When I was watching South Korean independent movie “Juvenile Offender” in the late screening at night, only two young couples were in the screening room. I have no idea about what they were expecting from the movie, but I sort of hope they could get an indirect important message from its story: boys and girls, there is nothing wrong about wanting to have a sex, but it is really necessary to use condom for protecting your future, a fragile thing which can be ruined forever by one momentary misjudgment.
When I saw a young teenager boy Ji-gu(Seo Young-joo) in the opening scene, that thought instantly came to my mind. He is with his girlfriend at her home, and it is apparent that they are going to have a sex just because the mood feels right to them. No matter how much adults emphasize the virtue of abstinence to teenagers, the hormones in their bodies always do exactly what they have been programmed to do during the history of mankind, and not many things can stop this biological impulse activated in their young fresh brains.
Ji-gu lives alone with his ailing grandfather in their shabby apartment. He cares about his grandfather, who has few days to live, but he frequently gets himself into troubles. While having been arrested by the police for several small crimes, he has also been involved with bad friends, and we see him and his friends breaking into some house for stealing money or any valuable things in the house. They do not have any serious thoughts about what they are doing; one of them says the house belongs to his rich uncle(really?), and the others have no problem in accepting his words.
Anyway, they are soon caught for their latest felony by the police, and they are quickly sent to the court for juvenile delinquents. Because Ji-gu is a 15-year-old “juvenile offender”, a teenager legally responsible for his felony according to the South Korean criminal law, and he has already been on probation, he is sentenced to another year at juvenile reformatory in spite of his amiable plea in front of the judge. He has no serious problem with that sentence, although he worries about his grandfather, who has been only family member to him for many years.
Several months later, his grandfather dies. After attending his funeral, Ji-gu finds himself more lonelier than before, but he accidentally learns about his mother, who left him to her parents when he was born in 13 years ago. She is Hyo-seung(Lee Jeong-hyeon), and, when she appears in front of his son, she looks quite young as a mother with a teenager son, because, well, she gave a birth to him when she was 17.
When his time at the reformatory center is over, his mother comes to take him to her residence, though she is so late that he is almost handed to a social service employee when she hurriedly arrives in. That may be forgiven easily, but it becomes clear to us that Hyo-seung will definitely not get the mother of the year award no matter how much she tries. She has a fairly decent job at a hairdresser’s shop, but she has been living like a guest at its owner’s apartment, and she keeps borrowing money from the owner through her ingratiating attitude and vapid promise for payback. She is as immature as his son, and it is no wonder that the owner(Kang Rae-yeon) eventually gets really sick of her later.
The movie gives no false hope about the incorrigibly hopeless circumstance of Hyo-Seung and Ji-gu. It is good to be together for a while as a mother and a son, but they do not get along well with each other with no real communication between them, and they are pushed toward more desperate states as the time goes by. Sad thing is that, even if they really want to get a better life, they are still big, unwise children who do not know how to reach for it and they do not learn anything from the constant hardships in their daily life. They do not like their jobs, but what the other options they have in their miserable life?
While calmly observing their slow descent, the director/co-writer Kang Yi-kwan fills his drama with interesting details and small humorous moments. As a guy who spent his adolescent years as a nerdy boy who always stuck to the rules and books, the realistic depiction of the daily routines of the boys at the juvenile reformatory is certainly interesting to observe. The reformatory in the movie looks less gritty than expected, but I guess its mundane atmosphere is not far from reality.
Lee Jeong-hee and Seo Young-joo are excellent as a mother and a son who are more like an older sister and her equally childish younger brother. Lee Jeong-hee, who has not been in movies often since her first movie in “A Petal”(1996), shows us here that she really should appear in more movies. Hyo-seung is pretty unlikable and pathetic at times due to her irresponsibility and indulgency, and Lee Jeong-hee never makes an excuse for her character while we feel both sorry and impatient about Hyo-seung. I worried a little about her circumstance without exit even though my eyes were rolling at her unchanged attitude, but I won’t lend her even $10 no matter what she says.
The newcomer Seo Young-joo, who is actually younger than his character, holds his own place well with his co-actress, and he also has nice scenes with Jeon Ye-jin, who plays Ji-gu’s unfortunate girlfriend. Through her irreversible social position, the movie, which was financed by the National Human Rights Commission of South Korea, indirectly tells us about how devastating the consequence of teenage pregnancy can be. Still influenced by traditional morality and ethics, South Korean society is very harsh toward pregnant teenagers who are usually ostracized by their families and others as social pariahs, and you can feel the resulting devastation on Jeon Ye-jin’s bleak face. Ji-gu promises to her that he will compensate for what he had done to her, but he only proves that he is someone she should stay away from forever; he is certainly an apple which does not fall far from its tree.
Like “Jejus Hospital”(2011), “Juvenile Offender” is a small gem which should not be ignored. Unfortunately, the movie is released around the time when more popular films occupy most of the South Korean theaters, and it was really lucky for me to find a theater showing this very good movie in my town. Through its intimate character drama supported by two superb lead performances, the movie effortlessly raises its social issues while never making a speech about them, and it makes us to think about them during its end credit. Hyo-seung and Ji-gu won’t probably get better, but we can prevent such another sorry situation like theirs, and that is the reason why I think young teenagers really should watch this movie. Kids, I must confess that I never had any experience with adolescent romance, but I must say this again as a considerate adult: please use condom no matter what happens.