An offbeat rites of passage pic centered on a lonely teen coming to terms with his family background, the misleadingly titled "The Peter Pan Formula" brings a fresh coat of paint to many of the cliches of the genre but tries to pack too much into a single movie. Tightened by some 10 minutes -- and losing its artier moments, which sit ill with the semi-mainstream body of the movie -- this could prove an accessible festival item. First-time writer-director Jo Chang-ho clearly has promise, even if it's a tad disorganized at present.
In a town on South Korea's east coast, moody Kim Han-su (On Ju-wan) is a talented high school swimmer who wants to be the best -- and not just in Asia. But when his mother, who is suffering from depression, attempts suicide and ends up in a coma, Han-su quits the swim team, despite protests from his coach, and retreats into his own world.
Faced with a large medical bill -- mom had no savings, and dad left years ago -- Han-su ends up robbing convenience stores. Meanwhile, the hormonal youth has started fantasizing about an attractive, married neighbor, music teacher Yu In-heui (Kim Ho-jeong), who he watches playing piano across the way. When a pair of her panties blow off a clothesline, they end up in his hands -- and more.
Film's early scenes clearly establish Han-su's private world with a touch of unreality that prepares the viewer for subsequent events. Script takes its biggest gamble in a scene where In-heui bumps into Han-su and bluntly asks him (a) whether it was he who stole her underwear, and (b) whether he masturbated with it. He, equally bluntly, asks to have sex with her and she refuses; but she does come by regularly to give him hand-jobs, and the two start a secret, low-key romance.
It's a measure of the film's command of mood to that point that this whole section -- marbled with straight-faced humor -- works. Further weirdness develops with the arrival of In-heui's stepdaughter, Min-ji, who's been spending time in a sanatorium due to what she claims was a rape. She takes a liking to Han-su and immediately suggests they start dating; later, however, In-heui warns Han-su that he should be careful, as Min-ji is still "sick."
Even stranger things are happening in the hospital where Han-su's mom lies unconscious. One night, he secretly witnesses a young woman, Mi-jin, ending the life of her own mother in the bed opposite. But it's this act which eventually leads Han-su to liberate himself.
Pic's strongest section is the first hour, depicting Han-su's loss of equilibrium following his mother's hospitalization and the curious sexual triangle between him, the lonely In-heui and the dangerous Min-ji. There's almost a whole movie in just this material but, rather like his anti-hero, helmer-writer Jo has a lot of issues to cram into his first film.
Aside from Han-su's relationship with his coach, and the whole last act of tracking down the man said to be his father, there's the barely developed (but potentially interesting) character of the lively Mi-jin. As Jo tries to pull all the various strands of his script together, the final 20 minutes feel rushed and emotionally untrue.
Standout performance, as the older neighbor, comes from Kim, who manages to combine poise, longing and loneliness in a neat package. Other roles are well cast, and lensing of locations around Donghae has a clean, uncluttered look.
Camera (color), Kim Yong-cheol; editor, Kim Hyeong-ju; music, Kim Myeong-jong; art director, Kim Hye-jin. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (New Currents, competing), Oct. 10, 2005. Running time: 109 MIN.