By Lee Hyo-won
We've all been through it. It's tiring to be a teenager, having to live through that hour of eternity with uncontrollable bursts of energy and angst.
In his first feature-length film "Eighteen"
, director Jang Kun-jae
captures a whirlwind teen romance with a heavy dose of reality (the Korean title is in fact "Whirlwind").
The natural, beautifully shot mise-en-scene gives life to a story that anyone can easily relate to, but one that is told through a powerfully gripping language and a voice that is unafraid to say something new.
It is enervating to watch, though in a sweet, melancholic sort of way because you can feel each heavy footstep, halting breath and listlessness of youth.
It's winter break before high school senior year starts, before our protagonists turn nineteen (the legal adult age in Korea). It's moreover that critical time to prepare for college entrance exams in a society that is dictated by brand-name alma maters.
Tae-hoon (Seo Joon-yeong
) and Mi-jeong (Lee Min-ji
) elope to the seaside, on a forbidden ― and thus all the more romantic ― trip. They run out of money and the like, but all is well in the warmth of each other's company.
The movie however is not so much about the unabashed carelessness ― or vigorous spontaneity ― of youth as it is about the palpable burden of reality, of having to fulfill a set role as underage members of a rather conservative community.
Everything comes with a price, and making precious memories by the beach entails ignoring worried phone calls from mom. When they reluctantly return home, Tae-hoon, like "boys his age", is expected to be wild to a tolerable degree and is lightly reprimanded, while Mi-jeong's house is turned upside down. Being labeled a "whore" is not out of the question.
The girl's infuriated father calls forth Tae-hoon and his parents, and forces the youngsters to vow to stay away from each other until college.
Our undying Romeo and Juliet nevertheless promise to meet in secret. Tae-hoon frantically runs around to safeguard their relationship in the only ways he knows, from threatening his parents about quitting school to struggling through a part-time job and camping outside Mi-jeong's window.
But this is no sugary teen-bop romance about star-crossed teens overcoming the barriers of confiscated cell phones and the like.
Mi-jeong starts avoiding Tae-hoon, and our protagonist is left alone to cope with his girlfriend's change of heart.
The beauty of the movie lies in its coolheaded treatment of the heated emotions, and the young actors' deeply impressive naturalistic performances. Finely distilled drama, beautiful in all its mundane, bittersweet moments, fills the screen.
It offers a distanced yet incisive observation of coming-of-age, almost to the point of feeling like a documentary, complete with shaky handheld camerawork.
But the director's art shines through subtle, dashing glimpses into the dreamy psyche of the characters ― a slice of memory that cuts in through an afternoon nap, the unbearable feeling of lightness that accompanies rebellious abandon and the ironic struggle to find peace in the eye of a storm, something that can only be braved by the young and restless.
is now showing in local theaters after a successful trip around the festival circuit, including winning the Dragons and Tigers Award at the 2009 Vancouver International Film Festival.
Distributed by JinJin Pictures.