There is the palpable sense of grief and desolation right from the beginning of South Korean film “Last Child”. Calmly observing its three main characters who have been stuck in the gloomy and suffocating aftermath of one irreversible tragedy, the movie gradually reveals their respective pain, confusion, and guilt in front of our eyes, and that leads to a number of tough but undeniably powerful moments which will linger on your mind for a long time after the movie is over.
At first, the movie slowly lets us gather what happened to Seong-cheol (Choi Moo-sung) and Mi-sook (Kim Yeo-jin), an ordinary middle-class couple who has run a modest interior remodeling business for years. Their adolescent son recently died due to an unfortunate incident at a river outside the city, and he is going to receive a posthumous citation because, according to his high school friends who were at the river at that time, he sacrificed his life for saving one of them, but that is not much of consolation to Seong-cheol and Mi-sook. While Seong-cheol tries to go on with their life as focusing on his work as usual, Mi-sook desperately holds onto the memories of their dead son, and she later considers having another child because that was what their dead son always wanted. Seong-cheol is rather reluctant at first, but he agrees to do that because, well, it may give them a chance for the new beginning.
In the meantime, Seong-cheol approaches to Gi-hyeon (Sung Yoo-bin), the boy who survived thanks to his son’s sacrifice but then dropped out from the school for some reason. After coming to learn that there is no one to take care of Gi-hyeon, Seong-cheol decides to help Gi-hyeon, and Gi-hyeon is eventually hired by him as an apprentice. Although he does not seem that enthusiastic about this good opportunity at first, Gi-hyeon begins to learn about the trade bit by bit from Gi-hyeon and other employees, and he also starts to prepare for the upcoming examination for a certification of qualification.
Of course, Mi-sook soon comes to learn about what her husband has been doing with Gi-hyeon, and she is understandably not so pleased about that as being reminded again of that painful absence of her dead son, but she cannot help but feel pity and compassion toward Gi-hyeon. When she happens to come across him at one point, it goes without saying that the mood between them is pretty awkward, but she tries to be kind and nice to him at least. When he later happens to come to her residence, she shows him her dead son’s room, that leads to a small poignant moment between them.
As time goes by, things look a bit more optimistic for not only Seong-cheol and Mi-sook but also Gi-hyeon. After Gi-hyeon finally gets the certification of qualification, Seong-cheol decides to promote Gi-hyeon to a full-time position, and Mi-sook does not object to that at all as Gi-hyeon has become a son figure to her and her husband. We see them going outside together for celebrating this, and we cannot help but notice how their faces look more brightened than before.
However, as some of you have already expected, there is something Gi-hyeon did not tell to Seong-cheol and Mi-sook. I will not go into details here, but I can tell you instead that Seong-cheol and Mi-sook’s life is turned upside down again later in the story as they eventually come to learn of a hidden fact about their son’s death. Naturally becoming enraged and devastated, they try to do what should be done in their view, but they only find themselves more frustrated and despaired as facing the harsh reality in front of them.
Steadily maintaining its dry, realistic ambience as before, the movie keeps holding our attention via several seemingly plain but emotionally intense scenes reminiscent of the works of the Dardenne Brothers, and director/writer Shin Dong-seok skillfully handles his story and characters without any misstep. Carefully and thoughtfully balanced among its three main characters, his screenplay lets us understand and then emphasize with all of them, and we come to care a lot about what may happen among them as they continue to struggle with their complex moral circumstance.
Under Shin’s confident direction, his three main performers give what may be three of the best South Korean movie performances of this year. Choi Moo-sung, who drew my attention for the first time via his morbid supporting turn in Kim Jee-woon’s disturbing horror thriller film “I Saw the Devil” (2010), is simply superb in his nuanced low-key performance, and he ably conveys to us whatever is being churned behind his character’s plain façade. On the opposite, Kim Yeo-Jin gives an equally superlative performance, and she is quite good even during a brief scene showing her character visibly shaken up by the truth she cannot possibly ignore. As the third important part of the movie, Sung Yoo-bin, who previously appeared in “I Can Speak” (2017), holds his own place well between his two co-performers, and, considering his commendable performance here in this film, I think we can expect more good things from this talented young actor.
Despite its gloomy and uncomfortable subjects, “Last Child”, which was recently released as “The Child Who Survived” in South Korea, is worthwhile to watch for its compelling drama and flawless performances. To be frank with you, I do not know whether I will be able to watch it again, but I still remember well how much I was touched by a small glimmer of hope and redemption shown from its last shot, and that is more than enough for recommendation in my humble opinion.