Movie Review: A Werewolf Boy
A Werewolf Boy is an exceptional film that’s been on my radar ever since it was announced (so by that timeline, I’ll get to watch Gwanghae, the Man Who Became King by the year 2037), and one that’s raked in some considerable accolades since its lauded release last fall.
Despite this being a sophomore effort by director Jo Sung-hee—who netted himself an award for best new director at the 49th Baeksang Arts Awards—A Werewolf Boy set box office records, becoming the most successful Korean melodrama of all time as well as the third highest-grossing domestic film of 2012, second only to crime caper The Thieves and the aforementioned Gwanghae (internationally known as Masquerade).
Note: There will be some spoilers, but every story detail won’t be spelled out for those who haven’t yet seen the movie but still want to. And for those readers, the ending has been separated into its own section so it can be skipped in its entirety. (If you do happen to be a spoilerphobe, then enter the comments section/beanut gallery at your own risk. I can only go so far to protect you!)
SONG OF THE DAY
Park Bo-young – “My Prince” from the OST. [ Download ]
Aside from the prologue and epilogue, which take place in the present, most of the film is set in an unspecified countryside village circa 1965 where our heroine and her family make their initial move in the hopes that it will improve her ailing health.
This is where the stage is set, since A Werewolf Boy opens with our heroine, forty-seven years after the events that take place in the movie proper, returning from the United States to the home that filled her days with wonder. She comes from a household filled with her children and grandchildren, and comes to meet another granddaughter when she returns to Korea to sell the house that’s more or less stayed in her family all these years. The sight of the house again after so long spurs her into a flashback of her teenage years that lasts nearly the entire runtime, where her love story with the film’s titular werewolf begins.
I went into this knowing nothing more than the name and starring couple, which is my favorite way to watch most anything even though it’s getting tougher to do nowadays. Because the title is fairly specific I had a few guesses as to what the story was about, and in that sense there aren’t any huge surprises as far as plot goes—it’s more or less your classic beauty and the beast story, with a hero that has a little The Jungle Book in him, plus an inevitable bit of The Wolfman, too.
Lest we think that the title is an allegory or that our hero is just wolf-like, rest assured—it’s pretty literal, in that he’s an actual werewolf. What’s most rewarding about this experience, however, is how the story deals with him as a boy/man caught between two worlds, while seemingly belonging in none.
Along with being a love story, A Werewolf Boy also functions as a coming-of-age tale for both our wolf boy and our heroine, who both begin as outcasts in their own right before discovering in each other a common bond that relies only on their connection to each other, and not on words.
She’s KIM SUNI (Park Bo-young), who finds herself ostracized from normal activities like going to school or living in the city because of her health. She lives with only her mother and younger sister since her father has passed away, and spends her days sullenly while she spends her nights writing down her loneliness (and subsequent anger at the world which scorns her as an invalid) in a diary.
The first glimpse we see of CHUL-SOO (Song Joong-ki) is during a dark segment at the beginning of the film, where his dying captor frees him, perhaps out of a sense of mercy. It doesn’t seem to be a boy locked behind such a heavy iron door, but a feral creature with glowing eyes, one we hear uttering ferocious, otherworldly roars, and one we only see hulking in shadow.
But when Suni and her warm-hearted mother (played by Jang Young-nam) first encounter him (technically the second encounter for Suni, but she doesn’t know that), Chul-soo doesn’t look imposing at all – he’s merely dirty, ragged, and starving.
Song Joong-ki hasn’t managed to go wrong yet, but I have to admit to being surprised at just how well he pulls off being feral here – you just wouldn’t have thought it was possible from his face alone, coupled with his previous roles. He’s got the animal mannerisms down pat, but he’s still human, and we see him grow and evolve from mindlessly inhaling food like a dog to something a little more in-between, helped in no small part by how incredibly expressive his eyes can be.
Despite Chul-soo sticking out like a splinter in the thumb of society, the small-town Powers That Be aren’t very concerned with his discovery and write him off as an orphan and by-product of the Korean War. It’s their disinterest which causes Mom to take him in out of pity, lending to moments of hilarity I didn’t think to expect in (what I perceived to be) a Very Serious Movie.
