Yeong-jae (Choi Wooshik) is seventeen, and he's not actually an orphan. His parents, though they now live separately, are alive and well and Yeong-jae even has a younger brother who idolizes him. To most people this doesn't sound like the kind of familial situation that necessitates Yeong-jae live in a group home. But what's worse than that is Yeong-jae himself knows this, and as part of his constant urge to survive, he plays up his repentance and fear at every possible opportunity to keep from getting kicked out.
Note that I didn't write try to be a good person. Hey, you try being a seventeen-year-old with no role models, no apparent moral compass, and a whole bunch of adults who would clearly much rather deal with an unusually cooperative kid than one of the bad ones who lashes out violently any time he gets pushed just a little too far. Yeong-jae is in a lousy situation and there's no one he can talk to aside from God. And God doesn't talk back.
"Set Me Free" isn't...well...it's not really an uplifting story so much as it just taps into the frustration of youth. For writer/director Kim Tae-yong-I, it's a pretty clear exploration of his own childhood issues growing up in the same system. Given that he just made a film that won the Citizen Critics' Award at Busan, it would be very easy to romanticize his life as a learning experience. And yet even in "Set Me Free" the ending is a bleak one. Yeong-jae will probably survive it, may well come out ahead in the end. But facing the unknown is not a pleasant thing in the immediate sense.
It's very easy to romanticize children, and particularly in low birthrate countries like South Korea, to insist that any new member of the younger generation is a blessing. It's quite a bit more difficult to reconcile that with the simple fact that many of the adults in "Set Me Free" have absolutely no idea what they're doing. They're not terrible people or anything, but that's of absolutely no comfort to Yeong-jae, whose survivalist thinking has taken a horribly warped turn.
The real problem, though, is that it's hard to imagine any way this situation could not have ended up going distressingly bad. It would be easy to read "Set Me Free" as an anti-religious message, given how much focus there is on Yeong-jae's attempts to enter into the seminary, but let's be honest here. If he'd gone to a group home managed by secularists the focus would just be on going to college instead. Let's not pretend that's going to solve all his problems in this day and age.
All of this probably makes "Set Me Free" sound like a pretty bleak film, and from a plot standpoint no, there's not really that much to get cheerfully excited about. But principally, this is simply the story of Yeong-jae's humanity. Even when he finally ends up snapping, the situation is a basically sympathetic one. Yes, Yeong-jae's attitude is what provoked the situation and yes, at this rate, he's not going to grow up to be a good person. But for all that, he's still no monster.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Busan International Film Festival Movie Review] "Set Me Free""
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