As Last Child
opens, married couple Sung-chul and Mi-sook are lost in grief. Six months earlier, their only son died while jumping into a river trying to save a friend. The boy has been posthumously recognized as a hero, and his parents have decided to establish a scholarship in his name. But the emptiness left in his wake overwhelms them.
One day Sung-chul starts to ask after Gil-hyun, the boy who was saved by his son. (The Korean title of this film can be translated as, “The boy who was left alive”.) Gil-hyun has apparently dropped out of high school and vanished. But Sung-chul manages to track him down at a restaurant where he works making deliveries. Their conversation is almost unbearably awkward. Gil-hyun can hardly even look into the eyes of the father whose son died on his behalf. But we also see that Gil-hyun is desperate and completely alone in the world, with no parents of his own, and only a minimum-wage job to support himself. Sung-chul gives him his phone number and tells him to call if he ever needs help, though the boy just looks anxious to get away.
Some days later, however, Sung-chul’s phone rings in the middle of the night. Gil-hyun is at the police station, accused by his boss of stealing the restaurant’s motorbike. He insists he is innocent. Sung-chul pays for the bike and buys the boy some dinner, then on impulse – or perhaps it was already running through his mind? – he offers Gil-hyun a job at his small interior decorating company. The next day, without telling his wife, he starts teaching Gil-hyun how to apply wallpaper.
is a film you watch with your heart in your mouth pretty much all the way through. The three protagonists are all fragile and hurting in different ways, and each of them are driven forward by an unbearable pain and emptiness inside them. The question is, will being in each other’s presence help them to heal, or will it only intensify the pain?
Director Shin Dong-seok has rightly received a lot of attention for this, his debut feature. His directorial style is never flashy, and never distracts from the narrative, but he knows how to propel the story forward and maintain tension between the characters. The final scene seems to divide viewers, with some calling it the perfect ending, and others considering it the movie’s single weak point. But even those in the latter category have voiced praise for the work overall.
Choi Moo-seong, who plays the father Sung-chul, has appeared in close to 30 films since making his debut in 2005, but this is a rare case where he is given the opportunity to take a leading role. He has a somewhat intimidating screen presence, but he is also just as effective at showing compassion, and we see both sides of him in this role. Kim Yeo-jin, who plays the mother Mi-sook, first established herself with roles in Girls’ Night Out
(1998) and Peppermint Candy
(1999), and her years of experience translate into an unusually raw and touching performance. But the youngest among the leading actors is no less impressive. Seong Yu-bin, having started his career as a child actor, has a fair amount of acting experience himself, and it’s the combination of his vulnerability and our inability to read his thoughts, that most effectively pulls the audience into the film.
In the end, Last Child
is not so much about the process of recovering from trauma or family tragedy, as it is a clear-eyed portrayal of how complicated and intense human relationships can get under extreme circumstances. You can feel that the director is making a real effort to tell this story in an honest way, and that’s what gives the film its considerable impact.
Born in 1978, Shin Dong-seok studied film directing at the Korean National University of Arts. In the 2000s he directed numerous short films, including A Stirring Ripple
which won an Achievement Award at the 2005 Busan International Short Film Festival, and Gahee & B.H.
, which won two awards at the 2006 Mise-en-scene Genre Film Festival. His feature debut Last Child
premiered at the 2017 Busan International Film Festival, and also screened in the Forum section of the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival.
2017 – Last Child