“The Karate Kid” Meets “Good Will Hunting”
Callow, nerdy math student at prestigious high school meets irascible, slovenly night watchman and janitor. “In Our Prime,” for the most part, has the look and feel of a film we’ve seen before. But that understates its appeal. Park Dong-hoon’s engaging and deceptively compelling tale deftly explores the struggle for rapprochement between the protagonists of the story: Han Ji-Woo (Kim Dong-hwi), the math student at the highly competitive South Korean Donghun Academy, and Lee Hak-Sung (Choi Min-sik), the watchman and janitor.
The word “rapprochement”—a coming together—is usually used with regard to foreign relations, as in “the possibility of rapprochement between the two countries seems unlikely.” But it’s also one of film’s most common themes: two people—separate, different, at odds, seemingly lacking in the essentials of commonality (Bogart and Hepburn in “The African Queen,” Gable and Colbert in “It Happened One Night,” Gere and Roberts in “Pretty Woman”)—somehow connect and find common ground. That’s writer Lee Yong-jae’s central arc in this new story from South Korea, one of the best productions we’ve found in the current film desert.
As in “Pretty Woman,” social class affects most relationships in “In Our Prime.” Nearly all of the Academy’s math students are from wealthy, elite families, able to afford the weekend bootcamps that provide special training in taking the all-important exams. “We’re not peasants,” Ji-Woo’s instructor proclaims. Neither is Ji-Woo a peasant, but he is the urban equivalent, a “welfare” student raised by a single mother, making it difficult for him to compete and raising the possibility that that he will have to transfer, jeopardizing his future. Ji-Woo’s modest background also affects his personal relationships with other math students, who bully and abuse him, and with Bo-Ram, his wealthy and privileged girlfriend—if she can be called that; he seems committed to resisting her affections, as if he were unworthy. Bo-Ram (Yoon Seo) leavens the script’s seriousness with her physical antics and playfulness.
Ji-Woo’s school experience turns on a chance discovery: the janitor knows a lot about math. Hak-Sung, a deeply unhappy man who seems to be going through the motions of life, wants nothing to do with the boy, who pursues him so relentlessly that the old man reluctantly agrees to a bit of tutoring—as long as there are “no questions other than math.”
Only later will Ji-Woo learn what lies behind that guideline, that barrier. In the meantime, in scenes reminiscent of 1984’s “The Karate Kid,” Hak-Sung introduces Ji-Woo to a perspective—on mathematics and life—that rejects the excessive conformity of the Academy, with its emphasis on rote learning, as well as the individualistic, creative mentality presumed to be dominant in the West. For Hak-Sung, math is beautiful, “breathless,” even sublime, a discipline residing in the space between the arts and the sciences, as Ji-Woo learns in the most poignant and affecting moment of the film: a piano rendering of the number and math concept, Pi.
“In Our Prime” might have ended there, with the protagonists on the road to rapprochement. Instead, it gets complex—perhaps overly so—with the conflict between South Korea and North Korea taking center stage. Hak-Sung, as it turns out, is a defector from the North (hence, “Commie,” the nickname the students give him), his dour demeanor and self-pity a product of the trauma of that decision, and of its consequences, presented in a haunting flashback that reveals the drama to be in some measure one of fathers and sons.
More immediately interesting, though not without its own political slant, is the surprise emergence of a bad guy, complicit in a bad South Korean educational system. That turn provides Ji-Woo the space to demonstrate not only his improved math skills, but an ethical sensibility, an authenticity and inner strength, that allows him to confront the “red is green if the Examiner says so” pedagogy that dominates the Academy and poisons the minds of its students. A final scene, with the school assembled to learn the winner of the Pythagoras Prize, promises another triumph (with requisite applause) for the once-beleaguered Ji-Woo. Fortunately, something else happens.
The main characters, and that includes Ji-Woo’s classroom instructor (Park Hae-joon), are nicely developed, and credible. Several of the story’s main themes, including the Academy’s brittle culture and Hak-Sung’s engaging, ordinary humanity, are revealed in the fine editing and cinematography (the school’s sterile hallways, the grey/white tones of the academy buildings and its uniforms) and settings (Hak-Sung’s comfortable but unassuming apartment in a moth-balled science building). The script, too, has its moments, including Ji-Woo’s comment to Hak-Sung as the two explore the fringes of intimacy: “the first time seeing you eat.”
Although the Korean political machinations may be excessive (especially for a non-Korean audience), the standard trajectory—the coming together of Hak-Sung and Ji-Woo—is energized and strengthened by a twist here and a turn there, as well as by a foundation of ideas that is richer and more nuanced than usual. Worth seeing in several dimensions.
Stars: 3 (out of 4)
Director: Park Dong-hoon
Starring: Choi Min-sik, Kim Dong-hwi, Yoon Seo, Park Hae-joon
Country: South Korea
Languages: Korean, subtitled in English
Runtime: 117 minutes
Other Awards: Nominated for Best Director, Baek Sang Art Awards
Availability: For rent or purchase streaming on Amazon Prime; see IMDB here.
Lead image: Kim Dong-hwi as Ji-Woo, the embattled math student. One aspect of the film’s fine editing is cinematographer Park Hong-yeol’s use of see-through blackboards to express the math problems.