This was a film I happened to watch on a recent flight – mainly because I was intrigued by the title – and it turned out to be an excellent South Korean drama. The two main leads in particular are amazing in their roles, and I’m not surprised that it was a huge hit when it released last year. While the title suggests that it might be a horror story, in reality it’s more of a fairy-tale fantasy which interweaves a coming of age story with young romance. However, just in case you were disappointed, there is indeed a werewolf although that’s not the main focus of the story.
The film opens with an older Kim Suni (Lee Young-lan) living in America with her son and his family. I love how, in the opening shots, the camera slowly pans in from the town outside to the rooms inside, possibly symbolic of how restricted Suni’s life has become when compared to the wide open spaces and freedom of her childhood that we see later in Korea. There are a number of small clues to the rest of the story in these opening scenes, but they only become apparent on watching the film for a second time. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m not familiar with Korean films, or if writer-director Jo Sung-hee expected people to watch the film more than once.
Kim Suni receives a phone call and discovers that she has to go back to Korea to deal with a house her mother (Jang Young-nam) has left to her. She arrives in Korea and after meeting with her granddaughter Eun-joo, travels to the house where she stayed for a short time as a teenager. From here the film tells her story in flashback, from when the young Suni (Park Bo-young) first arrived there some 47 years previously.
Suni, her mother and her sister Sun-ja (Kim Hyang-gi) move to the countryside to help alleviate problems with Suni’s health. A problem with her lungs has made Suni an invalid and this, along with a natural shyness has made her withdrawn and unhappy. The countryside isn’t quite to Suni’s taste as their neighbours are rustic and uncouth, while there appears to be something watching her out in the front yard. Her sister on the other hand, seems to slot into her new life with perfect ease, as she befriends the other local children almost instantaneously and is happy to run around the fields all day.
Things change when Suni and her mother discover what appears to be a feral boy lurking in their front yard. Suni’s mother takes him in, although she is taken aback by his lack of table manners and general lack of knowledge regarding things such as taking a bath. Although she contacts the authorities, no-one is interested and they dismiss the boy as just one of the many unfortunate children orphaned after the war. The family name the boy Cheol-su and while Suni’s mother tries to make him into the son she never had, Sun-ja takes him out to play with the other children and Suni refuses to sit at the table with him.
Then Suni finds a dog-traning manual and slowly this displaces her nightly unhappy diary entries as she looks for a way to civilise Cheol-su. Cheol-su cannot speak and Suni’s attempts to communicate with him start to bring her out of her shell and she forgets about her illness. But just when everything seems to be going so well, the family’s landlord Ji-tae (Yoo Yun-suk) shows up and discovers that Cheol-su is not quite what he seems.
Ji-tae’s character is drawn with broad strokes but perhaps this is appropriate for the story since he is a classic unscrupulous fairy-tale villain with no redeeming features whatsoever. He is determined to marry Suni, although this desire is never really explained, and he’s just too completely depraved and evil to be very realistic. However Yoo Yun-suk does make a good villain, as he has an excellent sneer and is appropriately dressed for the part.
Park Bo-young has a very expressive face and she is excellent in her transformation from an unhappy invalid to a girl in the throes of first love and finally to a young woman who has some very harsh decisions to make. In Cheol-su, Suni has found another lost soul, and because of his animalistic nature, he’s not someone who makes her feel shy. In fact, because Suni is the one teaching him and is the only person that he seems to listen too, she has all of the power in their relationship. At least initially.
However the real revelation is Song Joong-ki, who is amazing as the werewolf boy. His first appearance is startling as he appears nervous and skittish before grabbing for food and he does seem completely feral. Subsequently he manages to behave as if he really has been living with a wolf pack as he brings dog-like mannerisms into his body language. In one scene he perfectly imitates a dog chasing a ball as he plays with Sun-ja and her friends. Not being able to speak also means that Song Joong-ki has to make his face talk for him and he manages to convey each emotion incredibly well. The reaction he shows here as Suni sings to him is just one example of how perfectly he makes his eyes express his thoughts and feelings.
There are a few minor quibbles I have with the film, but they are relatively insignificant when set against the performances from Park Bo-young and Song Joong-ki. The special effects to turn Cheol-su into a werewolf aren’t particularly special and mainly consist of spiky hair and dim lighting. In fact a number of the shots are very poorly lit and at times it’s difficult to see exactly what is happening. But there are also scenes where the lighting emphasises the fantasy aspect and the sunlight looks like molten gold and others where the winter landscape invokes comparisons with European folk tales.
Although this is essentially a love story, I think the coming of age and development of Suni’s character are more interesting and appeal more than the romance aspect of the film. Cheol-su’s love for Suni is more of a platonic adoration as he mainly just wants to be with her, while Suni’s affection appears based in the camaraderie of two misfits rather than true romance. However they do have good chemistry together and the final scenes provide a poignant and somewhat unexpected end.
A Werewolf Boy is a well told story which mixes supernatural fantasy with the more mundane successfully. It’s worth watching for Park Bo-young and Song Joong-ki, but also for Jo Sung-hee’s direction which successfully steers around a number of possible plot holes to deliver a satisfying and captivating story. 4 stars.