The other day, I had the chance to watch director Lee Gyu-man’s latest film, Children..., which is currently ranked at number one in the box office. It is based on the heart-wrenching true story of the “Frog Boys” of Daegu. The five children lived in a village outside the city and, one warm day in March of 1991, set off to the nearby mountainside to catch frogs. They never returned. The frantic parents tried to get the police to investigate right away, but the authorities were convinced that this was simply a case of runaway children and that they would be back in a day or two. They never returned. Months later, thousands of police were set on the mountain to search for clues as to what may have happened but nothing turned up. The parents took their pleas for the boys’ return to the airways where their story captured the heart, mind and sometimes imagination of the nation. Various theories both plausible and ridiculous abounded– The boys ran away, they were kidnapped by North Korea, they were murdered, they fell in the lake and drown, they were abducted by aliens were– These were just some of the theories that people came up with. For eleven years the parents waited for any news of their missing sons. Then in September 2004, the remains of the children were found in the woods on the same mountainside the children said they were visiting. At first police said it seemed likely that the boys got lost and froze to death during the night, but a few days later, after sending the exhumed evidence to forensics, they had to admit they were wrong. Two of the skulls bore large holes and one had strange indentations made from an as yet unidentified instrument. Their clothes were tied into knots and bullet casings were found in the shallow, makeshift grave. More theories arose about the children meeting a psychopath in the woods or the theory of the accidental shooting and subsequent murder by a panicked hunter at the nearby sports-hunting preserve who may have mistaken one of the children for a deer. However, the investigation had reached a dead end. Korea has a statute of limitation on major crimes and in 2006 it ran out on the case. Even if the killer were found at this point, he or she could not be prosecuted.
Those are the facts of the case but how about the movie? In my opinion, where the film sticks closely with the facts of the disappearance, it is very effective and gripping. However, in the latter portion of the film, director Lee chooses to go with the sensational and moves away from facts to give us a suspect who is possibly a seriel killer. Here the film flounders before once again finding its footing at the very end once again with the funeral of the children.
The focus of the movie is not the children who have disappeared before the opening credits finish rolling. Nor is it on the parents and their desperate search to find their kids. Those themes were dealt with in the 1992 film Come Back Frog Boys (pictured right) which was made at a time when the children were still thought to have run away from home and it was hoped that it would help entice them to return. Instead, the focus of Children… is on career-driven documentary maker Kang Ji-seung who is in the hopes of making a comeback after being disgraced for rigging an award-winning documentary. He goes to Daegu where he meets an equally ambitious professor who hopes to make a name for himself by solving the crime where police failed. The professor’s theory, which seems to have quite a bit of compelling evidence behind it, takes the pair in a direction that the police were reluctant to investigate.
The director chose to have several jumps in time in this film as it moves from 1991 to 1996 to 2002 to several years after that. Most of the time jumps are clearly labeled onscreen, but the last one relies on us guessing the age of Kang’s daughter who appears to have aged about 6 years. While some people may feel that he does not cover enough details because of these jumps, I found them perfectly acceptable due to the amount of time that was necessary to cover the story he wanted told. His choice of actors was also good especially the parents of the missing boy, Jong-ho. They were played by Seong Ji-roo and Kim Yeo-jin and both of them manage to bring a mix of tragedy to their roles without making the characters overwraught and a sense of additional mystery behind them. As I mentioned early though, Director Lee does stray away from facts by first ignoring some of the evidence found with the bodies (the bullet casings) and later by giving us a suspect that never existed in real life.
These omissions and additions make Children… a work of fiction rather than a semi-documentary film. You should definitely take the time to see this atmospheric work although I do warn you that you will probably wind up leaving the theater a little depressed. Below I have provided portions of news articles published at the time of the events related to the case to give more background on the story.
