Friday, July 13, 2018

Fantasia 2018--Last Child--Dong-seok Shin (2017)

Kihyun (Seong Yu-Bin) hangs out with his fellow miscreants in Dong-seok Shin's Last Child (2017)
Kids Suck, there is no justice, and there is no God.  These feelings are what I was left with after the moving, but damn depressing, screening of Dong-seok Shin's Last Child, my first film screened at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival.  Seriously, I should have started the festival with some gleeful limb-shredding disembowelment accompanied by the raucous cheers of the Fantasia crowd, but I chose to start things off with this grief-filled exploration of one couple's terrible loss, and how they might be revived by caring for a young man their son's age before it all goes to shit, as the world seems to do.

Jin (Choi-moo Seung) and Misook (Kim Yeo-gin) cling to their tattered marriage after losing their son, Eunchan.
The film opens with contemplative shots of Jin (Choi-moo Seung) as he labors to hang wallpaper.  He's the owner, with his wife Misook (Kim Yeo-gin) of an interior business, where he and a crew lay floors, tile, wallpaper.  His skills as a craftsman are highlighted in close-ups of his process as he papers a room.  He exemplifies a taciturn reserve in his encounters with others, as he's still grief-stricken by the loss of his son, Eunchan.  His son saved another boy, Kihyun (Seong-Yu Bin), from drowning, but perished while doing so, dying a hero's death.  Those heroics do not mean much to Misook, whose bitterness coats the air around her like a sour taste on the tongue.  She's riven with despair.  Kihyun has subsequently dropped out of school, and is living an aimless life making deliveries for a restaurant--he seems to be suffering from a heavy dose of survivor's guilt.

The most satisfying moments in the film are when Kihyun learns how to be a wallpaper craftsman, working for Jin
For reasons unclear beyond an incredible outpouring of human kindness, Jin takes a listless, aimless Kihyun under his wing, deciding to teach him the craft of laying wallpaper and flooring.  The most satisfying moments of the film consist of the gradual bonding between these two, as Kihyun develops pride in the work he's doing, and finds a purpose as he learns these skills.  Misook starts to warm to Kihyun as well, as she slowly lets him in after adamantly keeping her distance from the kid.  My darkness kicked in when the three of them playfully go on a picnic and take a selfie together.  All I could think is "something terrible is going to happen," because this film is not going to allow this moment of happiness to linger.  When they drop off Kihyun at home, and he promptly vomits after their departure, and subsequently doesn't show up for work the next day, I just KNEW something happened.  I cannot really tell you without giving away a crucial plot point, but let's just say Kihyun and his teenage cohort are not really telling the truth about what happened the day Eunchan died.  Cue terminal loss of all joy and impending darkness.

Two thirds of the way through the film, we know that Misook and Jin will probably never smile again
The performances by the three main characters are incredibly powerful, and despite my claim that Kids Suck, I felt a great deal of sympathy for Kihyun--yet that feeling is dwarfed by the crushing empathy I felt toward Misook and Jin, who just cannot catch a fu**ing break, and move from despair to devastation.  While these representations are plausibly realistic, as forms of entertainment go, I haven't felt like my heart was just stomped on multiple times since P.T. Anderson's Magnolia--although that film has some weirdo sparks of humor that keep us from wanting to off ourselves.  Still Dong-seok Shin does include a shot of suspense, and I found myself writing "uh-oh" in my notes multiple times as the characters' respective narratives spiraled ever downward.  Things come to a head as the three head out for one last picnic in proximity to the dreaded river that serves as the catalyst for all the events thus far.

Kihyun enters the river which previously took the life of Eunchan
South Korea clearly has a severe bullying and assault problem among its youth, and many of its strongest dramas--such as Poetry (Chang-dong Lee, 2010) and Han-Gong Ju (Su-Jin Lee, 2013)--explore these issues in powerful and provocative ways.  I give points to Last Child for never really illustrating that violence--this imagery is never shown, but speaking about these events is its own form of violence, although one more subtle and nuanced.  Things come to a head on the same river that took Eunchan's life, but then the film ends rather abruptly.  I honestly don't know how the film could have done things differently, but I didn't hold onto much hope at film's end, and as I've mentioned, walked out with a heavy heart.  Instead of being narratively inventive, I found the film just piled on the bad stuff, until I really just wanted it all to end.  And it did, but not in what I felt was a satisfying manner.