It’s refreshing that the director realizes how absurd it is to have someone like Chul-soo all but leap onto a dinner table in order to stick his face in everyone’s food, and so we get plenty of laughs from the fact that a family of three girls just adopted a feral boy. Doubly nice is that the movie knows just how to strike the right balance, with everything being played straight because it’s the situations themselves and not exaggerated reactions that make up the funny. Thus the comedy feels organic to the world that’s set up, as opposed to feeling shoehorned in before the melodramatics start.
Suni initially treats Chul-soo with a mixture of disinterest and disdain, though she eventually starts to warm up to her strange and unrefined roommate the more time she spends with him.
He first wins her favor (in no small part) by protecting her on multiple occasions from her menacing landlord, JI-TAE (Yoo Yeon-seok), the errant and privileged son of her late father’s business partner who carries a torch for Suni, but can only express his love through the fine art of assault.
Yes, Ji-tae’s the Gaston of this tale, and he’s not even two-dimensional enough to be a cartoon. He’s the weakest part of the story hands down, if only because he’s just a device to get us from point A to point B, and he’s in love with the heroine because that’s his only excuse. When literally every other adult in the story acts absurdly reasonable (most of the time), Ji-tae sticks out for being lazily contrived only because giving him proper motivations would take too much effort.
To put it simply, his character and the role he plays in the story is a waste of space.
So, Suni gets the bright idea to start training Chul-soo to act more refined by using a dog training manual, the reading of which begins to replace her nightly “I hate the world” diary musings. She starts by getting him to obey her whenever she tells him to “wait,” and Chul-soo begins to eagerly seek her approval because the reward for a job well done is her giving him a pat on the head, and nothing makes him happier.
There is one thing he likes more than a pat on the head, and that’s when Suni plays the guitar and sings for him. You can see his eyes fill with childlike wonder as he stares at her, completely transfixed, and it’s in this moment you realize that he’s falling in love.
It’s a strength that Song Joong-ki is able to portray these emotional beats without uttering a word—Chul-soo can understand Korean, but he can’t seem to speak any of it.
Chul-soo struggles to fit in and struggles to please, all while his bond with Suni grows. It’s adorable and sad to see him try to communicate using only what he’s been taught, like when he wants to reward Suni for playing the guitar by how she always rewards him—with a pat on the head. (So. Cute.)
All the cute can’t last forever, even as we get peeks into Chul-soo’s very inhuman traits like his superhuman resilience and strength. It’s only when Suni is threatened by Ji-tae that he loses control and morphs into his werewolf form for the first time in full in order to protect her, his transformation spurred by emotion and not anything genre-specific (like a full moon).
Chul-soo is less in control of himself while in his inherently-violent wolf form, but he’s stopped from killing Ji-tae by obeying Suni when she shakily commands him to wait.
It’s a relief that Suni’s not a wilting flower, since she’s not afraid of him even though she’s seen what he can become. But the encounter does put Chul-soo in an unwanted limelight with the town authorities (and on Ji-tae’s shit list, because who isn’t on that), which only works against him as he tries to do right, but keeps getting misinterpreted for doing wrong.
The story begins to sidestep later into the second act, as Ji-tae seeks to call official attention to Chul-soo in the hopes of getting rid of him. Through this process, Chul-soo’s origin story is revealed, and while I give it props for being unconventional from traditional werewolf canon, it starts to feel tangential when introduced so late in the game.
Mostly, it just didn’t seem all that important to find out exactly why Chul-soo is a werewolf, because that’s not what the story is about, nor do any of his personal developments hinge on that revelation. (A revelation he doesn’t even get to understand, since it’s not like anyone sits him down to tells him what’s happening.)
Another detriment to getting bogged down in the technicalities is that we inevitably realize that they’re not quite technical enough to explain what could’ve been just as easily passed off as just supernatural, and therefore mysterious. If you’re going to purposefully bring attention to his supernatural origins, you better hope that you’ve got your sense-making ducks in a row, ‘s all I’m sayin’.
But it serves as an excuse for the authorities to get involved, though it’s really Ji-tae who moves things into place during the second half, just because he’s crazy enough to take action without concern for consequence if it means killing Chul-soo. Why? Because he can, and because that moves the plot forward.
To say that he manages to break character when he was barely conceived to start with really says something, but it’s an inevitable feeling that overcame me as he started losing it toward the finale, since most of his actions had me going, “What? Seriously?” It’s tough, because I found myself liking the scenes that resulted as a consequence, even if I wasn’t as much a fan of how we got there.
