Grief and guilt get a thorough review in Shin Dong-seok’s debut film Last Child, one of three Korean films competing in this year’s New Currents competition in Busan. A trio of powerful performances ground this emotionally gritty tale and lure us into a complex web of suffering but while the director for the most part avoids the overly depressing aura of similar stories, a shoddy climax undermines the measured work that precedes it.
A middle-aged couple who run a small interior decorating business are grieving the tragic loss of their son Eun-chan, who perished six months ago while saving his friend from drowning in a river. The husband takes an interest in helping Gi-hyun, the boy who was saved, eventually offering him work in the business, and his wife, though initially reluctant, also comes to embrace him. But one day, unable to keep up a lie any longer, Gi-hyun reveals what really happened that day by the river.
It seems to be no accident that Eun-chan’s parents run an interior decorating business, and as the sheets of wallpaper are slicked onto the walls of cheap apartments, one gets a sense that they’re pasting over the pain of their past as they try to rebuild a new life. They eventually attempt to ‘redecorate’ with Gi-hyun, but just as wallpaper can only cover things up, their son’s friend can never replace him. The different between their business and their predicament is that the former tears layers away before replacing them while their lives undergo the reverse process, as the new quasi-family they create is suddenly ripped apart, for the whole world to see.
As the stoic patriarch, Choi Moo-sung wears his character’s pain like a laden jacket that pulls him down into a perpetually hulking slouch. Much like his scene-stealing role in Snow Paths last year, the performer exudes an intense combination of power and vulnerability. Kim Yeo-jin is also excellent as the wife, delivering one of her best parts since Vegetarian. The grieving mother who internalizes all her suffering is hardly a novel creation in Korean cinema, but Kim is effortless and affecting in the role.
Song Yoo-bin, as the young Gi-hyun, has the least outwardly expressive part, but given the performer’s age and the depth of the subject it’s an equally impressive turn for an experienced young actor (he’s already starred in 15 films) who keeps getting better.
Director Shin explores some very painful subject matter in his debut, but unlike the similarly glum stories that tend to pop in the Korean indie scene, he tries to hold back from emotional extremes by not forcing empathy on spectators. The film avoids feeling contrived and in fact feels all too real, almost to a painful degree as the characters and the well of their pain gradually come into extremely sharp focus.
The quiet power of the story steadily builds until the final 25 minutes, when society shows its true colors (pitch black, of course), and the heartlessness of the community that surrounds them begins to engulf the parents. Finally, reality makes way for wish fulfillment as the narrative takes a dive in its final moments. It doesn’t sink the film but the questionable choices Shin makes as he tries to wrap up his story don’t add to the fascinating moral issues and character work that had marked the film up until that point.