innocent_thing

Innocent Thing (Gashi)

Korea (2014) Dir. Kim Tae-gyun

With the recent spate of Korean films dealing with high school bullying, it is something of a refreshing change to watch one that covers a different subject matter. Unfortunately the subject matter of Innocent Thing isn’t exactly original either, but it is an earnest attempt at putting a chilling new twist on it.

Former rugby player Kim Joon-ki (Jang Hyuk) is now a PE teacher at an all girl’s school and considered a hunk by his students. One girl in particular is as Ha Young-eun (Jo Bo-ah) who goes out of her way to attract Joon-Ki’s attention and eventually gets him alone after school on the night of a thunderstorm. Against Joon-Ki’s better judgement, the pair kiss which he immediately regrets, as his wife Seo-yeon (Sunwoo Sun) is due to give birth in a matter of weeks. Young-eun on the other hand does not intend to let Joon-Ki go as her obsession grows out of control.

Yes, the old schoolgirl crush scenario with an added bunny boiler touch to it. There is a temptation to dismiss this as an old hat concept relocated to Korea but director Kim Tae-gyun and screenwriter Lee Sung-min have done a good job of offering the audience a lot more, notably in the differences in how freely teachers and students interact in Asia.

Here in the west the teacher-student relationship typically ends as soon as the bell goes at the end of the day, whilst in some Asian countries the teacher is seen as a proxy guardian or point of contact for a student outside of school hours. This makes the personal access aspect Young-eun has to Joon-ki a lot more plausible, though as a teacher and a married man/soon-to-be-father Joon-ki is nonetheless culpable for his own actions.

Young-Eun’s opening gambit to catch Joon-ki’s eyes is to jump off the dangerously high top diving board at the school swimming pool during class, which succeeds. From then on it is coincidental meetings at corner shops and coy glances across the school playground, culminated in Young-eun playing personal cheerleader to Joon-ki at a rugby game.

After the kiss an online diary belonging to Young-eun sets tongues wagging at school with its racy content and suggestion of steamy physical liaisons between teacher and pupil. Young-eun admits it was fictional but Joon-ki is embarrassed by it and lets rip on his young admirer, showing the first sign of trouble. Young-eun then ups the ante by hiring Seo-yeon as her personal tutor, giving her access to the Kim family home, including the occasional sleep over.

It follows the schoolgirl stalker template fairly strictly but, as suggested before, with a distinct Korean flavour that gives it some extra spice which would be absent from an American telling of this tale. Some facets seem inescapable: the pregnant wife, absence of a father figure in the girl’s life, the slow burn turn from smitten to psycho, while the fact Young-eun would be the girl in question is made glaring obvious by virtue of her being by far the prettiest girl in the school and the only one with light hair!

Prior to the unsettling events of the third act which makes Fatal Attraction seem like a Disney comedy, there are two deviations from convention to add little fizz to the proceedings. First Joon-ki is a little too quick to succumb to his teenage temptress, which casts some doubt over his character as a loyal husband; the other is his female colleague Min-Joo (Lee Do-ah), a long time friend who it is hinted might have one had feelings for, or possibly even a relationship with Joon-ki.

Now the plot is suddenly not so black and white and the script teases us with many possible new directions for the outcome. To add further confusion, the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred in the minds of both Young-eun in how far the relationship has gone with Joon-ki and for Seo-yeon who imagines the worst. It’s a ploy that proves successful well into the third act and adds a further dimension to Young-eun’s already fragile personality which we are now of the precipice of seeing crack for good.

Kim Tae-gyun’s success rate in directing has been rather hit and miss over the years but Innocent Thing shows signs of a turnaround; you certainly would not recognise this film coming from the same man who gave us the patchy Higanjima – Escape From Vampire Island. There is a distinct sense of greater planning and framing in his shots and Kim employs techniques from suspense thrillers and horror to create the unstable and fraught world of Young-eon.

It can be argued that the script forced Kim to up his game, although it does have some niggles which stand out – such as why Seo-yeon continues to have Young-eun around even after the youngster admitted her love for Joon-ki; or why Joon-ki and Young-eun were allowed to be alone together once the stories/rumours went public at school.

Director Kim reunites with his old Volcano High star Jang Hyuk after a decade, and that familiarity helps in relying upon him to create a character who remains so ambiguous right up to the end. As Seo-yeon, Sunwoo Sun is giving more to do than be the aggrieved wife and provides the emotional centre of this tale, but the spotlight is brightest on Jo Bo-ah and Young-eun. A TV actress in her first film role, the 22 year-old not only convinces as a sixteen year-old but her cherubic wide-eyed looks are an asset in displaying both the childlike innocence and the psychotic excesses of Young-eun.

Sometimes a change in location can make a familiar concept seem fresh which Innocent Thing capably pulls off. We may be forced to wait late into its two hour run for the original twist but it is worth the wait and to Kim’s credit, a solid ride along the way. A perfectly acceptable psychological drama.

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