+++++++++++++++++++++++++ From the Korea Times, Sept. 28, 2002
Remains of 5 Missing Boys Found After 11 Years in Taegu–Human remains, presumed to be those of the so-called “frog boys” who disappeared eleven years ago in Taegu, were found yesterday at a mountain near the scene of where they went missing, police said yesterday. The remains were found on the side of Mt. Waryong in Taegu by a local resident named Choi, 55, who was gathering acorns in the area at 11:30 a.m. Police investigations revealed five sets of remains buried about 30 cm below the ground, along with a dozen pieces of clothing and five pairs of children’s shoes.“The shoes found near the bodies appear to be identical to the ones reported to have been worn by the children at the time of their disappearence…”
+++++++++++from the Korea Times, Sept. 29/30, 2002
Hole in skull raises suspected murder of boys—(Sept. 29) Police yesterday were continuing to investigate the deaths of five boys whose remains were found last week in Taegu, eleven years after the boys went missing. They are focusing their investigations on whether foul play was involved in the deaths of the five boys, who disappeared after leaving their homes to catch frogs on nearby Mt. Waryong on March 26, 1991. Their remains were found by a resident Thursday on the very mountain the boys had ventured out to that day. Police investigations have found two holes were punched in one of the boys’ skulls, while the back of the cranium has a large hole in it. (Sept. 30)–Police and forensic experts said yesterday they found a hole and a sunken mark in one of the five skulls discovered at a site in western Daegu last week. The skulls are believed to be those of five elementary schoolboys reported missing at the scene 11 years ago. The new discovery raised the possibility that the boys might have been killed. Rebutting an initial police report that the boys died from cold weather at the site, the boys’ families claimed the hole and the mark attest to their murders. They alleged the murder scenario is backed by the fact that the boy’s recovered sleeves and pants were tied and bullets casings were found nearby…
+++++++++++++++ From the Chosun Ilbo, March 26, 2004
“Frog Boys” Laid to Rest as Anguished Parents Demand Justice–A funeral ceremony for five schoolboys who went missing in 1991 after going out to catch frogs, was held at Kyungbuk National University Hospital on Friday. Anguished cries from family and friends of the ??Frog Boys?? were heard as Lim Hee-su, president of Seongseo Elementary School, addressed the gathering. The remains of Woo Chul-won, Cho Ho-yeon, Kim Yeong-kyun, Park Chan-in and Kim Jong-shik were not discovered until 2002, 11 years after they vanished.”How depressing it must be for these parents to treasure their dead children in their hearts,?? said Na Ju-bong, president of the Citizens” Gathering in Search for Missing Children Nationwide. “The rest of us must prevent this from ever happening again.” The remains of the boys were brought to their old school in three funeral carriages decorated with yellow flowers. All 1,800 Seongseo Elementary School students prayed silently while five representatives holding the portraits of the boys walked around the school grounds. The families of the victims then pledged to find the perpetrator and make him apologize and pay for the crime.
+++++++++++++++++from the Korea Herald, March 2, 2006
Unsolved murders may escape prosecution—Time is running out for authorities to bring to justice the killer of five children murdered in Daegu 15 years ago because the statute of limitations for the mysterious case expires on March 26. In 1991, five elementary school boys, dubbed the “frog boys,” were reported missing after venturing into the mountains to catch frogs. The parents of the boys spent a fortune searching for their children throughout the country. Rumors saying that the children were abducted by North Korea or even taken by extra terrestrials were also spread. The long-unresolved case almost disappeared from the public`s memory, but in 2002, the remains of the five boys were found in a hillside by a hiker. A forensic team from Kyungpook National University in Daegu concluded that the children were murdered, but so far, has not found any evidence explaining how they were killed. The high-profile criminal case has been shrouded in mystery for 15 years despite the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of police and other investigation personnel. In August 2005, Rep. Moon Byung-ho of the ruling Uri Party submitted a bill which, if approved by the National Assembly, will lengthen the limitation from the current 15 years to 20 years. “The purpose of the statute of limitation is to prevent unfair trials caused by lack of evidence of crime after some time. But now that the development of technology such as DNA tests makes it possible to accumulate proof even after a long period, it is natural to extend the statute of limitations,” Moon said.