SET ME FREE (2014)
Choi Woo-shik excels in a restrained take on the difficulties of life in a group home as a teen faces expulsion back to his troubled father
Independent cinema’s ability to view into the cracks of society and shed light on its trapped souls takes us to the group home – a residence for children unable to live with their parents.
To take nothing from the importance of such homes – or the dedication of those that work within them – Set Me Free still offers a candid view of the emotional torment that some children face.
We move beyond the notion of children here though and that is exactly the issue for high school student Yeong-jae (Choi Woo-shik – Secretly, Greatly) who has outgrown his group home, Isaac’s Home.
While he spent his childhood there, the 16-year old must now return to his alcoholic father and younger brother. Desperate to avoid this fate, Yeong-jae tries to tap into the religiousness of the home and claims to be eyeing a career as a priest which would lead him to a Catholic boarding school instead.
Despite this pious aim, he is indifferent to religion and steals trainers from donated goods, selling them at school. Yeong-jae attends mass and attempts to persuade the church of his legitimate faith. He attempts to juggle this life of crime and potential priesthood before his time runs out at Isaac’s Home.
During his ruse, he is paired up with Yoon-mi (Park Joo-Hee) to help with his religious studies. There is a particularly poignant scene where they visit Yoon-mi’s mother (Park Myung-shin) at her restaurant. There is a connection between Yoon-mi and her mother that Yeong-jae can only observe with yearning. A playful teasing that comes with the type of close relationship that Yeong-jae has never experienced from his reckless father, distance mother, or adopted carers.
Yeong-jae is suffering the ‘inbetweener’ challenges of being a young man with some autonomy, without quite having full adult status. While that can be a tricky stage for everyone, Yeong-jae is having to spend his days plotting and lying for a fate that is, at best, the least worst option to him.
The film is no explosion of dramatic intent. It treats these delicate issues at its own pace. What accelerates its impact is instead a series of believable performances, most prominently from Choi Woo-shik who shines as the troubled Yeong-jae. It is that central performance which takes a solid indie outing into more profound waters.
It is a work where the pain of the protagonist throbs with almost every scene. Where a child has been rejected by a parent, only for such harshness to be returned from the teen at a later date.
The camera craft from Kim Tae-yong focuses on the up-close angles of a handheld camera, allowing us to shake and rattle with Yeong-jae in his tough and at times helpless situation. A fine platform for Choi Woo-shik's emotional performance.