South Korean film “Happy Children” may not be as cheery as its very title suggets, but it is still a likable children drama to be admired for several good reasons. As often buoyed by the unadorned acting of its wonderful young main cast members, the movie glides from one heartfelt moment to another with warm amusement, and it will surely win your heart before entering its predictably melodramatic third act.
At the beginning, we are introduced to a little boy named Da-i (Lee Kyung-hoon), and we observe how he is going through a sudden big change in his life. His mother recently became very ill and then hospitalized, and he and his father move to some other place not long after that. As soon as everything belonging to them is moved into their new residence, his father hurriedly leaves due to his work, but Da-i does not feel particularly lonely, and he later goes to a nearby hospital for seeing his dear mother again.
Meanwhile, Da-i begins his first day at an elementary school to which he is transferred. When he enters his new class, he is warmly greeted by a young female teacher, and it does not take much time for him to befriend two of his new classmates. They are Min-ho (Park Ye-chan) and Yoo-jin (Hong Jung-min), and these two cheerful kids willingly show Da-i their little secret place. Although their little secret place turns out to be merely an abandoned trailer, but its interior is mostly cozy thanks to some decoration by Min-ho and Yoo-jin, and Da-i soon spends lots of time there along with his two new friends.
When Da-i later shows considerable excellence in the latest class examination, a kid named Jae-kyeong (Park Si-wan) cannot help but feel inferior even though his test score is just a bit lower than Da-i’s, and that subsequently leads to a small conflict between him and Da-i. This is surely petty to say the least, but it reminds me of how competitive I was during my elementary school years. Like Jae-kyeong, I was often occupied with getting better test scores compared to my classmates, and that was more important for me than anything else – except books, of course.
Speaking of books, another kid in the movie also reminds me a lot of myself just like Jae-kyeong. That kid in question is a young girl named Si-ah (Ok Ye-rin), and she loves reading as much as I was around her age. Although she is not happy about not getting much attention from her parents compared to her older brother, she can always depend on books to read, and I can easily imagine her growing up to be a smart and confident woman someday.
Besides his school life, the movie also pays considerable attention to the relationship between Da-i and his ill mother. He keeps coming to the hospital for spending time with his mother, and his mother surely appreciates that while also cheered up a lot by her dear son’s presence, but it goes without saying that, as reflected by a brief but alarming moment later in the story, the situation is not so good for her to say the least. While her husband is concerned about a lot about what will happen sooner or later, he unfortunately remains quite busy as before, and Da-i slowly starts to gather his mother’s gloomy circumstance.
During its third act, the movie becomes more serious than expected, but it does not lose its cheerful tone at all as Da-i and his friends stick together for helping him meeting his mother, who is later sent to another hospital far from their city. What they attempt to do is rather reckless in my humble opinion, but the mood is mostly bright and sunny even when their plan goes a little wrong, and we come to sense that they will be all right in the end regardless of they succeed or not in their little personal mission.
The screenplay by director Lee Ji-won, which is adapted from a popular online comic of the same name, subsequently gets quite sappy as arriving at the finale waiting for its young hero. I must point out that the animation scene during this part feels a bit redundant, but it is poignant nonetheless because it is grounded well in what has been steadily built up between our young hero and his mother along the narrative.
Lee, who previously made several short films before making a feature film debut here, also draws good natural performances from his young main cast members, who are all effortlessly engaging in their respective parts. According to the production note, Lee let his young main cast members have lots of spontaneity among them via their improvisation on the set, and that is evident from their unpretentious interactions on the screen. While Lee Kyung-hoon did a commendable job of holding the center of the movie, his fellow cast members Hong Jung-min, Park Ye-chan, Ok Ye-rin, and Park Si-wan have each own moment to shine, and Lee Sang-hee, Yoon Kyung-ho, and Gong Min-jung are also solid as a few substantial adult characters in the story.
In conclusion, “Happy Children”, which is incidentally released in South Korean theaters on Children’s Day, is another good children drama which deserves to be added to the growing list of notable South Korean films about children. Although it does not reach to the level of Yoon Ga-eu’s two exceptional films “The World of Us” (2015) and “The House of Us” (2018), the movie is equipped with enough charm and heart at least, and it is certainly recommendable to young audiences as well as adult audiences.