh new talent in the director’s chair, and it made serious bank back home: Werewolf Boy sold more than seven million tickets in South Korea, and it’s apparently now the highest-grossing Korean melodrama of all time.
It’s been on my personal radar since I saw director Jo Sung-hee’s graduation film End of Animal at the Sydney Film Festival a couple of years ago. A fascinating post-apocalyptic psychological horror film, its unpredictable story and atmospheric slow burn were well and truly enough to overcome its tiny budget, and I’ve been looking forward to seeing whatever Jo pointed his camera at next.
Who’d have thought it would be a big-budget romantic fantasy with a couple of big stars and a whole lot of heartstring-tugging?
A Werewolf Boy is centred around Kim Suni, who we meet as a lady in her sixties (played by Lee Young-lan) living with her family in present-day America. At the beginning of the film, she travels home to Korea to oversee the sale of an old family home in the countryside, accompanied by her granddaughter Eun-joo (Park Bo-young). The two of them drive out there from Seoul and stay the night, and Suni reminisces about the time she spent there as a teenager, forty-seven years ago.
We flash back to Suni as a young girl (also played by Park Bo-young). She and her family have moved out to the country house from Seoul on medical advice: Suni has had trouble with her lungs, and good clean country air has been prescribed as an aid to her convalescence. The family is doing it tough: recently widowed, her mother works part-time and spends the rest of her day looking after Suni and her younger sister Sun-ja (Kim Hyang-gi), and they don’t have a great deal of money. That they have the house at all is due to the questionable largesse of their landlord Ji-tae (Yoo Yeon-seok), who has a fairly unwholesome interest in Suni and a wardrobe full of screamingly terrible suits.
One night, hearing a sound in the backyard, Suni discovers a creature that she barely gets more than a glimpse of — just a shadow with eyes, moving at speed. The next day, she and her mother find a feral boy (Song Joong-ki) in the garden: unable to speak or communicate otherwise, but voraciously interested in a basket of cooked potatoes. Assuming (as do the local equivalent of Child Services) that he’s a war orphan, Suni’s mother takes him in, giving him the name Chul-soo.
Suni resents Chul-soo’s presence at first, but the discovery of a book on dog training and Chul-soo’s clear devotion to her slowly overcome her irritation, and it is this relationship that is the backbone of the film’s story: this film is much more My Fair Lady or Edward Scissorhands than it is Twilight or Wolfman.
Of course, we in the audience know more of what’s going on: unlike the characters, we consciously make the connection between the creature in the night and the feral boy with superhuman strength from the get-go. Director Jo takes full advantage of that, loading Song Joong-ki’s werewolf boy up with lupine mannerisms and hinting that things could go pear-shaped for all concerned if Chul-soo is cornered. Suni’s frailty and frustration with her illness is another way of ramping up the emotional wallop of the film, providing a counterpoint to Chul-soo’s simple view of the world and virtual indestructibility.
On one reading, perhaps you could view Chul-soo is a gender-switched genre take on the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ archetype, the bubbly young ingenue that exists in some films to teach the leading male character some life lessons and catalyse a bit of inner growth before disappearing. Eternally youthful and healthy, devoted to Suni and under her complete control, Chul-soo has a similarly plastic character: instead, he provides Suni with someone to care for and nurture, a distraction from her illness and the boredom of schoolwork and the countryside.
Other aspects of Chul-soo, such as his backstory and abilities, are hinted at but never developed. On the other hand, if we did go down that path and develop Chul-soo’s background or delve more into what he can do, we’d have a very different movie. A sweet fantasy romance would give way to The Wolverine, with the romance and the melodrama disappearing under the weight of ill-fated military experiments and shadows with flashing teeth.
As it stands, A Werewolf Boy is a fairly well-balanced combination of fantasy romance and light comedy, with an excellent performance from leading man Song Joong-ki, growling his way around the set as Chul-soo, and a solid one from Park Bo-young as Suni. Supporting performances are mostly good, particularly from the children in the film, although Yoo Yeon-seok’s bad guy Ji-tae occasionally overshoots and slides from menacing into ridiculous.
Some of the directorial style from End of Animal is on show here as well. once again, Jo Sung-hee deftly creates a brooding, sinister atmosphere from an empty stretch of countryside and does an awful lot with just glimpses of the creature and sound effects. What CGI there is is used sparingly, saved for when we really need it, though we do get the transformation sequence that monster movie prescriptivists would demand in any film with ‘were’ in the title.
I rather enjoyed A Werewolf Boy, despite how far removed such a melodrama is from my normal diet of martial arts and crime cinema, and Australian audiences still have a chance to catch it on the big screen in Melbourne next week!