Twilight has always been something of an oddity. With its stilted dialogue, thin characterisation and appalling example of how to conduct a relationship, it’s a mystery how it became an international box office hit. Even more mystifying is why an extraordinary film like Neuk-dae-so-nyeon (A Werewolf Boy to Western audiences), which addressed all the same themes with gravity and nuance, managed to fly under the radar.
To be fair, there were several factors working against it. Being a subtitled film probably didn’t help it break into the Western market and neither did the fact it was released right on the heels of the final instalment of the Twilight saga, at a time when audiences were tiring of supernatural romance. Despite being a smash hit in Korea, its country of origin, this film never reached quite the same levels of international recognition it deserved.
The film is divided between past and present. In the present, the elderly Kim Sun-yi (Lee Yeong-ran) visits the country cottage she lived in as a young woman. In the past, her younger self (Park Bo-yeong) encounters the mute wild boy Chul-soo (Song Joong-Ki) who is taken in by her kind-hearted mother. Initially unimpressed by the newcomer, Sun-yi gradually develops a rapport with Chul-soo until their developing relationship is threatened by a supernatural secret even Chul-soo does not know he possesses.
The gentle shifts between past and present lend a tragic sense of inevitability to events. In the hands of a lesser creator, this would have removed any sense of investment in an already predetermined outcome. But all credit to director and writer Jo Sung-hee, he makes the audience care for these lovingly rendered characters with a tenderness that embraces humanity as something precious.
Particular praise should go to the performance of Joong-ki, who brings to life the gentleness and devotion of Chul-soo without saying a word. His bewilderment when faced with the puzzling enigma of human behaviour is by turns heart-rending and hilarious. His relationship with Sun-yi, the real heart of the film, is naturally developed and beautifully acted. You never for a moment doubt why these characters are together, or why they care for one another.
It is this exquisite characterisation that elevates A Werewolf Boy above Twilight. This isn’t the story of a girl falling in love with a supernatural being. This is the story of a girl falling in love with a boy who happens to be a supernatural being. Consequently when the relationship falls apart, it hurts far more than watching two beautiful, bland idiots attempt to explain why they can’t be together.
Another important distinction lies in the films’ depiction of the supernatural. For all Edward Cullen’s wangsting, it’s Chul-soo that follows through on the heart-rending tragedy of a boy exiled from humanity. The cold, barren darkness of the forest strikes a stark contrast with the warm cosiness of the family home and the interfering generosity of kindly neighbours. In this film, humanity isn’t something to be casually discarded in the pursuit of something better; it is as essential as breathing. Appropriately, despite Sun-yi’s and Chul-soo’s doomed romance, the real triumph is Chul-soo’s journey toward being human.
Comparing these films, one can’t help the feeling the director looked at Twilight and deliberately set out to show it up. If so, he succeeded magnificently. A Werewolf Boy is a beautiful piece of film-making that demonstrates supernatural romance can be taken seriously as a genre. It is available on DVD but remains somewhat difficult to find, which is a real shame. This is one film that deserves so much better than to be relegated to obscurity.