“Can you forgive me just this once?” the protagonist(s) of Kang Yi-kwan’s Juvenile Offender (범죄소년, Beomjoe Sonyeon) sheepishly ask hoping to be pardoned for their transgressions, only to be met with the cynical, disappointed frown of those who’ve heard it all before. An empathetic character study, Kang’s steely drama lays bare the various ways in which patterns of behaviour ironically repeat themselves despite the best intentions of all involved while even those who earnestly do their best to break the cycle find themselves sabotaged by a rigid and unforgiving society.
At 16, Ji-gu (Seo Young-joo) lives with his elderly grandfather who is bedridden and seemingly in terrible pain. Falling in with a bad crowd, he finds himself breaking into a wealthy home, reassured by one of the other boys that it’s fine because it belongs to a relative. Unfortunately, however, they’re caught when the lady of the house returns home unexpectedly, Ji-gu accidentally pushing her as he tries to escape. This is particularly bad news as, we discover, Ji-gu is already on probation for a previous assault charge after fighting with some other kids who made fun of him because of his poverty. Arrested, he’s the only one of the teens to have no representation in the room and the judge, trying to be sympathetic, eventually decides that in the absence of effective parenting some time in an institution might be the most beneficial option despite the fact that there will be no one left to look after grandpa.
His grandfather’s eventual death while he is inside is one of many things adding to Ji-gu’s sense of guilty frustration, but it also allows a well-meaning guidance counsellor at the detention centre to realise that Ji-gu’s long absent mother who he’d assumed to be dead is in fact very much alive. Surprisingly, she agrees to see him but alarm bells should perhaps be ringing when she fails to turn up to sign for his release only to arrive a day late just as he’s about to be given into the custody of a social worker. Hyo-seung (Lee Jung-hyun) is evidently excited to take on this new challenge of becoming a mother to a 16-year-old boy, but it’s not long before you realise she hasn’t quite thought this through.
As she outlines to Ji-gu by way of an explanation, she was only 17 when she gave birth to him. Overwhelmed by the responsibility and shame of being an unwed teenage mother she left him with her parents intending to commit suicide. There is something in her that is permanently arrested at the age she was she when became pregnant, forever relying on the kindness of (virtual) strangers but more often than not pushing her luck and outstaying her welcome. For the moment, she’s working as a trainee hairdresser and rooming with her wealthy boss in a fancy Gangnam apartment. Ji-gu will have to bunk with her, taking the bed while she throws some pillows on the floor. It’s less than ideal, but nevertheless mother and son begin to rebuild their relationship through a continual exchange of roles as Hyo-seung figures out the kinds of things she’s now responsible for such as getting Ji-gu re-enrolled in school, while he perhaps starts to allow himself to be looked after while realising that his mother really needs looking after too.
The trouble is the past won’t let them go. Hyo-seung’s well-meaning attempt to get Ji-gu into an elite Gangnam school backfires when the snooty teacher refuses to take a boy from juvie, advising him to explore “alternative education” or sit the exams privately. He meanwhile ends up re-encountering an old friend, an act in itself which threatens his probation, but also brings additional complication in the revelation that his former girlfriend Sae-rom (Jun Ye-jin) gave birth to his child while he was inside but was disowned by her family who forced her to give the baby up for adoption and has become a melancholy exile living in a shelter for girls in a similar position.
The ironic symmetry with his own life is not lost on him, his mother sadly explaining that his conception was no grand romance but a momentary lapse of teenage judgement with a boy who gave her a fake name and was never heard from again. Tracking Sae-rom down she wants nothing to do with him, though he is struck by the self harm scars on her arm neatly mirroring those on Hyo-seung’s wrists, his mother wailing that her life was ruined in an instant by his father whose mistake he has just unwittingly repeated. He vows to take responsibility, cruelly snapping back that he doesn’t want Sae-rom to turn out like Hyo-seung making plain he knows all about her life of petty grifting, but realistically how can he when he’s only 16 and on the run from himself frightened of making a mistake and ending up back inside.
Each outcasts in their own way, consumed by the social stigma of being an unwed teenage mother (still an unpardonable offence even in 21st century Korea) or of being a juvenile offender, the trio attempt to move on with their lives but find themselves continually blocked either by an unforgiving, often wilfully exploitative society or by their own sense of hopeless inertia. “Can you forgive me just this once?” Ji-gu repeatedly asks, really meaning to do better this time only for his anger and frustration to ruin everything he’s worked so hard to acheive. Still, perhaps it’s not him that needs forgiving so much as the unforgiving society that needs to regain a sense of compassion for those who transgress against its unfair and arbitrary sense of moral righteousness.
Juvenile Offender streamed as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)