There is something supernatural about love. It’s an inexplicable sensation that draws one person to another and creates a sense of intimate belonging. The younger the love, the more powerful and otherworldly it can seem. Perhaps that is why there are so many paranormal-based love stories these days? It’s hard to escape the trend right now be it vampires (TWILIGHT, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES) ghosts (AN AMERICAN HORROR STORY) or even zombies (next year’s WARM BODIES). Still, it works best when you remove all the frills and focus on the unrequited suffering of youth. That is the approach of Jo Sung-hee’s A WEREWOLF BOY. The Korean film is a nostalgic reflection on long lost puppy love. It’s especially poignant in this case because one of the pair is, in many ways, literally a puppy.
A WEREWOLF BOY begins in present day when Suni-Kim (Li Young-Ian), an aged Korean woman living in America, receives a mysterious phone call that lures her back to her homeland. The proper grandmother seems sad, but relieved to revisit the farmhouse she briefly lived in as a girl. The rest of A WEREWOLF BOY is a flashback to those adolescent days 47 years ago. Young Suni (Park Bo-young) is an isolated and willful teenager. Her father has recently passed away and because of an illness in her lungs, her mother (Jang Young-nam) has moved their family out of Seoul to the clean air of the country. The previous owner of the farm was a scientist who used the barn for weird experiments on wolves and coyotes. The girl is unimpressed with her new home.
One night, Suni is drawn to the cries of an animal in the barn when a monstrous wolf suddenly attacks her. The next day, the family finds a young feral boy (Song Joong-ki) who cannot speak hiding on the grounds. Assuming that he must be an orphan from the war, they decide to look after him for a time rather than leaving him to the grim realities of post-war Korea’s orphanage system. They name him Chul-soo and Suni’s initial resentment for his crude demeanor gives way to fascination. Using a manual she discovers for training dogs, she grooms and domesticates the boy. The two develop an unlikely friendship that may grow into something more. But soon, outside forces threaten to pull them apart…especially when Suni learns Chul-soo has a hairy, dark side.
A WEREWOLF BOY is a light amalgamation of tropes. More LET THE RIGHT ONE IN meets WHITE FANG than TWILIGHT, the movie is a romantic comedy of manners for most of its running time. A WEREWOLF BOY’S wolfish Mowgli is oblivious to all the customs surrounding him. He struggles with every new activity, including playing baseball and sleeping in a bed. When dinner is served, his first instinct is to rush the table and devour all food in sight. It is up to Suni to teach him to be a human and slowly improve him. This fish-out-of-water scenario can lead to humorous scenes like when Suni instructs the boy to wait for her command before he consumes a piece of bread. A WEREWOLF BOY walks the line very closely between being a romance and becoming the story of a girl and her pet. Yet, the romance works throughout the film. Both Joong-ki and Bo-young are very believable in finding empathy as the most unlikely pair of star-crossed lovers in theatres this year. When the stakes are raised and they are torn apart, it is the agonizing longing both convey that keeps A WEREWOLF BOY afloat.
What threatens to tip the picture over is a tiresome subplot centered on Suni’s obnoxious would-be suitor, Ji-tae (Yoo Yeon-seok). The character is written with all the nuance and subtlety of the bad guys in any John Hughes movie ever made. For some obligatory reason, Ji-tae has decided that he will one day marry Suni and no one else. For that contrivance, he ensures that Suni’s mother can live on the land that his father bought and harasses them almost daily after they move in. When he discovers a wild orphan who cannot speak has more charm and romantic allure than his entitled smugness, he looks for countless ways to bring the couple down and to rid himself of Chul-soo. Little does he know that his rival has more bite than he could have predicted.
It is hardly a spoiler to say that Chul-soo at certain points in A WEREWOLF BOY turns into a werewolf. However, while quite dramatic, he is not really a total creature of horror. Created as the result of a vague wartime government conspiracy gone wrong, Chul-soo’s changes are not dictated by lunar activity. When transformed, Chul-soo resembles more a cross between a wolfish Billy Idol and Super Saiyan Goku than any type of wolfman to come out of Hollywood as of late. Despite a somewhat silly appearance, the monster makes for an intimidating presence and an unlikely hero when angered.
A WEREWOLF BOY has a lot of plot threads going on: Lycanthrope revelations; government conspiracies; romantic triangles; and metaphors for lost love. It also tries to switch gears between sweet romance, supernatural suspense and familial comedy far too often. Yet, what works best about A WEREWOLF BOY is the simple and endearing romance of Suni and Chul-soo. When the story is focused on that pairing or its context in an older Suni’s life, the movie works quite well for what it is. But the plot machinations that the rest of the picture uses to push the story along are a bit dry and silly at times for this reviewer. Even so, I see the appeal of the story and enjoyed watching it. For its intended audience, A WEREWOLF BOY will be a howling good time and is certainly more emotionally involving than any breaking dawns still in theatres this month.
Den of Geek Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars