Publicity Stills of "When I Turn 9"
(Courtesy from Cathay-Keris Films)

Genre: Drama
Director: YUN In-ho
Starring: KIM Suk, LEE See-young, KIM Myung-jae, NAH A-hyun
RunTime: -
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films (Exclusively at Cathay Orchard Cineplex)
Rating: PG

Opening Day: 15 September 2005


Yeo-min is a matured and thoughtful 9 year old boy who lives in a small mountain village. Even at his young age, he has too many things to take care of. First, he has to protect his friends from the neighborhood bully Black Bird and keep peace in his neighborhood. Second, he must share his lunch with his best friend Ki-jong who lives alone with his sister. And, third, he has to sell ice cream bars after school to save enough money to buy a pair of sunglasses for his mother who injured her eye while working at a factory. He is a good son to his parents and a loyal friend to his buddies. He does well in spelling tests and has completely memorized the multiplication table. He is a nine year old boy who thinks he knows everything he needs to know about the world he lives in. Until...

Movie Review:

A movie starring children as its protagonists is more often than not, a crowd-pleaser. Remember the hilarious The School of Rock (2003) from Hollywood and the charming Millions (2004) from UK? In Asia, we have nostalgic My Girl (2003) from Thailand and the heartbreaking Nobody Knows (2004) from Japan. So when a coming-of-age Korean movie like this comes along, you know things will not go too wrong.

Like most movies about kids, this one has an uncomplicated plot. Set in a small village during the 70s, it tells the story of nine-year-old Yeo-min (played by the endearing Kim Seok), who studies at an elementary school there. Although he is only a young boy, he has to deal with many adult issues. There is the school bully he needs to protect his friends from. There are the jobs after school so that he can earn enough money to buy a pair of sunglasses for his one-eyed mother. Then there is the new haughty girl in class whom he takes a fancy for. The burden a nine-year-old has to take before growing up, you say.

Based on a 1991 bestselling novel, the movie version was released in Korea last year. There are no roller coaster ups and downs in this movie. Everything moves along steadily, which is why this small movie may not be your cup of tea if you are looking for an exciting night out in the cinema.

Although Kim may not be the most adorable boy at first glance, he carries his role of the tough young kid very well. At the end of the movie, you realize how this boy matures in character. His love interest is played by 14-year-old Lee Se-young, who can also be seen in the wildly popular Korean drama series A Jewel in the Palace. She plays her spoilt character with vulnerability, and you do not know whether to loathe or pity her.

But the kid who truly steals the show is Na Ah-hyeon, brilliantly cast as Yeo-min’s good friend who becomes jealous when he falls in love with the new girl. Na’s strangely amusing bob hair and cute pout make her a joy to watch.

What a pity it is then, that the lovable cast of kids is not enough to save the glaring lack of focus of this movie. As the 105 minutes plod along, there seems to be odd insertions of unnecessary characters and storylines. There is a strange man who spouts philosophical lines. There is an alcoholic who abuses his wife whenever he is drunk. There is a piano teacher who, well, just sits there and plays the piano. These characters neither add colour nor depth to the story. Without these distractions, more emphasis could have been given to Yeo-min’s rather touch-and-go relationships with his teacher, friends and family.

This drawback is otherwise salvaged by the movie’s simple cinematography art direction. Simple and elegant, the overall feel of the movie does not boast of fancy and attention-grabbing techniques like Hollywood blockbusters. Korea’s scenic countryside is also beautifully captured as the backdrop of this film. Which nine-year-old in Singapore has experienced this calm and serene feeling, given the concrete primary schools they go to?

Straightforward and without pretence, the movie is still enough to capture your heart with its innocence and heartfelt emotions. The themes dealt are nothing new or innovative, but they are also something we can relate to universally. After all, half the battle is already won the moment the filmmakers decide to make this movie about kids.

Movie Rating:

(Another entry to the list of crowd-pleasing movie about kids)

Review by John Li


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