Dir: Kwak Kyung-Taek. Korea. 2003. 101 mins.

Not quite slice-of-life drama, nor exactly a coming-of-age tale, Mutt Boy is a finely-crafted, but ultimately unfulfilling, chunk-of-growing-up-in-contemporary-Korea story by one of the country's most skilled directors, KT Kwak. Though it shares elements with them, Mutt Boy is drawn on a smaller scale than Kwak's two previous films; the sensational gangster drama Friends and last year's Champion, a Korean Raging Bull. The former was a box-office record breaker, the latter in comparison a modest flop. Kwak has guaranteed maximum local attention for Mutt Boy by casting good-looking high-flier Jung Woo-sung (Musa) against type, while distributor-financier ShowEast did a fine job of achieving blanket media coverage: so far it has registered 90,000 admissions from 39 prints to rack up $3.4m in its first five days. But export potential is likely to be limited by the narrow focus of Kwak's story and the picture's relentlessly grungy feel.

The film takes its title from the lead character, an uneasy and unpolished, but basically well-meaning, youth whose pooch is dognapped and eaten by a bunch of his classmates. Having adopted this hound as his soul-mate, "Mutt Boy" is spun by this event into a downward spiral of school drop-outs, friendless-longing and casual violence.

The relationship between semi-feral Mutt Boy and his widowed father (Kim) is cool, bordering on estrangement. As the son gains a reputation as a successful street-fighter, the father, a local police inspector, is repeatedly called on to break up his son's scraps and cart him off into custody. At home, his father installs a girl-pickpocket (newcomer, Eom) who is neither lover, nor sister but ultimately comes to be trusted by Mutt Boy. She provides the occasional moment of light relief and female colour, but is not central enough to stop this being anything other than a boys' film.

The fighting becomes more brutal as Mutt Boy and his pack stand up to a gang, which is taking over plots of land belonging to smallholders. It culminates in the film's best scene, a painfully drawn-out prison fight. One-on-one to minimise bloodshed and presided over by a prison guard, the gladiatorial experience is filmed in near-monochrome fashion and exhausting detail. Its climax is a moment of wonderful bathos.

Meanwhile, the father, who has been pursuing a crooked businessman allied with the defeated gang, also triumphs. But, while the final scenes provide more explanation for the distance between father and son, the separate homeward journeys of father, son and pickpocket scarcely give the impression that these issues are now resolved. Happily ever after is simply not on Kwak's menu.

Prod cos: Jininsa Films, Show East
South Kor dist:
Show East
Int'l sales:
Cineclick Asia
Exec prod:
Kim Dong-joo
Jeong Jong-seob
Kim Chang-Woo, Kwak Kyung-Taek
Hwang Ki-Seok
Yun Min-Hwa
Main cast:
Jung Woo-Sung, Kim Kab-su, Eom Ji-won