Korea (2014) Dir. Shin Sung-Sub

Bullying, especially at school, seems to be a hot topic for Korean filmmakers of late with a number of films on this very topic appearing one after another. And it’s not a new subject either as 2013’s Pluto and 2011’s Bleak Night demonstrates. Adding his voice to this contentious but seemingly fertile subject is first time director Shin Sung-sub with compassion, reportedly based on a true story.

I say “reportedly” as the path the plot follows is a rather familiar one, with numerous staples of the situation arising almost on cue – but then again, bullying itself is a rather predictable activity in itself, so any attempts to be creative purely for dramatic purposes would make a mockery of the this serious issue and undermine the impact of the film’s social message.

The film opens with the suicide of a bullied student, Jin-Ah, who leapt from the school roof. One student Ha-na (Lee Chung-Mi) has trouble getting over this, largely as she discovers that her usually polite father (Jang Woo-jin) is hitting her mother. Needing to get away Ha-na becomes involved in the school music club, headed up by the spoilt Se-mi (Jeong Seong-hee-I).

That night Se-mi invited Ha-na to join her and her older friends on a night on the town where Ha-na is given some beer. The next morning Ha-na wakes up in a strange bedroom with no recollection of the night before, but when she gets to school, Se-mi claims that Ha-na slept with three men and if she doesn’t pay up $5,000 a video will be sent to everyone.

Modern technology has certainly made bullying more interesting and much easier these days but the principle hasn’t changed at all. being quiet, studious and with few friends makes Ha-na the perfect victim while Se-mi is just as archetypal as the antagonist. Rich, presumably with influential parents and not afraid to use her looks to win over the boys, Se-mi borders on being a cliché except for her complete lack of morals and contrition for her actions.

Shin’s update of this age-old problem for the mobile phone generation may seem like a by-the-numbers affair but it still packs an emotional punch, suffused with a touch of realism through the subtle vérité presentation and modest production values. The cast has been carefully chosen so they are pretty enough girls but not unbelievable photogenic either for added credibility.

With no-one for Ha-na to turn to since Se-mi has sure she is a pariah, Ha-na has little option but to acquiesce to Se-mi’s demands of earning the $5,000. You can probably guess what that entails and no, I’m not talking theft. Ha-na does however find a kindred spirit in Kim Dae-Hyun (Kim Choi-yong), an aspiring songwriter whose parents had abandoned and is forced to work two jobs to pay his way. Dae-Hyun is also gets regular visits from their class teacher Kim Sang-Tae (Jung Min-Sung) but the interactions are rather frosty.

This gives us a parallel subplot to introduce Sang-Tae to the story as the obligatory helpful teacher but he on the surface he appears caustic towards Dae-hyun and ineffective as a teacher. It’s fair to say that Sang-Tae is a bit creepy, often seen conveniently hanging around at night where his students. This is one aspect in which Shin delivers a swerve about this character which I won’t spoil here but helps shed a different light on the story about an important aspect of this issue.

And that is how to deal with the problem of bullying. The feel good ending would have the bullies get their comeuppance or find redemption, but Shin has other ideas and doesn’t propose to offer any solutions which, it seems is the major problem in being able to stamp this out. Korea’s patriarchal society breeds a caste system of political influence in which teachers and the like deemed lower than those with money and power, thus the fear of the parents of the bully being publically shamed is of greater import for the school to quash than the bullying itself.

Adding a slightly saccharine side to the story is a thread concerning a church confessional group Dae-Hyun and Sang-tae attend which they invite Ha-na too. The presence of religion itself isn’t raised as either an idea or a solid source of comfort for Ha-na, but the idea of having faith in something is given a twist, as Ha-na has lost her faith in adults being able to protect her against Se-mi, instead seeing her submission to the threats her only hope.

Equally cheesy is the musical partnership between singer Ha-na and songwriter Dae-Hyun, providing the only thing resembling a musical soundtrack to this film. While it gives our troubled duo a source of comfort and an outlet to vent their feelings the songs is the usual string laden, gushing ballad with soaring vocals designed to get those tears flowing. Sung by leading lady Lee Chung-Mi, who has a nice voice, this unfortunately threatens to undo the impact of the hard drama of the rest of the film, creating an incongruously twee denouement.

Along with her singing skills, Lee Chung-Mi puts in a good turn as Ha-na, making for a believably vulnerable and conflicted victim, albeit one who does a lot of crying. She certainly engenders much sympathy from the audience, while Kim Choi-yong is a little harder to read as Dae-Hyun despite his own tragic situation. Jeong Seong-hee-I is perfectly hateable as Se-mi but does border on being a caricature, but the most interesting performance comes from as the milquetoast teacher Sang-Tae.

For a debut effort Compassion actually has a lot going for it and is a decent watch. Shin Sung-sub has a good idea of how to manipulate the audience’s emotions on this prevalent subject. If the treacly music subplot was excised, the scathing social commentary and bleak drama would hit an artery instead of just leaving a fairly nasty cut.