People grieve in different ways. Some stop altogether, lost in a fog of confusion and regret, while others try to keep themselves busy or at least feel as if they are doing “something” to try and find whatever positivity they can in the midst of such terrible tragedy. The parents at the centre of Shin Dong-seok’s extraordinarily accomplished debut feature Last Child (살아남은 아이, Salanameun Ayi) find themselves on opposite sides of a grief divide after their son is killed trying to save another boy from drowning. While the mother is angry and resentful, the father finds strength in pride for his son’s act of heroism, nominating him for a local heroes award and donating the compensation money they have been awarded to their son’s school to fund a new scholarship place in his name.
Eunchan, the teenage son of Misook (Kim Yeo-jin) and Sungcheol (Choi Moo-seong), passed away some months ago leaving his parents numb and grief stricken. As far as they’re aware, Eunchan lost his life while valiantly trying to save that of another boy – Kihyun (Seong Yu-bin). Asking after the boy whom his son sacrificed his life to save, Sungcheol is dismayed to learn that he’s dropped out of school, possibly as a consequence of bullying and social stigma because of the well publicised incident he has been involved in.
Spotting Kihyun around town riding his delivery scooter, Sungcheol later decides to intervene when he catches sight of some other boys harassing him. Sungcheol buys the boy dinner and tells him to call if he ever needs anything. Kihyun, despite his obvious discomfort calls when the manager of the fast food restaurant he had been delivering for accuses him of lying about his bike being stolen. As Kihyun is a minor, he needs a responsible adult to talk to the police but his mother abandoned him years ago and though his father used to send money for his upkeep, he has now remarried and severed all connection with his son. Feeling sorry for the boy and not wanting Eunchan’s sacrifice to go to “waste”, Sungcheol offers Kihyun a job in his interior construction company as a trainee apprentice.
Though originally shy and afraid, Kihyun begins to blossom under the gentle, positive parental input of Sungcheol as he picks up the paternal reins, not only teaching him a trade but investing in him the confidence to succeed. Misook, horrified at first by her husband’s decision, begins to come around to this wounded young man who perhaps reminds her a little of her own son. Despite his lingering feelings of shame and guilt in accepting such kindness from the people he feels may continue to suffer solely because of his continued existence, Kihyun slowly starts to look on Misook and Sungcheol as surrogate parents as they provide the love and care he has never really known from Sungcheol’s down to earth fatherly pep talks to Misook’s home cooked dinners.
Kihyun does, however, have a secret he has been withholding from Misook and Sungcheol which becomes increasingly difficult for him to keep the nicer they are to him and the more he comes to respect them. Though he might have been able to push it to the back of his mind, an unexpected meeting with another friend of Eunchan’s who was also there that fateful day convinces him he has to speak the truth no matter how much more pain it may to cause to all concerned (including himself).
Sungcheol had invested heavily in the heroic nature of his son’s death and finding out it might not have been quite so straightforwardly noble as originally described is a crushing blow for him. The reopening of a wound which had begun to scar pushes Misook and Sungcheol back into their respective corners as they each attempt to process the situation in their own particular way, beginning to mildly resent each other in the process. Meanwhile, having considered the matter closed, there is little appetite to reopen the investigation into Eunchan’s death. The other parents club together to keep their kids out of it while the school sends a polite message asking Misook and Sungcheol to leave it alone to avoid damaging the school’s reputation. Sungcheol, filled with a righteous anger and a need to find out what really happened to his son, is advised to drop the matter, that it’s better to be remembered as a “hero” rather than a “victim”, implying that Sungcheol ’s quest for “truth” is in someway sullying his son’s memory.
Kihyun, meanwhile, is a mess of conflicted emotions. Grieving himself for the family he’d begun to form with Misook and Sungcheol , he tries to move on with his life whilst hoping to somehow repair what has been broken. Kihyun is not a bad kid at heart, whether changed by his experiences or simply freed from a destructive environment, but he has done bad things which fill him with guilt and remorse compounded by the faith and kindness Misook and Sungcheol have tried to show him.
Yet good as they are, the intensity of their rage and pain threatens to consume the bereaved parents who begin to turn their thoughts towards poetic justice and exacting their own revenge even if they also know it will only bring them more suffering. Isolated by their grief, ostracised for the need for truth, and torn apart by their ambivalent emotions towards each other, the trio walk headlong into a spiralling abyss of nihilistic violence and despair, rejecting the idea of a future in which the concept of family continues to exist. Shin’s drama is bleak in the extreme but strangely hopeful in its clear hearted determination to believe in human goodness which just might be the only way back from the brink.
Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)
Interview with director Shin Dong-seok from the 2017 Busan International Film Festival. (scenes from the film not subtitled, interview subtitled in English)