The hokey conclusion turns what could have been a great movie into a good one, but if you can get past it Children is worth a watch.
Over the last decade, South Korean cinema has seen a sudden boom in quality. Their film industry has been churning out adult-oriented movies that combine a gorgeous, modern style with a more classical approach to storytelling. It’s a formula that’s been working well for South Korea, with their films making most of Hollywood’s output look outdated and boring in comparison. Children can be seen as an encapsulation of the kinds of films South Korea has been producing over the last ten years, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of one of more exciting countries making films today.
The film, which is based on a real case that’s still unsolved today, opens in1991 in the countryside village Daegu. Five young boys go off to play together and are never seen again. After the brief opening setting things up the movie flashes forward several years and focuses on Kang Ji-seung (Park Yong-woo), a documentary producer who just got caught manipulating facts in his most recent film. His bosses demote him to Daegu, where Kang notices that everyone in the village is still fixated on the whereabouts of the missing children. Kang starts going through old tapes and comes across unused footage of a professor (Ryoo Seung-wong) who controversially claims that one of the parents might be responsible for the deaths of the missing children. Kang sees this as a way to earn back his reputation, and within no time the two of them start investigating.
It’s in this first hour where Children is the most captivating. The film, shot beautifully with a dated look for its setting in the 90s, goes through the familiar patterns of a mystery film at a breakneck pace. Director and co-writer Lee Kyoo-man was obviously drawn to the case of the missing boys because of how intriguing their disappearance is, and he’s smart enough to let that key question be the driving force of the film. Park Yong-woo, who has to be rude and self-centered for most of the film, gives Kang enough depth to make him a likable character.
As the film keeps moving ahead in the years the story begins to veer off-course from the facts for a more dramatic conclusion. It’s at this point when the resemblances to Memories of Murder and Zodiac become more obvious, much to the film’s detriment. Children’s more grounded fact-based approach gives way to soapy melodrama, leading to a climactic fight scene that feels preposterous. Adding insult to injury is the weepy epilogue ending on a scene with the five children that would feel more at place in a Hallmark movie. Other than a well-done scene with one of the children’s parents that answers a key question about the investigation, the final act of Children comes close to tanking the entire film with its maudlin approach.
Luckily the strength of the film beforehand keeps things afloat. For the majority of the running time Children is a great crime thriller that doesn’t miss a beat. The hokey conclusion turns what could have been a great movie into a good one, but if you can get past it Children is worth a watch.