Yongsoon (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): A country girl’s hot, problematic summer

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While it is uncomfortable to watch at times for good reasons, South Korean film “Yongsoon” comes to us as an engaging coming-of-age drama about its adolescent heroine’s hot, problematic summer. Although it is inarguable that she clings to a very inappropriate relationship, the movie maintains its non-judgmental view as closely observing her tumultuous emotional struggle, and we come to care and worry about her a lot while watching her recklessly swaying along with her hormone-charged feelings.

Yong-soon (Lee Soo-Kyeong) is an 18-year-old high school girl living with her widower father in some country village, and she tells us a bit about herself during the prologue sequence. Her mother died early when she was young, and she still remembers her last moment with her mother, who left her husband and then went to her first love when there was not much time left for her.

That probably made Yong-soon go for her first love, but the person in question is not so suitable to say the least. As summer begins, she joins the athletics team of her high school along with her close friend Moon-hee (Jang Haet-sal), and everything looks fine on the surface as she and other teams members go through training under their coach’s guidance, but it is gradually revealed that Yong-soon has been in relationship with the coach for a while. Although the movie never clarifies how far they have gone in their hidden relationship, they did spend time together several times, and, as reflected by her sincere present to the coach, Yong-soon is totally serious about her first romantic relationship like any girls around her age.

However, it turns out that the coach is less serious about their relationship. On one day, Yong-soon’s another close friend Pak-kyoo (Kim Dong-yeong), who has had some feelings toward her for years, shows her a video clip of the coach going inside a local motel along with an unidentified woman, and Yong-soon naturally feels angry about this. She becomes determined to find who that woman is, and Moon-hee and Pak-kyoo agree to help her although they have reasonable concern about their friend.

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The mood often becomes humorous as Yong-soon and her friends try to find the identity of that woman, but the movie does not overlook the serious aspect of Yong-soon’s circumstance. While it is undeniable that the coach did a wrong thing to her from the very beginning and he should have ended their relationship as soon as possible, he remains indecisive even when she makes clear to him that she is suspicious of him, and that makes her all the more exasperated and frustrated.

Meanwhile, Yong-soon’s father decides to marry a young Mongolian woman who has corresponded with him for a while, and this causes more emotional turmoil inside Yong-soon. Although Her father’s new wife is ready to be nice to her stepdaughter, Yong-soon is hostile to her stepmother right from their first encounter, and she frequently throws harsh words at her stepmother just because she has been angry and annoyed. As a woman genuinely cares about her husband and her stepdaughter, Yong-soon’s stepmother tries to be patient and understanding, but there comes a point where she decides that enough is enough.

The situation becomes more complicated when Yong-soon and her friends eventually discover the identity of the woman involved with the coach. As the movie arrives at a certain expected narrative point, we brace for what may happen among Yong-soon and some other characters when they happen to be in the same space, and this moment strikes us hard with considerable emotional intensity thanks to director/writer Shin Joon’s competent direction and his performers’ convincing performance.

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As the feisty center of the movie, Lee Soo-kyeong, who previously played a minor supporting character in “Coin Locker Girl” (2015), is commendable in her unpretentious performance, and she conveys well her character’s dynamic emotional state to us while never making any excuse on her character’s self-absorbed aspect. Simply not wanting to give up her first love, Yong-soon is willing to go as far as she can, but she only finds herself going down into more misery and unhappiness, and she surely gets some important lessons from that.

Lee is surrounded by several good supporting performers who are equally solid in their respective roles. While Jang Haet-sal and Kim Dong-yeong are likable as comic foils to Lee, Choi Deok-moon and Mongolian performer Janska have their own small tender moment as their characters’ relationship turns out to be deeper than we expected, and Park Keun-rok is adequately cast as a guy who certainly deserves what he gets in the end.

“Yongsoon”, which is developed from Shin’s short film “Yongoon’s Summer” (2014), is a modest character drama on the whole, but it deserves to be mentioned along with other recent notable adolescent drama movies such as “The Diary of a Teenager Girl” (2015) and “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016). Like “The Diary of a Teenager Girl”, the movie handles its rather sensitive subject well while never going too far, and it also captures well the emotional difficulties of adolescence as “The Edge of Seventeen” did. In short, this is one of interesting South Korean films of this year, and it is definitely a nice alternative to those brainless summer blockbuster films like “Transformers: The Last Knight” (2017).

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