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[Herald Review] ‘Youngju’ a compelling story and gripping performance about hard-hitting issues

The fact that Cha Sung-duk’s independent film “Youngju” is finally getting a theatrical release is welcome news for Korean cinema, currently saturated with an over-the-top, tear-jerking, poorly acted excess of cinematic jumble. The fact that it will screen at a solitary theater in Gwangju is a tragedy.

Cha’s drama stars Kim Hyang-gi playing a young girl named Young-ju who is orphaned after her parents die in a car crash. When her younger brother Young-in -- Tang Jung-sang -- is involved in a crime that requires a monetary settlement, she seeks out Sang-mun, the man responsible for her parents’ deaths, out of desperation.

“Youngju” (CGV Arthouse)
“Youngju” (CGV Arthouse)

Not thinking about the implications, she asks Sang-mun for a job at his tofu store without revealing her identity. Young-ju is welcomed in by Sang-mun and his wife Hyang-sook -- played by Yoo Jae-myung and Kim Ho-jung, respectively -- and comes to realize they are kind-hearted people. The genuine mutual care that grows between them confuses Young-ju.

Kim’s captivating performance is what stands out most about the film. Her face alone is perfect for the role, as you could not imagine an actor with a look that better conveys innocence, pain, determination and goodwill.

Her strong acting carries the most powerful scenes in the film, complemented perfectly by the veteran actors playing Sang-mun and Hyang-sook. 

“Youngju” (CGV Arthouse)
“Youngju” (CGV Arthouse)

A scene that shows Young-ju’s confrontation with Young-in delivers the dilemma and survivor’s guilt they have had to live with, a burden that may be too great for such young souls.

Director Cha does a good job of sparking thought about the relevant social issues that drive the film, while also running the risk of criticism as being sympathetic to criminal perpetrators. She does not hammer in her own ideas about what the film is talking about and simply addresses the issue, allowing the audience to ponder what they have seen.

What is particularly impressive is that Cha knows just when to rein in the emotion. In an age when so many movies seem to shout “Cry! Cry!” with an endless parade of tear-jerking scenes, Cha’s sense of self-restraint is commendable. 

“Youngju” (CGV Arthouse)
“Youngju” (CGV Arthouse)

This allows the film to have a lasting impression on viewers long after they have left the theater. The soundtrack permeates the scenes, helping the audience sympathize with a Young-ju who longs for just an ounce of happiness after being struck with tragedy.

In a strange way, the film is reminiscent of Yang Ik-jun’s 2009 film “Breathless.” Although that film talked about the tragedy that arises from a vicious cycle of violence, both films deal with tough social issues and contain brilliant acting in the lead roles carrying the audience for a lasting impression that resonates.

Like “Breathless,” the depressing tone and never-ending misery may be too much for some to bear. But it is a compelling story worth checking out, one that tells of issues that are very real in this society.

“Youngju” opens at Gwangju Independent Film Theater on Nov. 22. 

By Yoon Min-sik