Once the focus shifts back to Suni and Chul-soo, and how they’re directly affected by all of the above, we find our footing again, and not a moment too soon. It’s not to say that the movie derailed in any way, but it could have been leaner in some regards in order to focus more on the dynamic between our two star-crossed lovers, and less on the outside forces threatening to tear them apart. (If only because the outside forces weren’t that convincing or engaging in the first place.)
It’s there where the story shines, whether it’s solely due to the actors or the poignancy of their relationship, or even a mixture of all those factors rolled into one. For someone who’s as story-driven as I am, saying that a film makes up for its narrative shortcomings with something as unquantifiable as heart means a lot, and speaks to something special that can’t exactly be explained.
This all goes to say that A Werewolf Boy surprised me by gripping me emotionally even when I had reservations about the plot, so I’m kind of at a loss on how to deal reconcile that. Does an emotional stake actually elevate a movie like this, or does it just make us turn a blind eye to what didn’t work for us? I’m genuinely curious, especially in this case.
The reason why I wanted to mention the ending specifically is because it was, honestly, an incredibly moving and bittersweet bookend to a tale that is inherently tragic, yet one that didn’t dwell too long in its own misery. Thus, when the tragic moments hit, they hit you like a bus – starting from Chul-soo’s innocently misguided search for Suni’s guitar, as he wordlessly holds out the crude picture he’s drawn in place of a word he can’t say. Props to Song Joong-ki, because he kills it through the whole movie, but never more than in the final act.
I was sure that my heart couldn’t take any more after Suni abandons Chul-soo for his own good, causing him to say his first line of the entire film: “Don’t go.” Don’t go. That one line is immensely powerful because it’s said at just the right time, and is a testament to how far in this show set its emotional hooks—because as much as the mob-with-pitchforks angle bothered me in the second act, I found myself willing to forgive almost everything just because of how much Suni and Chul-soo’s emotions affected me during their farewell.
Throughout the story, Chul-soo displays his unwavering loyalty toward Suni in waiting eagerly for her without expecting anything in return but her affection. We know that he’s a byproduct of some military experiment gone wrong (made to produce super soldiers because wolves are so resilient, since I doubt the fact that wolves also mate for life was on the forefront of their priority list), but it’s not really said whether he’s immortal, or how long he’ll actually live.
That’s not important, since not much of his origin story is—all that really matters is that he doesn’t change on a fundamental level, and is loyal to Suni for life – which means that he waits for her for forty-seven years, his own face frozen in time, just because she’d left him a note that said: “Wait for me. I’ll come back for you.”
We don’t know why Suni never thought to return before, though the most likely scenario is that circumstances prevented her and she just… forgot. Which is why Park Bo-young’s tears (in the extended version, we see a vision of her as her teenage self, even though it’s the older version of her actually meeting Chul-soo) are honestly difficult to watch, since she’s registering the fact that for all the years that she lived her life to the fullest, Chul-soo was patiently waiting for the day she’d return like she promised, even learning to speak in the process just so he could do like she wanted and read her a book. He was loyal where she wasn’t, but you can’t hate her for living her life, either. Though it’d be an easier pill to swallow if she hadn’t left him a note instructing him to wait.
And so Chul-soo waited for forty-seven years—but even in the end, he doesn’t get the girl. He’s left alone, for an untold amount of years to come, unable to move on. One gets the sense that he’ll just keep waiting, for as long as he lives.
It’s one of the most horrendously tragic movie endings I’ve ever seen, especially in the absence of any real tragedy or death, which is a feat. Actually, it’s eerily reminiscent of how affected I was by the ending of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which also centered on the idea of a tragic hero waiting for eternity. (Come to think of it, A.I. also had a similar Forest Abandonment scene. Huh.)
At least Chul-soo and Suni were able to meet again, which adds a bittersweet layer to the tragedy of it all, even though it’s still harrowing to consider that nothing has changed or will ever change for Chul-soo. The movie has its merits and plenty of them, but this is the kind of ending that sticks with you and stays there when all the other details eventually fade away. And that sort of staying power is an A+ in every moviegoer’s book, mine willingly included.
NOT THE ENDING
The Bottom Line: A Werewolf Boy is an intensely moving and fantastical love story that’s earned its spot high on the shelf of mainstream acceptance, all while managing to separate itself from the pack by relying on pure and understated emotion, rather than slick tricks or commercial appeal, to drive the narrative forward. A worthy watch and then some, even if only for Song Joong-ki’s standout performance. 8/10.