Starring: Li Il-cheol, Jon Jong-pal, Han Yeong-chaeg
Director: Jon Jong-pal
Running Time: 88 mins
O Youth! is a North Korean film about a family composed of five daughters, all sportswomen, and one son, a studious but non-sporty individual. When his parents begin to push him to get married, they take differing opinions on what sort of woman is best for him. Should she be another sportswoman to join the family? Or should she be a traditional homemaker that will do more for the country? With opinions all over the place, complications arise when he finally meets a woman that nobody could have expected at first.
You may not think of North Korea as the natural home as the romantic comedy, but the truth is that O Youth! is every bit as generic and formulaic as anything you get out of Hollywood. In fact, it’s often a little better, thanks to its more family-oriented focus that allows for a fresher story to the normal rom-com fare. Of course, it struggles a little when it comes to raucous humour, but on the whole, it’s a surprisingly pleasant, sweet and engaging film from start to almost finish.
The best thing about this film for me is definitely the story. Yes, on the one hand, it does have a generic rom-com element to it, surrounding the identity of one of the two romantic leads. Like any Hollywood rom-com, it’s all about keeping a secret from the other to keep the relationship going.
However, the majority of the plot here isn’t just about the two love interests. The most entertaining part comes from the family dynamic behind the central romance, with the very entertaining battle between the mother of the family and the father as they both try to push their son towards different woman, taking a fun and convincing turn as things become all the more complicated for the characters.
So, whilst I can’t say that this film provides any side-splitting laughs, the eccentric performances from the mother and father go a long way to making it a good bit of harmless fun. What’s more is that the film does a great job to make it all feel a lot less like a generic rom-com. Not just because it’s a North Korean movie, but also because there’s so much more focus on the family side of things than normal, giving the story a more wholesome atmosphere that’s far more interesting than the most formulaic Hollywood romantic comedies.
Now, unfortunately, this film isn’t quite as perfect as I would have liked it to be. The first two acts are surprisingly entertaining and sweet, working well as a light-hearted romantic/family comedy, but the third act sadly undoes a lot of the good work earlier on with a dull, propaganda-heavy finale.
It seems as if the entire movie just stops about two-thirds of the way through to make way for a rousing, patriotic climax that doesn’t really fit in the story. Earlier on, the various mentions of the North Korean state, and leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il actually don’t feel that out of place in the dialogue, but when the film then turns to a Rocky-style sports finale, where the North Korean athlete annihilates a Western one, then proclaims their love and undying gratitude to the state, it all feels a little too much like pure propaganda.
And that’s a real shame, given that the first two-thirds of this movie are very pleasant and light-hearted. The fact that the cinematography makes it look like it’s straight out of the late 60s/early 70s (not deliberate, that’s just the technology that was available then) gives it an even softer and sweeter feel, but when it all turns to pure propaganda, it really loses the surprising genuine heart and sense of humour from early on, and that’s why I’m giving O Youth! a 7.2 overall.