Review: Kwak Ji-kyun’s “Portrait of Youth”

This film is about one man’s long journey, often across snowy roads and sometimes near death, to enlightenment and self-awareness. However, the English title Portrait of Youth points to what this film truly is, which is a larger portrait of a turbulent period and the responses of young people towards it. Young-hoon (Jong Bo-seok), the protagonist, at the film’s outset has returned to his family home, and to his brother, who is disappointed with him for dropping out of high school. He gives Young-hoon his share of their deceased mother’s inheritance, and sends him on his way, as Young-hoon promises to pass his college entrance examination. “You are the hope of our family,” his brother tells him. No pressure there. Young-hoon goes through the grueling process of working menial jobs to put himself through school. He chooses to major in Korean literature, and aspires to be a poet. However, his lofty ideals run afoul with the tenor of life on campus, which is roiled with conflict, due to the massive student protests going on at the time. In one scene, he is taken to task by the leader of the student movement for writing an article in the school newspaper criticizing activists for denigrating literature in favor of rigidly doctrinaire ideology. His girlfriend Hae-yeon (Ok So-ri) is a French literature major, and their relationship is going well at first, but Young-hoon’s internal confusion soon wrecks things, as he begins to see everything in terms of class conflict as much as the student activists do, criticizing Hae-yeon and her friends for failing to be more conscious of the plight of the lower classes.
Young-hoon’s confusion and despair grows as he witnesses the deaths of two of his friends as a direct result of the protests, and the authorities’ predictably repressive response to them. The campus is shut down, and Yong-hoon takes to the road, carrying a bottle of poison in his pocket. All throughout the film, Yong-hoon is haunted by the memories of his unrequited first love Jung-nim (Lee Hye-sook), dreaming of her often. Yong-hoon arrives at a village, where he works in a brothel, and is drawn to one of the prostitutes, Miss Yoon (Bae Jong-ok). He also meets a mysterious knife-sharpener. Both of them have tragic and complicated pasts, which are revealed as circumstances compel all three to become traveling companions on the harsh, snowy roads.
The film is beautifully shot, with careful attention paid to natural surroundings – lush cherry blossom groves, snowy mountains, rocky and rugged terrain – and how they mirror the psychological states of the many characters we are introduced to in this film, which is essentially a road movie, a very common narrative mode in Korean cinema. The clear and powerful message this movie sends is that life is always worth living, despite tragedy, despite “chaos and confusion,” as Young-hoon describes events in his running voiceover. The core of the human spirit is to carry on in spite of everything, and, as Young-hoon learns, it is not necessary to have all of life’s answers to survive.