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[Herald Review] ‘Innocent Witness,’ heart-warming film with generic narrative

Actress Kim Hyang-gi continues to impress with her range, character-building based on heavy research, and carefully honed acting skills that promise more wonders on the horizon from the 18-year-old.

Talking about “Innocent Witness” has to start with the leading lady because the charm of Lee Han’s drama hinges on Kim’s portrayal of the titular character: the innocent witness Ji-woo.

The film takes off with Sun-ho -- played by Jung Woo-sung -- a former human-rights lawyer who gave up on his dream to help the little guys in exchange for fatter paychecks that will help him pay back the family debt. He takes on an alleged murder case of an old man, which the suspect claims was a suicide attempt and that she had merely tried to help. 

“Innocent Witness” (Lotte Entertainment)
“Innocent Witness” (Lotte Entertainment)

The only piece of evidence damning the defendant is testimony by autistic 15-year-old Ji-woo, who witnessed the entire incident across the street from her window. In what appears to be a slam-dunk case, Sun-ho pursues the truth by attempting to crack into Ji-woo’s world.

I’ve always thought of Jung Woo-sung as a Korean version of Keanu Reeves: a gorgeous-looking monotonous actor who has a bland face with an emotional spectrum of a teacup -- and not the one from “Beauty and the Beast” because that one was actually pretty solid. But put these actors in a role that fits, and they works like a charm.

Granted, Jung’s performance in this flick is not outstanding, as he shows his limits in some of the more emotional scenes. For the most part, however, it works, as Jung manages to convincingly portray someone who is good-willed but who has lost his way and is on his way back. To many Korean moviegoers, he has “good-guy” looks and appeal. This can come off as boring when misused, but can augment character development when used right, like in this one.

The biggest appeal of the film is the chemistry between the two leads, both of whom are likeable and work well together.

Coming back to Kim, she blends her innocent, girl-next-door vibe with an autistic character who she convincingly created. It is clear that the actress and the director put extra care into depicting a world seen by someone with autism, which plays into her character.

Autism gives the young girl her own unique characteristics and leads to some genuine feel-good moments in the film, like Ji-woo’s peculiar phone calls with Sun-ho. While their interaction may seem off to others, the mutual care and understanding are clear.

The film deserves credit for convincingly depicting that beyond the sporadic outbursts and difficulty opening up to strangers, Ji-woo is a loving, caring and very bright young girl. All you have to do is step into her world and see things from her perspective, which is key to not only understanding people with autism, but also to understanding people in general.

Ji-woo’s innocent question of “Are you a good person?” resonates throughout the film and in the hearts of the audience members. The film gleams of care and warmth that feels authentic, and cleverly avoids being overly emotional or pitying.

The biggest problem was the ending, which felt very obvious and generic. It is a feel-good flick that needs to wrap up everything with a neat little bow, but the way everything was settled was too much like a storybook ending. Overall, there was nothing that stood out about the narrative, and the twist could be seen from a mile away, too.

The supporting cast was good, but most of them were generic good guys or bad guys who did not really leave a strong impression. The sole exception was Park Geun-hyung playing Sun-ho’s father, who was a bit by the book, but delivered some laughs.

The film was always going to be about a special relationship between a girl and a man, and it felt cozy and nice watching it. It does not demonstrate eye-popping story-telling skills, but the warmth -- which the Korean audience had come to expect from many of Lee Han’s films, like the 2011 “Punch” -- is there, and that should be enough.

It has some flaws along the way, but not enough to eclipse the good parts. Overall, it was an enjoyable experience.

“Innocent Witness” opens in local theaters on Feb. 13.

By Yoon Min-sik

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