The increasing necessity and ensuing moral consequences of role-playing in everyday life are examined in Kim Jin-hwang’s first feature The Boys Who Cried Wolf, an intriguing but rather vague mystery in which an actor takes a break from sulking over the lackluster state of his career to solve a murder case. This was Kim’s dissertation project at the Korean Academy of Fine Arts (KAFA) with the writer-director also taking on editor and co-producer duties, but while it shows promise if taken as a student project, it feels underdeveloped when elevated to the festival stage alongside more fully realized works.
Stage actor Wan-ju (Park Jong-Hwan) is a struggling land a breakthrough role as director’s regularly pass him over in favor of other performers, either because he lacks the requisite presence or as a result of behind-the-scenes politics. However, he still manages to pay his rent through his craft by helping socially awkward individuals for a fee, such as single women who need a boyfriend when hanging out with their coupled friends or serving as a wingman for guys who have trouble when breaking the ice with the opposite sex. It’s a harmless enough way to make ends meet, at least until a murder is committed near his apartment and the victim’s mother hires the actor to pretend that he witnessed the crime in order to testify against the prime suspect. The fee offered for his services seems to justify the risk as it will help to cover his mother’s hospital bills, but Wan-ju comes to regret taking the money upon realising that his client is in fact an imposter and that the accused man may be innocent. Seeking to rectify the situation, he launches his own investigation into what the police consider to be an open-and-shut case.
The Boys Who Cried Wolf falls awkwardly between thriller and character study: Kim obviously likes genre tropes but is also striving to say something deeper about the nature of personal identity or how keeping up social appearances in Korea has led everyone to be an actor in some way. Adopting the procedural format as a method of social interrogation is a suitable way to align these interests but, unfortunately, Kim’s approach is so determinedly low-key that he never follows through with a clear statement or critique, meaning that we get a run of observations on the falseness of social interaction hung on a pedestrian noir plot. The story is told largely through Wan-ju’s isolated point of view, which would be fine if he was a more compelling protagonist but his general air of passivity leaves a gaping vacuum where there should be a sense of dogged determination to uncover the truth. One almost wishes for a clichéd voiceover in which the actor/amateur detective could ask, “What is my motivation?” Whether he wants to cover his back, see justice done, or is seeking to validate his existence in a world that stubbornly refuses to give him a break is never particularly clear.
Shooting in the winter months, Kim seems to be going for a sense of alienation throughout with scenes taking place in lonely streets or cramped, low-lit rooms. Aside from the brazenly cynical Myung-Woo (Cha Rae-Hyoung), who runs the agency that provides Wan-ju with his frustrated clients, almost all the characters speak in a hushed, dejected manner as they bemoan their respective unfulfilled life expectations or financial burdens. Although the film is commendably trim at 75 minutes, its attempt at sustained mood makes it drag towards its resolution. By the time Wan-ju is hearing revelations about the victim’s military service, he no longer seems interested in the mystery and is simply sticking with the case because he has nothing better to do (a situation that provides an illustrative parallel to the protagonist’s stalled acting career but nonetheless causes the mystery to wind down with a whimper).
The Busan Film Festival was sufficiently impressed with The Boys Who Cried Wolf to honor it with their Directors Guild Award, but it would be more realistic to say that the jury is out on Kim’s prospects for the time being.
The Boys Who Cried Wolf is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday July 9 at 2:15pm at the SVA Theatre. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.