A Stray Goat (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): A melancholic wintry tale of two troubled teenagers

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I once wondered whether sad, cold independent movies about desperate people were becoming a genre of their own. Usually filled with somber wintry ambience, such movies tend to serve us with the bleak sense of harsh reality via their gloomy characters, and South Korean independent film “A Stray Goat” is no exception. Here are two troubled adolescent characters to watch, and it is surely sad to observe how fragile their relationship is in their melancholic heartless world.

The movie opens with Min-sik (Jinyoung) moving to a rural region named Goseong along with his parents. Although it is never explained well in the film, it is implied later that Min-sik got himself in some serious trouble involved with his former high school friends, and that seems to be the main reason of their moving from Suwon to Goseong, which is incidentally his pastor father’s old hometown.

His parents hope that they will make a fresh start there, but things do not look that optimistic. While they are greeted by the deacon of their new church when they arrive in Goseong, the deacon points out that the congregation has been decreased due to some other church in the town, and Min-sik’s parents soon see how difficult it is to persuade town people to come to their church. It has been an economically hard time for many people in the town, and Min-sik’s parents gets a harsh response at one point when they sincerely approach to a woman running a cosmetic shop.

While understandably feeling awkward at a local high school, Min-sik notices a quiet pretty girl in his class who is as awkward as him. She is Ye-joo (Ji Woo), and he learns from his classmates that she is the daughter of a man who was recently arrested for a terrible murder case in the town. Although her father was subsequently released due to the lack of any incriminating evidence, many people in the town believe that he is guilty, and she has been the target of cruel bullying in the school just because of that. We often see her helplessly cornered and harassed by some of her classmates, and there is a painful scene in which she has to endure the hostile stare of her classmates in the middle of their music class.

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Min-sik remains mostly passive as watching her ordeal from the distance, but then he happens to get involved with her on one day. Pushed by his class friends who are no good for him at all, he intentionally approaches to Ye-joo after school, and then he holds her hand in front of other students. As demanded, he sticks to her until they eventually arrive at her house, and he even goes inside her house and meets her father.

Not long after this very awkward moment of theirs, Min-sik meets Ye-joo again. Feeling sorry for her, he shows some kindness to her, and she responds to him with a little more brightness in her detached face. He takes her to his parents’ church, and he also shows her a small stray black goat he found in a nearby forest.

However, things keep being difficult for them as before. Thanks to his bad friends, Min-sik soon gets himself in another serious trouble, and his misdemeanor certainly exasperates his parents, who are also not so pleased to see their son being with Ye-joo. As the murder case remains unresolved, Ye-joo’s father is harassed by local cops, and Ye-joo continues to be bullied by her classmates while Min-sik feels frustrated for being unable to stop that.

And it looks like they may not protect that little black goat, which turns out to be owned by a sleazy guy running a shabby Oriental medicine factory near the forest. Min-sik and Ye-joo do not want that goat to be killed for making medicine, but they do not have any money for buying it, and this circumstance ultimately leads to an emotionally devastating moment both Min-sik and Ye-joo will never forget.

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According to the director/writer Jo Jae-min’s interview, the story is inspired by his past experience, but I could not help but notice how much the movie resembles other South Korean film “Steel Cold Winter” (2013). Shrouded in a similar wintry atmosphere, that movie is also about the troubled young male hero’s tentative relationship with a young outcast girl, and there are other notable story elements shared between that film and “A Stray Goat”.

I have no idea on how much “A Stray Goat” is actually influenced by “Steel Cold Winter”, but I can tell you at least that I enjoyed its realistic mood and solid lead performances. While his character is a bit too bland, Jinyoung has a nice subdued chemistry with his co-star Ji Woo, and Ji has a couple of wonderful wordless scenes later in the movie. Some of supporting characters in the movie may feel too broad to you, but they are realistically banal and superficial, and it is gut-wrenching to watch at times how much they are blind to their cruelties committed to Ye-joo.

“A Stray Goat”, which is released in South Korea as “Streaks of Snow”, is not as successful as intended, but I recommend it anyway because it is a competent debut work with enough good things to compensate for its flawed aspects. While spring has come now, it is still cold outside at night, and the movie certainly made me more aware of that.

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