South Korean film “Young-ju” is a simple but bleak drama about guilt and torment. Although there are several moments which are quite difficult to watch for their considerable emotional intensity, the movie steadily engages us as closely observing its main characters’ stark and desperate emotional states, and we come to care a lot about them while also worrying about what may happen among them in the end.
In the beginning, the movie shows us the hard daily life of Young-ju (Kim Hyang-gi) and her younger brother Young-in (Tang Joon-sang). Since their parents died due to a tragic car accident several years ago, Young-ju and Young-in have lived fairly well together in their family residence, but they are running out of money at present although Young-ju has worked hard to support them after quitting her school, so Young-ju recently decided to sell their residence as advised by their aunt.
However, Young-in does not want to leave their residence at all, and this hot-tempered adolescent boy instantly clashes with his aunt and her husband when they come along with a potential buyer. After seeing this strife, Young-ju comes to change her mind, and that leads to a bitter quarrel between her and her aunt, who eventually tells Young-ju that she is going not to help Young-in and Young-ju from now on.
Of course, Young-ju soon finds herself in the urgent need of money. While hanging around with some bad schoolmates, Young-in gets himself in a big trouble along with these boys, and Young-ju must find any possible way to get 3 million won for preventing her brother from being sent to a juvenile reformatory, but there is virtually no one to help her. After being coldly rejected by her aunt, she tries a questionable loan service on the phone, but, not so surprisingly, that makes her situation more desperate before.
And then she gets a certain idea while looking into a court file on her parents’ accident. She spots the address of the residence belonging to the truck driver responsible for her parents’ accident, and it does not take much time for her to find Sang-moon (Yoo Jae-myung) and his wife Hyang-sook (Kim Ho-jung). After seeing that this couple is looking for anyone to help them in their small tofu shop, Young-ju instantly approaches to them, and they gladly hire her while having no idea on who she actually is.
It is gradually revealed to us that Young-ju is going to steal money from this couple. Not long after spotting where the couple keeps the money they have earned, she breaks into the shop at one night, but Sang-moon comes into the shop when she is about to go away with money. While being too drunk to recognize Young-ju, Sang-moon reveals his guilt and torment to Young-ju, and that makes Young-ju change her mind. After Sang-moon loses his consciousness due to his excessive consumption of alcohol, she calls an ambulance, and Hyang-sook later shows gratitude to her even though she knows what Young-ju was attempting to do at that time. Clearly seeing that Young-ju desperately needs money, she borrows Young-ju enough money for Young-in’s release, and Young-ju is certainly grateful to Hyang-sook for that.
After that point, Hyang-sook and Sang-moon come closer to Young-ju than before, and Young-ju does not mind this as feeling happy to be with them, but she also feels guilty about not telling them the truth. As she sees more of how much Hyang-sook and Sang-moon have been affected by what Sang-moon inadvertently caused at that unfortunate moment, she hesitates more and more, and the situation becomes more complicated when Young-in comes to realize that his sister has been associated with the last persons he wants to see.
While its rather predictable narrative does not surprise us a lot, the movie still holds our attention as gradually accumulating the emotional tension around Young-ju and other main characters. Under director/writer Cha Sung-duk’s competent direction, the dry, sobering tone of the movie is constantly maintained from the beginning to the end, and you may appreciate some notable religious details of Sang-moon and Hyang-sook’s daily life, which further accentuate the moral themes of the movie.
Cha draws good performances from her main cast members. As the emotional center of the movie, Kim Hyang-gi, who previously appeared in “Thread of Lies” (2014) and “Snowy Road” (2015), is compelling in her nuanced performance, and she is terrific whenever the camera closely focuses on her expressive face, which ably conveys contradicting feelings churning behind her character’s weary façade. While Yoo Jae-myung is glum and remorseful as required by his role, Kim Ho-jung brings some warmth to the movie, and Tang Joon-sang is also solid in his rather functional role.
Like many of recent South Korean independent films such as “Last Child” (2017) and “After My Death” (2017), “Young-ju” often feels harsh and gloomy, and it is certainly not something you can watch for entertainment, but it is still worthwhile to watch for its engaging drama and commendable acting. In short, this is one of the notable South Korean independent films of this year, and I sincerely hope that Cha will advance further after this impressive debut feature film of hers.