I feel rather conflicted about South Korean independent film “Awoke”. Although it is surely serious about its main subject which has become quite a relevant issue in the South Korean society, the movie is not recommendable enough because of its weak story and characters, and I was often distracted by its heavy-handed moments instead of having more understanding and empathy toward its disabled hero. Maybe you should watch it for being more aware of its main issue, but I doubt whether it will really make you more sensitive to what many disabled people are struggling with even at this point.
The opening part of the movie quickly establishes its young hero’s very unfortunate circumstance. After being hit by a car on the road, Jae-gi (Jo Min-sang) becomes severely disabled due to the injury resulted from that accident, but he does not get much support even when he is recovering at a local hospital. Although he gets some help from his older sister Eun-joo (Hyun Tae-kyung), he often feels frustrated because he has to depend a lot on wheelchair now, and then he is notified that he is graded as a person of mild disability despite his severely disabled body. As a consequence, he is not allowed to get a number of necessary welfare services which are only for persons of more sever disability according to the current welfare laws, and this is also going to jeopardize his subsequent job search because many companies hire persons of more sever disability first.
Because he and his older sister have been short of money in addition to having to pay their rent as soon as possible, Jae-gi becomes more desperate than ever, but then he is helped by a disabled guy named Byeong-ho (Lim Ho-jun) not long after their accidental encounter. It turns out that Byeong-ho is a dude who can actually pull some strings at a local welfare center for the disabled, and he helps Jae-gi some financial help while also introducing Jae-gi to a lawyer who may get Jaa-gi re-graded as a person of more severe disability. Though the lawyer demands a considerable amount of fee for that, Byeong-ho assures to Jae-gi that everything will be fine in the end, and Jae-gil comes to request a considerable welfare loan from a local bank as instructed by Byeong-ho.
And things seem to be going fairly well for Jae-gi for a while. Thanks to Byeong-ho, he becomes a sponsored player to play a little lawn sport along with other disabled persons, and Byeong-ho promises to him that he will get more as long as he plays as much as required by their system. When Eun-joo happens to be unemployed later, Byeong-ho suggests that she should work as a part-time caregiver for him, and Jae-gi is certainly grateful for that.
However, we also see what a rotten guy Byeong-ho actually is. We see how one of his disabled men pretending to be much more disabled just for being graded as a person of severe disability and then getting much benefit from that. We also observe how he often exploits not only the system but also others around him including Jae-gi, who comes to have some doubts on Byeong-ho but sticks to him nonetheless just because of his gratitude to Byeong-ho.
Around that narrative point, the screenplay by directors/writers Jung Jae-ik and Seo Tae-soo pushes its hero into more misery and desperation in rather clumsy ways, but that does not work as well as intended. As shown from the very first shot of the film, we already know well that the situation will get worse for Jae-gi along the story, and we are not so surprised by what happens to him and his older sister later in the movie, but many of these grim moments are contrived to say the least. While the scenes involved with Jae-gi’s frustration with the system feel realistic at least, a subplot between Byeong-ho and Eun-joo is merely unpleasant as existing only for more emotional manipulation on us, and we are dissatisfied more because that subplot only leads to a very predictable outcome in the end.
Moreover, I am also concerned about how the movie presents Byeong-ho as the main villain of the story. Although it attempts to bring some human complexity him at one point, he remains to be a merely deplorable archetype, and we only come to observe him with more disgust and contempt. No, I do not mean that the movie should have more pity or sympathy on this sleazy bastard, but I seriously wonder whether this broad supporting character will result in more bias against the disabled as well as those economically struggling persons really depending a lot on the welfare system.
Anyway, the movie has some solid performances to notice. As the center of the film, Jo Min-sang diligently carries the film to the end, and his earnest performance is the one of the main reasons why the movie holds our attention to some degree. While Jae-gi is more or less than a figure to be pitied, Jo ably presents his character with enough humanity at least, and he is also supported well by several supporting performers including Hyun Tae-kyung, Song Min-hyuk, and Lim Ho-jun, whom I sincerely hope is actually nicer than he looks in the film.
Overall, “Awoke” is a well-intentioned but notably flawed film, and I cannot recommend it mainly because I was too conscious of its several weak aspects during my viewing. Having been well aware of how the South Korean society has been quite harsh and indifferent to many persons of disability out there, such movies movie like this certainly need to be made for more public awareness and conscience, but the movie itself is not good enough in my humble opinion, and that is a shame.