Is love something that we’re entitled to or must be earned? And if love is to be earned, what means must a person employ in order to earn it? “Set Me Free” is a strong auto-biographical debut from Kim Tae-young that explores these questions in a low-key, introspective manner.

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Yeong-jae’s parents left him in the care of a couple who runs a private foster home called Isaac’s Home when he was a child. Now, at sixteen and still estranged from his irresponsible father and equally unreliable though much less reprehensible mother, Yeong-jae races against time to prove himself a competent candidate for priesthood, which would save him from being returned to them. As he desperately plots his way to a life of integrity, Yeong-jae ironically finds himself making nasty compromises and engaging in condemnable acts. 

\Kim Tae-young gives the audience plenty materials to ruminate on parenthood, questionable charity, and the extent to which a person would go to attain the most basic but also most elusive goal in life: love. The characters are all portrayed in their most human-like shape, driven more by self-serving incentives than pure altruism. No one has higher moral grounds, and all have their own justifications to keep themselves going, some more acceptable to viewers than others. Young-jae’s parents blame poverty for their condemnable parenting. The couple running Isaac’s Home blame the kids’ ungrateful behaviors, or what they believe to be so, for their unsympathetic attitudes. Even the not-orphaned-yet-unclaimed kids at Isaac’s Home have good reasons for doing not-so-good deeds. And in my subjective opinion, this lack of virtues in the characters is probably the most remarkable virtue of this debut piece.

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Playing the sixteen-something Young-jae is Choi Woo-shik in his first big-screen leading role. Having watched him in various roles in the past years, I am always firm in my belief about Choi’s acting calibre and versatility. From streetwise Ki-woo in “Parasite” to sinister Nobleman in “The Witch: Part 1”. The Subversion, to punctilious yet goofy Kyu-tae in web-series Some Boy, to witty eunuch Do Chi-san in Rooftop Prince, Choi is always entertaining to watch. And I am proven right again with Set Me Free, where Choi delivers Young-jae’s pent-up rage, despair, guilt, and longing effortlessly. Choi’s plain face clearly plays to his advantage in this role, giving his character a unique look of resignation to fate and allowing it to make a monster of him once seen in Parasite’s Ki-woo when he descends the stairs to the basement. 

Young-jae through Choi’s measured portrayal walks with his head low, his step heavy with worries, his face void of emotions. Choi’s emotional restraint strangely reminds me of Chun Woo-hee’s “Han Gong-ju” and exerts the same emotional effect on me. The scene where Young-jae forces a smile on his face to placate his classmates and the climax scene are some acting highlights that I find particularly haunting and heartbreaking. And it’s almost unbearable to watch Young-jae cries, because when he does, his cries are muffled and fatigued and do not at all help to relieve the burdens that have weighed him down for so long. Equally notable performances are that of Shin Jae-ha as Beom-tae – a friend of Young-jae at Isaac’s Home – and that of Jang Yoo-sang as Min-jae – Young-jae’s younger brother. Shin convincingly pulls off Beom-tae’s lost innocence and bitter retaliation while Jang is seemingly unremarkable for the majority of the film, only to wrench our hearts in the last five minutes.

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For its visuals, the film is remarkably robbed of bright colors, just as the kids are deprived of hopes and innocence and is therefore unrelentingly sad. Regarding its atmospheric score, “Set Me Free” again is reminiscent of that sense of solitude that dominates Han Gong-ju (2013). Young-jae has no one but himself to look to for help, just as Gong-ju, surrounded by an unsympathetic community, has no one but herself to rely on. The film’s narrative rhythm is also very well handled by director Kim Young-tae. There’s never too much happening on screen nor too little, and the film moves at its own stable tempo, neither too rushed nor too slow.

Like the acoustic guitar theme that marks its ending, Set Me Free ends on a light note, with no shocking truths divulged or shocking acts committed. Still, it leaves the audience emotionally devastated and wondering of what to come after the screen closes to dark and the credits start rolling, of what will become of Young-jae and the lot of children at Isaac’s Home. Will there be a brighter future ahead for them or only more depressing episodes to come? Who knows? And after all, as the film has already shown us in its raw depiction of reality, who would even care?