Watching “Set Me Free”, which is another small nice surprise from South Korea, is not a pleasant experience – and the same thing can be said about its adolescent hero. While usually being selfish and opportunistic, he is often dishonest and insincere in front of people to be used by him, and he can also be quite callous to others who are as desperate as him in their harsh world.
The main strength of the movie is that it makes us to have empathy on its hero as not making any excuse on his bad behaviors. As it observes him closely, we come to understand anger and despair growing inside him day by day, and we gradually see a desperate boy stuck in the world which does not help him much for the next stage of his life.
As watching Yeong-jae (Choi Woo-sik), the movie lets us slowly gather the details of his unhappy adolescent life. Because his parents could not take care of him, he was sent to a group home supported by church, but the daily life at his group home is not that bad to him although this is not exactly a warm shelter for kids. The director of group home and his wife are not very bad people, and they do their duties as the foster parents of Yeong-jae and other kids in their house, but they are not paragons at all. Because they are now grown up enough to leave their group home, Yeong-jae and his roommate Beom-tae (Sin Jae-ha) feel more pressure from the director every day, who always coldly looks at them and sternly talks to them as if they were prisoners to get rid of sooner or later.
You may feel sorry for Yeong-jae at first, but then he is no saint either. He sometimes steals sneakers from the stock room of his group home, and he sells them to other students in his high school for earning extra cash. Of course, the director soon discovers the theft later, but Yeong-jae manages to avoid suspicion mainly through his superficially exemplar behaviors to please the director’s wife, who has never imagined Yeong-jae’s deceitfulness behind his ingratiating attitude.
With that dishonest attitude as his survival strategy, Yeong-jae is also trying to get enrolled in divinity school which might be his next shelter to live, and he often goes to the church just for looking good and faithful in front of others including a young priest. When the priest asks Yeong-jae at one point whether he really wants to devote his life to serving God, Yeong-jae lies to him with no hesitation, and he is later introduced to Yoon-mi (Park Joo-hee), a kind college student who genuinely cares about him and is willing to help his study for enrollment exam.
And we get to know more about his family – and the reason why he wants to distance himself from them so much in any possible ways. His father is no more than a useless alcoholic bum who shamelessly attempts to get support from several churches at once as shown during one brief scene, and Yeong-jae hates his father more than anyone in his life. His mother, who has been resting in her hometown due to her recent injury, flatly admits her inability to support Yeong-jae and his younger brother Min-jae (Jang Yoo-sang), who is currently living with their father but may be also pushed into Yeong-jae’s group home someday. We can see that Yeong-jae is still angry about his parents who did not provide many things to him and his brother, and both his father and his mother feel helpless in front of their son’s deep resentment toward them.
I sensed personal feelings inside the movie during my viewing, and I was not very surprised to learn later that the director/screenplay writer Kim Tae-yong also went through his tough adolescent years at group home. Like his adolescent hero, he once attempted to be on the way to priesthood while lying about his motivation, and I heard that many moments in the film are based on his real-life experiences. They do feel real and authentic through his dry, realistic approach reminiscent of the Dardenne Brothers’ works, and his human characters sometimes show complex sides which cannot be simply defined as good or bad. The director of group home is surely a little too harsh and strict to the kids under his charge, but we come to see that he is just a jaded man who has seen various kids coming in and out for years – and that is why he can sense something obsequious from Yeong-jae and is accordingly watchful of him.
Through handheld camera, the movie always sticks to Yeong-jae’s viewpoint as calmly generating low-key tension from the increasing uncertainty in Yeong-jae’s unstable life. The camera frequently focuses on his face in close-up shots, and the emotions churning inside him are palpable even when he tries not to reveal them to others, and the tension on the screen becomes sometimes so gripping that we feel agitated and suffocated as much as him.
Lead actor Choi Woo-sik gives a good natural performance which will definitely boost this young actor’s burgeoning career. Considering how he can be cruel and careless to the other boys at his group home or how he tries to manipulate the adults around him with his lies, Yeong-jae is not a very good boy to say the least, but we somehow feel sorry for him as watching how he desperately wriggles to get out of his hopeless reality. Choi constantly holds our attention while never asking for pity on his character, and he is especially good during a heart-wrenching scene in which what has been accumulated inside his character finally bursts out with full emotional devastation. It is quite difficult to watch for me and other audiences, but that hurtful scene is also powerful enough to grip us thanks to Choi and the other actors, and we cannot help but be overwhelmed by its sheer pain and despair virtually pouring out of the screen.
The rest of the cast also gives solid performances. While Kim Su-hyeon is both pathetic and loathsome as Yeong-jae’s lazy loser father, Kang Sin-cheol occasionally shows glimpses of humanity inside his unlikable character, and Sin Jae-ha and Jang Yoo-sang ably handle their respective roles which are crucial in the story. Yang Ik-june, for whom Kim Tae-yong worked as a crew member in “Breathless” (2009), briefly appears during one small scene as another crummy father, and Park Joo-hee, who was quite chilling as an employee from hell in South Korean low-budget film “The Wicked” (2013), looks completely different here as one of a few warm spots in the movie, and her gentle scenes provide some respite for us as well as Yeong-jae.
“Set Me Free” is a sad, gloomy coming-of-age drama which is not very comfortable to watch, but it vividly presents us a tough slice of life in the shabby corner of society as tentatively suggesting a glimmer of hope during its last minutes. While eventually learning a painful life lesson which may benefit the rest of his life, Yeong-jae still has no choice but to keep struggling as before in his suffocating reality – and we can only hope that things may get a bit better for him.