South Korean film “In Our Prime” is an engaging mix of familiar stuffs which dutifully and entertainingly sticks to its formulas from the beginning to the end. While it is pretty apparent that the story and characters are derived a lot from Gus Van Sant’s “Good Will Hunting” (1997) and “Finding Forrester” (2000), the movie is mostly effective as efficiently applying the formulas to its own materials, and you may find yourself rooting for its two very different main characters more than expected.
At first, the movie focuses on how things have been not that good for Han Ji-woo (Kim Dong-hwi), a teenage boy who has just started his first year at a prestigious high school in Seoul. Although his widow mother is very poor in addition to being too busy with earning her living day by day, Ji-woo has tried really hard to study and then excel himself, and that is how he was accepted by this respectable high school without much concern on paying the tuition.
However, he has been an outcast as a poor kid depending on social service support in contrast to many other schoolmates who are quite affluent, and even his class teacher does not help him much just because his grades are not entirely satisfying on the whole. Ji-woo is not particularly good at math, so his math test scores have been rather low compared to many of his classmates, and his teacher condescendingly recommends him to move to some other school just because his imperfect grades can possibly affect the considerable reputation of the school.
When he later happens to be suspended from the school dormitory because of a minor transgression, Ji-woo comes to stay in a little place belonging to the security guard working in the school, who is incidentally the very person who caught Ji-woo on the spot for that transgression. The security guard, who is nicknamed “People’s Army” just because he is a North Korean defector, is rather antisocial to say the least, but he takes a pity on Ji-woo, so he lets Ji-woo stay longer in his place even though he does not welcome Ji-woo much.
This North Korean defector is played by none other than Choi Min-sik (Remember his unforgettably grand performance in Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” (2003)?), so you can instantly sense right from his first appearance in the film that this character is not just your average old security guard. As a matter of fact, he was once a renowned math prodigy during his time in North Korea, and he surprises Ji-woo via quickly solving all of those demanding math problems given to Ji-woo and his classmates as their homework.
Because he really needs to improve his math test scores, Ji-woo asks the security guard to give him some extra teaching. Of course, the security guard is reluctant because he simply prefers to live in solitude just like Sean Connery’s character in “Finding Forrester”, but he comes to accept Ji-woo’s request under a few conditions, and Ji-woo soon begins to study math more under his secret math tutor at every night.
It is not much of a spoiler to tell you both Ji-woo and his secret math teacher come to gain a lot from each other, but the movie thankfully does not overplay that aspect while conveying to us a convincing sense of teaching and learning. At one point, the security guard gives Ji-woo a thoughtful lesson on why math is a lot more than memorizing formulas and then solving problems, and that actually made me reflect on how aimlessly I learned math during my high school and college years. Yes, I was fairly smart enough to memorize and then handle all those numerous constants and variables for solving one math problem after another, but my head eventually stopped when I later came to wonder more about why and how math mattered to me – and that was when I recognized my limit.
Around the point where it enters the last act, the movie starts to stumble more than once as attempting some blatant melodrama. Yes, our young hero is unjustly accused of what he did not do. Yes, the security guard turns out to have a very painful past behind his gruff appearance. Yes, both of them should make a choice which will affect their respective lives in one way or another. Yes, we surely get a dramatic big speech moment which is not so far from the finale of “Finding Forrester” while also borrowing a bit from “Scent of a Woman” (1992) and “A Beautiful Mind” (2001).
Nonetheless, the movie still works thanks to its sincere and competent storytelling, and it is supported well by its main cast members. Besides selling that dramatic finale as well as demanded, Choi Min-sik fills his character with enough wit and gravitas, and his seasoned appearance is complemented well by Kin Dong-hwi’s earnest performance. In case of several other cast members, Park Byung-eun, Park Hae-joon, and Jo Yun-seo are well-cast in their respective supporting roles, and Jo brings some charm and spirit to her rather thankless role.
In conclusion, “In Our Prime”, directed by Park Dong-hoon, is not exactly fresh in terms of story and characters, but it is still engaging enough to overlook its several short comings including its heavy-handed last act. I did not expect much from the beginning, and it does not exceed my expectation at all, but I will not grumble for now because it did its job as well as intended in addition to being fairly entertaining.