Werewolves are kind of dumb. They’re an amalgamation of two great flavors (wolves and people) that don’t go great together. The most telling moment of any werewolf film is the moment of transformation, but the question is never “Woah, how awesome is this going to be?” It’s “How stupid is this one going to look?” This isn’t always a problem, especially if the werewolf aspect is downplayed, but it is rare that the transformation sequence, especially a modern one punctuated by ridiculous amounts of CG, adds much to the film. It’s just another checkbox to fill.
So I don’t like werewolves, and it took me until halfway through A Werewolf Boy to realize it. Fortunately, the name is a misnomer, and the film isn’t really about a werewolf. In fact, it has more in common with Truffaut’s The Wild Child than it does Waggner’s The Wolf Man. It’s like the feral, Korean offspring of those films, and it works surprisingly well.
[The 2013 New York Asian Film Festival not have enough Korean films for you? Korean Movie Night NY returns tomorrow night, June 25th, at 7:00 PM at the Tribeca Cinemas with A Werewolf Boy. It’s free. More information can be found here.]
A Werewolf Boy (Neukdae Sonyeon | 늑대소년)
Director: Jo Sung-Hee
Country: South Korea
There is a framing narrative in A Werewolf Boy, but I don’t really know why. At the beginning of the film, Soon-Yi and her granddaughter visit a childhood home. She has just been given the property and she must decide whether she wants to sell it or not. She decides to stay the night. It brings back memories, and suddenly, it’s forty-seven years prior.Soon-Yi’s family has just moved into the new home, which is also the home of a young boy with shaggy hair, almost claw-like fingernails. He also cannot speak. He can growl, he can howl, but he is effectively mute. He does seem to understand Korean, though, at least a little bit. The family gives him a name: Chul-Soo, and he is inducted into the family. Soon-Yi, dog-training manual in hand, takes him under her wing and attempts to civilize him. Beginning with the key phrase “Wait,” she teaches him some basic manners and at first glance he becomes a passable member of society.
But even though he was presumably born human, things have changed. He is strong, resilient, and maintains some dog-like behavior (his need for positive reinforcement is human, that it must come in the form of a pat on the head is not). He also can transform into a beast, but it’s not a full moon sort of thing. An early shot of the full moon seemed to imply that it would follow that myth, but the two times he transforms in the film it’s not a full moon; it’s a reaction. He transforms, as he rapidly changes back to human form once he’s done what he set out to do. I will admit that it was cool to see some bad people being thrown around, but the special effects left quite a bit to be desired.
In part, this stems from the A Werewolf Boy‘s genre. At face value, it’s a romance. For the most part, I would call it “adorable” before I called it “romantic,” because it’s not about two like-minded people falling in love and spending their lives together in harmony and bliss. It’s about a girl, her animal companion, and the connection they forge. It’s love, but it’s not traditional love, at least not between two human-looking beings. And I’m glad, because otherwise it could have gone in some weird Twilight-esque direction with cross-species breeding. Egh.
It took me a little while to accept Chul-Soo’s character. Song Joong-Ki’s performance overall is fine, but in the earliest encounters (before he gets cleaned up) he isn’t entirely believable. Then again, what do I know about how a feral, wolfish child would act? Maybe he did a perfect channeling of actual cases of feral children. Doesn’t really matter, though, because it doesn’t entirely work. A lot of it comes when he eats. Everything he sees he grabs with his hands and shoves in his face, which is to be expected. But the action itself always struck me as a little forced. There was almost a hesitation, like the actor was telling himself “You’re disgusting! How could you eat like that?!” before doing what he needed to do. Once he is good as new, though, it just becomes about the wolf-like mannerisms that he kept with him. There’s no more hesitation, and things play out much more smoothly. At that point, the character (and the film) become much more enjoyable to watch.
And it is enjoyable to watch, because the movie is gorgeous. Gosh darn. The easiest thing I could compare it to would be Sunny, and that is about as complimentary as I could get. None of the images I’ve chosen here get across just how good the film looks. Normally, I’m not a fan of blown-out windows, but you know what? A Werewolf Boy makes them work. The lighting is general is moody and spectacular. Lighting isn’t something I tend to pay much attention to. I understand its importance, but unless it’s really, really good it doesn’t stand out to me. Here, it’s really, really good. Even if what’s onscreen is occasionally problematic, the visual quality (CG excepted) makes it much easier to enjoy.
To return to the framing narrative, I’m still not entirely sure why it’s there. I loved the transition from present day to the past, but it could have just as easily come to the same ending with a “47 Years Later” subtitle and a little bit of extra exposition. Flashbacks are all well and good, but when the entire story save a few minutes on either side takes place in the narrative past, those few minutes on either side need to really justify themselves. The ending justifies itself; the beginning does not. And since we’re on the topic, I want to discuss a change made between the theatrical release (which will be playing in New York tomorrow) and the extended cut. It’s one of the most bizarre changes I’ve ever seen from one version to another, and it drastically changes the way one of the most pivotal scenes in the film plays out. Needless to say, the next two paragraphs will delve heavily I am going to go heavily into spoiler territory.
In the original release, when Soon-Yi meets Chul-Soo again, the two have weathered the past forty-seven years in radically different ways. Soon-Yi, as we saw her in the beginning, is old and gray; Chul-Soo looks exactly the same. What happened to him at the hands of the people who experimented on him may have even made him immortal. That isn’t explained, but it doesn’t matter. Point is, he’s young.
In the extended release, which runs two minutes longer, the meeting at the end is between Chul-Soo and a young Soon-Yi. For the scene, she reverts back to her teenage self, and it’s also much slower. The dialogue between the two scenes is the same, but Soon-Yi’s lines about her aging play very differently when spoken by a teenager than when spoken by an old woman. I certainly preferred the lingering camera of the extended release, but I’m conflicted about the effect of the young Soon-Yi. It makes the exchange seem almost ironic, and his statement “You’re still beautiful” loses its meaning when nothing seems to have changed. Or is that the point? It also gives an already dream-like scene and even less realistic tone. The ending shows that Chul-Soo is alive, young, and well enough, but whether or not the two of them meet is unclear. Perhaps that’s the point; maybe it was just a dream, but it didn’t seem to me that that was the intent, only the result.
But whichever version you see, that difference will only affect the impact on the film’s ending, and I don’t know that it changes much there at all. No matter what, it’s still a movie well worth seeing. The marketing of the film I think is somewhat misleading. The tagline, “Love was the first human language he’d ever learned,” made me feel just a bit sick on the inside. I put off seeing it because I wasn’t in the mood for something I expected to resemble Twilight (though let’s be clear: I’ve never actually seen Twilight). What I got was something far more interesting. The forbidden experiment (depriving a child of basic human necessities to see what its basic nature truly is) is a fascinating one, and A Werewolf Boy puts an interesting spin on the idea. Maybe there have been other films with a similar premise, but I’ve never heard of them.
Werewolves may be conceptually stupid, but the focus on the human aspect of the character makes it a much easier pill to swallow. The scenes with the transformation are easily some of the dumbest in the film, but neither lasts more than two minutes and the iffy effects are soon forgotten. And then it’s back to Soon-Yi and Chul-Soo being adorable. And that’s a wonderful thing to see.