Have you ever asked yourself what’s the true difference between a project film and something of a mainstream nature, but devoid of such “predatory” commercial instincts?
It’s not always a matter of money thrown at the wall, casting or even storytelling. I see it more as a concept based on extraneous gimmicks rather than the actual factors that help build a whole cinematic entity (such as acting, thematic consciousness, production values and the like). The same goes for TV, where this seemingly all-encompassing “trendy” or “Hallyu” umbrella has gone way past simple themes and narrative traits, and is beginning to resemble nothing more than a hollow grocery list made of a few surefire expedients that will viscerally titillate the demographics such projects will target. You know, like the increasingly vapid “flower boy something” franchise and its onslaught of hyper over-production that never leads anywhere.
Then again, it can be quite the subtle difference, when you think about it: is Kim Ji-Woon’s 좋은 놈, 나쁜놈, 이상한놈 (The Good, The Bad, The Weird) the purely artistic product of an auteur, or a carefully constructed piece of project filmmaking built around potentially alluring gimmicks like the visual perks of a Manchurian spaghetti western and names like Song Kang-Ho, Jung Woo-Sung and Lee Byung-Heon? The question becomes all the more fascinating when you’re dealing with names that have shown a voice of their own in their previous works. And yet, back in the day when I reviewed the film for Twitch, I sensed a certain emptiness surrounding that frantic and exhilarating extravaganza. Buried deep down all that frenetic bonanza there was a rather disarming sense that the film didn’t really have a soul of its own (unlike Kim’s past films), something that made it feel a lot closer to Hollywood blockbusters than the zany kimchi westerns of the 1970s it purported to pay homage to.
But there are directors out there, like Im Pil-Seong, who make quintessentially mainstream films without ever compromising their vision. Something like 남극일기 (Antarctic Journal) might have felt like your average “hell on ice” project film populating Hollywood’s shores from time to time. But then Im went to New Zealand and made a technically flawless and harrowing concerto of human weakness out of it, completely obliterating any fears that he would just churn out Vertical Limit with a little less beefcake. Months before I began observing the critics’ reaction to 늑대소년 (A Werewolf Boy), his first foray into commercial cinema, I envisioned KAFA alumni Jo Seong-Hee as someone who could follow in Im Pil-Seong’s footsteps if given the chance.
With acclaimed short 남매의 집 (Don’t Step Out of the House) and his little known yet fabulous indie feature debut 짐승의 끝 (End of Animal), Jo quickly established himself as yet another great discovery by the Korean Film Academy, alongside recent fellow alumni like Yoon Seong-Hyeon of 파수꾼 (Bleak Night) and Baek Seung-Bin of 장례식의 멤버 (Members of the Funeral). What was most striking about him was his ability to inject great personality into his every cinematic trait d’union, all those little moments connecting different lines of dialogue and/or scenes – sometimes through expert editing, ad-lib, or just plain cinematography. That’s the kind of eye for visual storytelling that cannot be taught, and can make the difference between your producer-friendly journeyman director and the auteur who goes on to receive standing ovations at International film festivals.
The idea of making a Korean werewolf film was fascinating because this was practically uncharted territory, cultural differences between Chungmuro and Hollywood being the biggest culprit. That is because while the wolf has always played an important role in the history of ancient Manchurian and Central Asian tribes (think about the Göktürks’ Asena mythology, or even the wolf-worshipping Xiongnu), when it came to therianthropy Korean folklore was a lot more interested in shapeshifting foxes (with nine tails) than lycanthropes. So while you can find Gumiho-themed films all the way back to the 1960’s, werewolves were and still are definitely a novelty – even though Korea has been bombarded with the western rendition of such folklore, from the very first werewolf-themed silent short in 1913 (Henry MacRae’s The Werewolf) all the way to Twilight’s Jacob. You’d think that if there was ever anyone that could do this subject justice, it would be an eclectic young director like Jo.
Then I realized who was producing and funding this film, and what their cinematic creed is all about.
