Adulthood (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A girl and her con man uncle

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South Korean film “Adulthood” is a simple but charming comedy drama to be cherished. Alternatively humorous and sensitive in its low-key comic approach, the movie generates a number of nice intimate scenes to enjoy, and it is also anchored well by the solid acting from its main cast members. The overall result may be modest on the surface, but it will linger on your mind through its dexterous storytelling and engaging performance, and I am willing to revisit the film someday for appreciating it more.

The movie opens with the encounter between its two main characters. When Kyeong-eon (Lee Jae-in), a 14-year-old girl whose father recently passed away, is attending her father’s funeral along with a few other people, a man named Jae-min (Um Tae-goo) comes to her, and he tells her that he is her father’s younger brother. Because Jae-min is a total stranger to her, Kyeong-eon is naturally suspicious of him, but he is indeed her real uncle as shown from an old family photograph later, and he soon becomes her legal guardian as her mother gave up her custody when she divorced her father a long time ago.

Unfortunately, Kyeong-eon’s initial suspicion turns out to be true not long after that point. When she finds that Jae-min bilks her father’s insurance money, he is already gone with the insurance money, but she manages to track him down and then confronts him in the end. While certainly caught off guard by this, Jae-min cannot give the money back to her because it was already used for paying off his debt, and Kyeong-eon has no choice but to join his next scam as she really needs money right now due to the increased deposit money for the lease of her home.

The target of Jae-min’s next scam is Jeom-hee (Seo Jung-yeon), an affluent single woman who has successfully run a local pharmacy. Although she is not exactly an amiable lady, Jae-min succeeds in approaching a bit closer to her via a small act of kindness, and then he introduces her to Kyeong-eon, who agrees to be his ‘daughter’ for his scam. While it is still difficult for Jae-min to get closer to Jeon-hee, it looks like Kyeong-eon touches somewhere inside Jeon-hee’s heart, and that is how these three main characters come to spend more time together than expected.

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Now the movie will probably remind you of other similar movies such as “Paper Moon” (1973), but it leisurely goes its own way while never hurrying itself, and we come to focus more on what is being exchanged among its three main characters. The relationship between Kyeong-eon and Jae-min gradually grows as they get to know each other bit by bit, but Kyeong-eon also becomes conflicted about their scam as she comes to care a lot about Jeom-hee especially after one private moment between them. Behind her rather frigid façade, Jeom-hee has been hiding her old emotional wound, and we come to understand why she willingly opened her heart to Kyeong-eon from the beginning.

Steadily maintaining its understated sense of humor, the screenplay by director Kim In-seon and her co-writer Park Geun-beum deftly balances itself between comedy and drama. When the situation becomes more serious for its main characters later in the story, the movie wisely avoids unnecessary melodrama, and I particularly like how it succinctly and effortlessly presents its final scene, which feels quite sweet and touching as I think more about it now.

Under Kim’s confident direction, the main performers in the movie are entertaining to watch in their respective roles. Um Tae-goo, who recently drew my attention via his intense supporting role in “The Age of Shadows” (2016), is effective as your average small-time crook, and he is fun to watch whenever he shows his character’s human flaws. Right from his first appearance, we can clearly see that Jae-min is not a very good person at all, but we cannot help but amused as watching him clumsily working on Jeom-hee, and we eventually come to like him to some degrees.

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On the opposite, Lee Jae-in, a young performer who previously appeared in “I Can Speak” (2017), is simply fabulous in her unadorned mix of precociousness and naiveté. Although being surely smart, feisty, and resourceful, Kyeong-eon is also innocent and vulnerable just like many girls around her age, and Lee did a commendable job of embodying these contradicting aspects together while never making any misstep throughout the film.

As the third main part of the movie, Seo Jung-yeon holds her own place well between her two co-performers. Thanks to her nuanced performance, Jeom-hee comes to us as another interesting character to observe in the movie, and Seo is terrific during a certain crucial scene between her character and Jae-min. In case of other supporting performers in the film, Kim Hee-chang is amusing as Jae-min’s fellow con man, and I was delighted to see notable performers including Kim Sae-byuk and Hwang Jung-min, who was unforgettable in “Jesus Hospital” (2011).

“Adulthood” is a small nice surprise for me. When I heard about it for the first time a few weeks ago, I did not expect much from it, but then I heard some good words about it, and then I found myself impressed a lot during my viewing. In my trivial opinion, this is one of the best South Korean films of this year, and I sincerely hope it will be appreciated by more audiences out there.

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