Set Me Free is an interesting work that tracks a series of encounters and events that change the life of a young man named Yeong-jae; who the audience first meet as a well-liked student, interested in becoming a priest, living out of home at a religious boarding school of sorts. A drama with a sociopolitical bent, Kim Tae-yong’s film is a survey of competitive institutions and youth within South Korea; one that develops into a stark portrait of family and interpersonal relationships within the country. Set Me Free is an autobiographical work from Kim, which becomes a markedly fascinating element within the overall film due to the authenticity of expression throughout. The flaws in development, characterisation outside of the lead, and the pacing of the plot never undermine the movie in an absolute way. At some points, they’re obvious, but Kim’s ability to reproduce and evoke the emotions of his story from memory to screen is masterful – and in a story about the blurry frustration and confusion of youth, it’s almost impossible to pull off the work as a whole if the emotional elements are lacking.
The film investigates the notion of imperfection within South Korean schooling and social systems for young adults, and the pressures and divides this creates. Specifically, Kim looks at a homosocial context of young men interacting within a school, examining their stresses and competitiveness, and slowly portraying the shifts in power and friendship this leads too. The spectrum of jealousy, insecurity and hostility that consumes Yeong-jae for the majority of the film – as his home-life pushes him to increasingly twist the truth and manipulate those around him, until things begin to unravel – is carried out with the acting of Choi Woo-shik’s: captivating, nuanced and playing into the uncertainty and ambiguity that directs the narrative throughout the film.
Set Me Free presents a fascinating insight into the nature of organised religion within South Korea, as a relatively unique institution. For Yeong-jae, “becoming a priest” isn’t necessarily viewed as something he has a deep passion for – nor is Christianity something he follows with particularly deep-seated conviction. Instead, it offers a sense of salvation from the hyper-competitive schooling system, and more so, the constant judgements of ‘goodness’ he receives from those around him. In wanting to become a priest, Yeong-jae’s intentions become perceived as more moral, more respectable and he is offered a greater sense of forgiveness throughout as a result. In offering these insights and stark critiques, Tae-yong’s film becomes broader than an emotional character study; excelling as both a drama and a sociopolitical critique by its conclusion.
Kim’s framing of the film is integral to the mood he carries throughout. His camera creates both lingering tension in close-up shots, as well as paranoia in long-shots of characters at their most vulnerable. With the majority of Set Me Free filmed within boundaries, focused on interiors (with the majority of external spaces being confined within themselves; courtyards, playgrounds, etc.), there’s a palpable sense of claustrophobia in the atmosphere Kim’s directing conjures up. It’s a tension that prompts a sense of empathy from the audience, where the initially illogical motivates of the characters become forgivable as their frustration boils to the surface of the film. Again, this strong push for empathy – coupled with an affecting narrative – harkens back to the autobiographical nature of Set Me Free, with Kim’s work feeling personal and intimate throughout. The plot isn’t central, yet the impetus for understanding the troubled figures on screen is. In the end, Set Me Free is a humble film that is comfortable in its smaller ambitions as a work. The final product, an engrossing albeit brief character study, reflects this.