What’s really ironic about this project (no pun intended, at least not yet) is that it started with a female werewolf as its protagonist – like in Clemence Housman’s The Were-wolf. Then Bidangil Pictures got a hold of the treatment (dealing with a young girl growing up in the wildnerness), and moved the focus to a male werewolf, mostly for two reasons: 1) that primordial, beast-like verve would look out of place in a female character (which smells like sexism, but that’s just me); 2) the subject would eventually overlap with your average Gumiho story, and rob freshness out of the story. What the producers conveniently failed to admit in many of their interviews was that most cinemagoers in Korea are young women, and the idea of a werewolf film as a surrogate shoujo manga was a potentially explosive cocktail, especially when built around the man of 2012, baby-faced Song Joong-Gi of 세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (The Innocent Man).
Just the overarching theme of this pure, faithful man-like beast (or beast-like man?) waiting for his woman an entire lifetime was enough to titillate the kind of demographic that still packs theaters to this day, relegating the werewolf dynamics to a rather passive also-ran status. The cinematic fruit of a threesome between 1970s Argentinian werewolf flick Nazareno Cruz Y El Lobo (The Nazarene Cross and The Wolf), Edward Scissorhands and a more melodramatic 너는 팻 (You’re My Pet), A Werewolf Boy is not exactly subtle when it comes to its ulterior motives. It’s a project film, and a pretty obvious one at that. But I wouldn’t consign it to a few paragraphs of anti-corporate vitriol quite yet. And no, I’m not even talking about the promising subtext that is only hinted at, and never fully explored by director Jo – including the political genesis of Cheol-Soo, borne out of genetic experiments undertaken by the Park Jung-Hee junta, perhaps to create the perfect soldiers against the red menace up north?
What’s really curious about this tale of eternal fidelity and uncompromising love is that you never really feel romantic chemistry between Cheol-Soo and Soon-Yi – and that’s because she’s just raising a dog, really. If you set aside all the ancillary caricatures, the inevitable clichés (complete with dangerous misunderstandings, a sense of protection drenched in superhuman testosterone and the almost mandatory silly comedy) and the smell of characterization shaped by marketing analysis, then something strangely charming emerges: this film gets that strange chemistry between humans and animals better than any Saturday Morning Disney Channel “Me and My Puppy” clone Chungmuro has tried to produce in the last ten years – including one which starred, go figure, our own Song Joong-Gi. Call it love, affection, that strange affinity that needn’t any words or justification to be explained. But when Soon-Yi and Cheol-Soo are together and nothing else gets in their way, this film works.
It works because Song literally becomes a mischievous little puppy right under our eyes, complete with sudden, frantic movements (and his Tourette-like tics), and that grotesquely impatient and strangely charming verve that characterizes our four legged friends. I don’t know if Song studied the behavior of dogs in preparing this role, but I wouldn’t be all that surprised if he did. His Cheol-Soo is a perfect balance of all those traits that remind Soon-Yi and the audience of the creatures many of them have grown up with. And yet he never crosses the barrier, making us forget that some genetic components of humanity survive inside that troubled carcass. That his journey of awakening is laden with logical flaws and enough contradictions to fill a book makes the whole story a lot less compelling than it could have been. But on a purely superficial level, Song and Park Bo-Young have such electric chemistry that watching them interact can be compelling on its own, if not exactly intellectually titillating.
That’s what one could take away from this strange boiling pot of elements that should generally clash. It’s an obvious project film with an even more evident target demographic in mind; it takes advantage of Song’s newfound popularity and his magnetic hold on most female Korean moviegoers to an almost indecent extent, and everything surrounding the main couple (aside generally fine performances, especially from Jang Young-Nam) smells of second best.
And yet I was mildly intrigued by it all, and a lot of those unassuming moments of silence when looks, gestures, editing, music and the actors’ own performances create charm outside the script still smell of Jo Seong-Hee, despite the fact he might have for all intents and purposes “sold out” with this quintessentially commercial venture. The gimmicks are all out there, right in your face. And yet I wasn’t all that bothered.
I guess it’s like Cheol-Soo himself. You take the good with the bad, and remember that deep down all that beast-like roughness there’s a little soul, pulsating just like yours…
Written by Vanes Naldi
늑대소년 (A Werewolf Boy)