Korea (2018) Dir. Cha Sung-Duk

We all have holes in our lives, often left by the passing of a loved one, which are always difficult to fill but the older we get, the easier it is to let go, because we understand the transience of life. When we are younger this is more of a struggle and the need to fill a hole is stronger, but where we find it can be left to fate.

It has been five years since the parents of 19-year old Young-ju (Kim Hyang-gi) and 15-year-old brother Young-in (Tang Joon-sang) were killed in a car accident. Despite still being a lawful minor herself, Young-ju is the legal guardian for Young-in, doing all she can to ensure her gets through school then college. But Young-in isn’t interested in school, instead preferring to hang with a gang, who are caught robbing a shop.

As Young-ju doesn’t have the money to cover the fine that will spare her brother from detention, she makes the decision to track down the man responsible for her parents’ death, Sang-Moon (Yoo Jae-Myung), discovering he runs a small tofu store with his wife Hyang-Sook (Kim Ho-Jung). Unable to reveal her identity to them, Young-ju takes a job at the store and soon finds the warmth of parental love she has been missing.

Youngju is the debut from Cha Sung-Duk, a quiet yet sensitive indie film that casts a curious eye over modern Korean society but without being scathing. Instead Cha lays the scenario out in the barest of terms to make her point, that the law is flawed in where it draws the line between child and adult; in fact, it isn’t just the law either, pointing the finger at the arrogance of the adults in underestimating the resolve of a teenager.

However, this social observation is essentially secondary to the main theme of finding solace and hope in the oddest of places, in this case, with the person responsible for tearing your life apart in the first place. Enemies becoming allies or even friends under extreme circumstances is not a new premise, but there is something very raw and hard to reconcile when the loss of life is concerned, which shouldn’t be easy to forgive.

But first we need to look back at where we join the story, with Young-ju working odd jobs to pay for Young-in’s education and the upkeep of their home. The only family support come from a paternal aunt and uncle who want to sell the home for a slice of the profits. As the kids resist, the sneery aunt insist they “leave this to the adults”, a stinging rebuke to a resilient teen having to adopt a parental role far too early in her life.

Said aunt and uncle are of course nowhere to be found when Young-in gets into trouble, leaving it to Young-ju to deal with this “adult” problem, and as Young-in’s legal guardian she has to prove she has a regular income to keep her brother with her instead of sending him to a juvenile detention centre, where he temporarily resides until the fine is paid.

Nowhere is Young-ju’s age or circumstances taken into consideration or questioned by the police, something that would be of prime concern on this side of the world with social services on the doorstep in the blink of an eye. Not so in Korea it seems, putting Young-ju in the same paradoxical position of Alice Cooper’s classic I’m Eighteen – “I’m a boy and I’m a man”. Being the dutiful sister she is, Young-ju sets about raising funds, only her attempt see her conned by a dodgy money lending scam.

This gives way to the second half of the story and Young-ju finds herself in the employ of the man who killed her parents, accidentally it needs to be stressed. Sang-Moon beats himself up on the anniversary of the accident, making it hard for Hyang-Sook to cope with her hands full and not just with the tofu shop. This secret reveals they have a hole in their life in need of filling and Young-ju is the perfect fit, eventually becoming a mutually felt arrangement.

Perhaps quite rightly, Young-in rejects the idea of being cosy with the man responsible for their orphan status, leading to a bitter falling out between the siblings. But while Young-ju welcomes being able to be a daughter again and the burdens of her recent years lifted and shared with someone who cares for her, she struggles to let go of the responsibility for her brother.

Cha Sung-Duk knows there are no easy answers and doesn’t pretend to have any to offer either, keeping the narrative as objective as possible and let the audience decide whether the decisions made are right or wrong. Then again, what is right or wrong? We know human emotion is a fickle thing and operates on its own terms, so maybe the shared suffering between the two families is the perfect catalyst to allow both to move on, but only if they can leave the past behind.

Keeping true to its indie sensibilities, the film ends on an abrupt and open note likely to leave many feeling unfulfilled in understanding what emotions are being felt and how they shapes the future. In many respects it is necessary to conclude this way for the reasons discussed above, but it just needed a little more sense of direction to make it all the more satisfying.

Despite being a novice director, Cha Sung-Duk shows signs of establishing her own voice and style in the future whilst the main talking point has to be the profoundly astute and compelling performance from 18 year-old veteran Kim Hyang-gi. She may look like a cuddly doll but her realisation of Young-ju is mature, complex, and achingly real.

With much to praise it for, Youngju is an accomplished, if a little undercooked debut, and hopefully the start of something great for Cha Sung-Duk and Korean indie cinema.