K.T. Kwak, best known for helming all-time Korean B.O. champ “Friend,” lopes along a very different trail in “Mutt Boy,” a nose-in-the-trough dramedy centered on a son’s dysfunctional relationship with his father. Flavorsome dialogue, plus splendid performances by the two leads, make this an involving picture in the long run, though its strongly local flavor and rough, typically Korean sense of humor will limit its legs beyond the festival circuit. Film opened well locally July 16 and looks to do credible business overall.
In his five features to date, Kwak has proved a maverick in terms of subject matter, swinging from the anecdotal “Bath House: 3 p.m. Paradise” (1997) through the whimsical medical mystery “Dr. K” to the long-spanned gangster saga “Friend,” unquestionably his finest pic. “Mutt Boy” reps a return to form after last year’s squishy boxing biopic “Champion” — as well as a return to his favorite theme of social outsiders, set in the south of the country (near Busan) that’s been the setting for his best works.
Opening (like “Friend”) in the ’70s — an idealized time for many of South Korea’s current directors — film quickly limns how young Cha Cheol-min, the son of a local cop, got his nickname, befriending a dog in the police pound for want of any other company following his mom’s death. Later, at high school, he’s still followed around by the faithful mutt and, when the animal is killed and eaten by some youths in his soccer club, Cheol-min (Jeong Woo-seong) is only stopped from beating the main perp to a pulp by the appearance of his father, In-geun (Kim Kab-su).
Some years later, after having left school, Cheol-min is a shaggy-haired recluse with a rough tongue and slightly retarded air. Relations with his father are distant. And Cheol-min is further unsettled when dad brings home a young female pickpocket, Jeong-ae (Eom Ji-weon), a repeat offender with no parents.
Other forces conspire to pull Cheol-min toward a path of lawlessness. A local gang, hearing about his reputation of having beaten up 21 guys by himself, challenge him to a fight — which he wins with one punch. And when a corrupt businessman cheats the locals in a land development deal, Cheol-min is sucked into the resulting gang warfare — in which he’s pitted against the guy who originally killed his dog way back.
Carefully shot, though without the finessed lighting of “Friend” and “Champion,” the picture takes a while to pull its various threads together into a affecting whole, with the structure fairly anecdotal most of the way. Some sequences, like Cheol-min caught with his pants down in a burning whorehouse, play on the main character’s luggish charm, while his vague relationship with Jeong-ae is only sketchily drawn.
Helmer Kwak seems more at home when the fighting between rival gangs breaks out, climaxing in a knock-down, drag-out fight in the town jail that’s both blackly humorous and emotionally satisfying, segueing neatly into a moving scene between father and son.
Jeong, almost unrecognizable from his roles in “Phantom: The Submarine” and “Musa,” is good as the mop-haired Cheol-min, a country simpleton who’s least at ease with other human beings. But it’s Kim’s perf as the cop father that binds the movie together, providing a steady undercurrent of tough but caring parenthood as his son is swept up in a fight he only partly comprehends.
For the record, Korean title literally means “Shit Dog,” a term of both mild abuse and also of affection.