A cinematic mongrel that defies genre conventions, “A Werewolf Boy” leaps from one conceptual plane to another. Starting with the discovery and domestication of a feral boy in the woods, it develops into a coming-of-age romance, then into a sci-fi thriller and supernatural fantasy, resulting in a strange but undeniably imaginative blend of fey sweetness, psychosexual nuance and dark allegory informed by contempo Korean history. Asian tween auds will be enchanted by helmer-scribe Jo Sung-hee’s storybook visuals and whimsical incorporation of elements from “Twilight” and “Hanna.” Crix and fest programmers will be either intrigued or bemused.
The narrative is bookended by scenes of the protag, Suni Kim (Li Young-lan), a Korean-American immigrant who has returned to South Korea in her old age. Spending a night at her old country house with her granddaughter, Eun-ju (Park Bo-young), Suni recalls how 47 years ago, her ill health necessitated the move from Seoul with her widowed mother (Jang Young-nam) and sister Sun-ja (Kim Hyang-gi).
The film filters these events through Suni’s subjective memory, imbuing the story with a magic-realist touch. Flashbacks show the Kims living in genteel poverty at the mercy of their arrogant and foppish landlord, Tae-sik (Yoo Yeon-seok). One night, Suni (played as a teenager by Park) glimpses a shadow in the stable; the next day, she discovers a raggedly lad (Song Joong-ki) of about 19 crouching in their yard. Even though he behaves like a wild beast, Suni’s kindhearted mother adopts him and names him Cheol-su, assuming he’s one of more than 60,000 children orphaned in the Korean War.
At first Suni considers him a nuisance, but eventually has fun taming him according to a dog-training manual. Cheol-su demonstrates unswerving loyalty and superhuman brawn, thus inspiring the envy of Tae-sik, who lusts after Suni.
The early scenes, in which the Kim sisters frolic with their playmates and turn Cheol-su into their pet, played against a beautiful pastoral landscape, maintain an ambivalent perspective that reflects the helmer’s arthouse roots. The film shifts freely between a serious exploration of the clash between nature and socialization, a la Francois Truffaut’s “The Wild Child,” and a playful Korean appropriation of classic children’s stories such as “The Call of the Wild” or “Black Beauty,” where Cheol-su’s role is interchangeable with that of a husky or a horse.
Just when a tender romance takes shape as Cheol-su becomes more humanized, the story suddenly changes course to delve into Cold War espionage and genetic engineering. As the pace quickens into that of a taut thriller, Cheol-su’s character gains complexity as a symbol of repressed animalism unleashed by war. The poetic, open-ended epilogue takes off into another dimension where dreams, hallucinations and parallel universes coexist.
Thanks to the screenplay’s determined flouting of narrative expectations, “A Werewolf Boy” is continually fascinating, but it could benefit from a tighter structure and some trims in the second and third acts.
The casting of Song and Park may rope in young auds, but the ultra-popular leads don’t push the boundaries of commercial thesping. Park’s demure innocence reps a regression from her spunky single-mom role in her breakout triumph, “Scandal Makers,” while Song’s image should be more threatening. Most absurd is the stock villainy of Yoo’s Tae-sik, who huffs and puffs like the Big Bad Wolf.
Tech package is ravishing, with Choi Sang-muk’s softly filtered, romantically lit widescreen lensing accentuating the beauty of Korea’s four seasons, while Laura Ashley-inspired costumes and furnishings instill a dreamlike, fairy-tale quality.