While on probation, Ji-gu (Seo Young-ju) is somewhat duped into taking part in a home burglary having been told that the house in question is owned by one of his friend's relatives. When the owner of the property returns home mid-crime, Ji-gu and his compatriots hurriedly make their escape but are nonetheless rounded up by police and subsequently charged with breaking and entering. As a result of having been convicted before; breaking the terms of his probation; and having no known relatives or guardian save for his sickly grandfather who is virtually bedridden, Ji-gu is sentenced to a lengthy term of incarceration in a youth detention centre; a sentence that will also take him away from Sae-rom (Jeon Ye-jin), the young girl with whom he has fallen in love and recently started a relationship.
Eleven months of Ji-gu’s incarceration pass at which point he is informed that his grandfather has passed away but after attending the funeral (under close guard) he is called into the superintendent's office to be informed that his mother, Hyo-seung (Lee Jeong-hyeon), has been found and is waiting to not only meet him but also take on the role of his guardian on his imminent release.
With no memory of the woman and having been completely unaware that she was even still alive, Ji-gu is understandably apprehensive about the entire situation and far too gun shy to allow himself to hope that his life might finally be changing for the better. However, change it does... and in more ways than Ji-gu, Hyo-seung or indeed Sae-rom could ever have imagined...
On one level, 'Juvenile Offender' sits perfectly between ever popular Korean cinema depictions of disaffected youth and critiques focused on those who for one reason or another find themselves on the very edge of ‘normal’ society - whether largely ignored by the system as a whole; treated and/or dealt with as either unnecessary burdens on communities to be quietly swept under the carpet as quickly as possible; or seen as societal pariahs to be shunned by the populous in general, even leading to their ostracisation by 'normal' individuals/family members deeming their life choices (or lack thereof) to be unacceptable.
However, as part and parcel of this overarching social commentary director Kang Yi-kwan not only subtly details these issues from individual character perspectives - as cause and effect of their current and ongoing situations – but also deftly shows the past actions of one almost defining the current belief system of another, cascading into that individual's current interactions and relationships (and thereby affecting all involved) as a direct result of psychological scars that have refused to heal.
Social ills are referenced right from the first line of dialogue in the very first scene of ‘Juvenile Offender’ – a short segment showing Ji-gu and Sae-rom alone together in a dimly lit room, tentatively opening up about themselves and stating their feelings of affection towards each other before taking their newfound love to bed – with Sae-rom pointing out in a matter of fact manner that she was rather an unwanted child until her parents divorced at which point she became the subject of their fighting, being subsequently shunted around from one family member to another as each tired of the responsibilities of taking care of a child.
These references not only continue through the court case of the boys charged with burglary – one having gone off the rails because his mother has constantly to work until after midnight (i.e.: never being around at home); another committing crimes as rebellion against a violent father who has been repeatedly beating him; and Ji-gu, with no mother to keep him on the straight and narrow, having had to grow up all too quickly and undertake sometimes unlawful actions just to financially survive – but also permeate Ji-gu’s attempts to build a bond with his mother and rekindle his relationship with Sae-rom after his release from detention.
Not only that but they play a part in the women’s individual stories, too, subtly (yet increasingly) stressing the idea that blame can never truly be attributed to one individual without taking into consideration needs, lack of choice, necessity, the actions of others, and/or social/moral conventions and prejudices, in the process. The similarities between Sae-rom’s situation while Ji-gu is incarcerated (alone, pregnant, ostracised by her family and as such having had any semblance of choice stripped away) and what Hyo-seung faced when pregnant with Ji-gu underline this yet further and allow a noticeable implication that a social framework in which prejudices and moral ideas remain unchanged can almost be guaranteed to cause history to repeat itself, generation after generation, and in effect continue to create the very segment of society it sees as such a problem.
Ultimately, it is Ji-gu’s realisation that he and his mother are incredibly alike that alone pushes his utter determination to make different choices to those she made in the past and thereby (hopefully) ensure things are different for Sae-rom, their relationship and their child in the future than they were for Hyo-seung, Ji-gu's (unknown) father and himself in the past.
While the above social commentary and critique is undeniably hard-hitting, director Kang Yi-kwan perfectly places it all within an almost archetypal romantic melodrama narrative - both in terms of his on/off relationship with Sae-rom in the wake of her pregnancy and his gradual bonding with the mother he never knew he had – adding a warmth and noticeable feeling of caring between the characters within Ji-gu’s desperate efforts to ensure he does not make the same mistakes as his parents; his desire to be understood and to be seen to be doing the right thing by both Sae-rom and Hyo-seung; and his subconscious yearning for love.
Not only that, but on several occasions (to different individuals) Ji-gu states “Can’t you forgive me, just this once?” and, to my mind, with that dialogue 'mantra' director Kang Yi-kwan is resolutely stating the need for at least some understanding and forgiveness to be given to those whose desperate actions come within a society that has left them little choice.
Cast (Character... Actor/Actress):
Ji-gu... Seo Young-ju
Hyo-seung... Lee Jeong-hyeon
Sae-rom... Jeon Ye-jin
Ji-yeong... Kang Rae-yeon
As a final note, you can also read the Hangul Celluloid 2014 individual interview with actor Seo Young-ju (discussing his career, including 'Juvenile Offender') at: http://www.hangulcelluloid.com/seoyoungjuinterview.html
On one level, 'Juvenile Offender' sits perfectly between ever popular Korean cinema depictions of disaffected youth and critiques focused on those who for one reason or another find themselves on the very edge of ‘normal’ society; on another, it stands as an almost archetypal romantic melodrama narrative. As such, ‘Juvenile Offender’ is ultimately as warm, caring, affectionate and affecting as it is gritty, hard-hitting and socially aware.