Thread Of Lies (U-a-han geo-jit-mal)
Korea (2014) Dir. Lee Han
It is ironic for a country to have made so many damning films on the subject of bullying and teen suicides that the problem still exists, thus more films will be made about it until it is addressed. With the addition to the ranks of the gut wrenching Thread Of Lies perhaps now someone will take notice?
Originally a 2009 novel entitled Elegant Lies by Kim Ryeo-ryeong (who also penned the source novel for Lee Han’s previous film Punch) the story centres around the tragic suicide of 14 year-old Cheon-ji (Kim Hyang-gi), who hung herself without leaving a note and leaving her single mother Hyun-sook (Kim Hee-ae) and older sister Man-ji (Go Ah-sung) distraught and confused as to why she would take her own life.
Riddled with guilt that she failed to notice anything wrong with her sister, Man-Ji investigates Cheon-Ji’s school life and discovers she was a victim of bullying. The prime suspect appears to be the self-absorbed Hwa-yeon (Kim Yoo-jung) who leads a group of girls who tease Cheon-ji mercilessly but as Man-Ji delves deeper she uncovers a litany of pain and heartbreak that reaches far and wide.
Kim Ryeo-ryeong certainly knows how to spin a yarn – and I apologise for turn of phrase for anyone who has seen this film and will understand why this is a painful pun – and this story becomes more complex the further it goes, each new revelation leading to another twist in the tale. Kim has constructed a deep and involving story that takes a different look at the bullying issue, addressing the subject of blame from a myriad of angles.
Rather than go the predictable route of having a singular antagonist Kim looks at society in general as a possible cause of why people become bullies and why friends fall out. In this small community Kim has created, fraught relationships and inter-family antagonism is apt for the course and Cheon-Ji is revealed to be just one unfortunate victim of this vicious circle of suffering
To Hyun-sook and Man-Ji, Cheon-Ji was the perfect daughter – studying hard, always helpful and supportive of her mother while Man-Ji was the typical truculent teen, making Cheon-Ji’s suicide harder to swallow. Through a series of flashbacks we learn exactly what Cheon-Ji went through at school at the hands of Hwa-yeon and the gang but the story still isn’t as straight forward as it seems.
One of the girls involved in this hazing was another friend Mi-ra (Yoo Yeon-mi) who become close to Cheon-Ji, although Mi-ra hides behind the rationale that she was nicer to Cheon-Ji than other the girls were. Hwa-yeon also tries a similar tact when word gets round of her complicity in the suicide, claiming she was openly friendly towards Cheon-Ji than others who only tolerated her at Hwa-yeon’s behest.
Meanwhile Man-Ji’s investigations at the school sees a threat to her relationship with best friend Mi-ran (Chun Woo-hee), who is Mi-ra’s older sister, caught in the middle of being a protective sister and a supportive friend. If matters needed complicating further their father Man-ho (Sung Dong-Il), a bullying ne’er do well who was had a brief affair with Hyun-sook, which none of the girls were initially aware of, and keeps pestering her at her job in a supermarket.
This might make things begin to sound ridiculous but surprisingly everything has a congruent place in the spiralling plot and there is still more to come. One bold aspect of this film given its bleak subject matter is the use of humour, some of it quiet gregarious under the circumstances. Most of it comes courtesy of the male presence in the film, such as the long haired next door neighbour Choo Sang-Bak (Yoo Ah-In) and Hyun-sook’s dumpling maker co-worker (Kim Ji-Hoon).
Such moments of levity are most welcome yet never lessen the impact of the drama which hits hard but in a completely different way to other bullying themed films such as Bleak Night, Pluto, Compassion and Han Gong-Ju (which starred Chun Woo-hee). The ripple effect of Cheon-Ji’s suicide and the consequences it has on her tormentors is explored in a manner, exposing the selfishness and ignorance of people on the periphery as well as those closest to the matter.
Most clichés beholden to the topic of bullying are eschewed in favour of depicting the multiple emotional journeys of the characters, in which relationships are strengthened, broken and rebuilt. Also avoided are the usual moments of realisation on the part of the antagonists and their eventual redemption, replaced with an incisive study into their damaged psyches that strips back the facades and reveals the true person behind them.
The performances are rich with raw emotion with the cast responding to meet the demands of the roles. Of the teen girls, two are actually over twenty – Go Ah-sung and Chun Woo-hee – yet their appearances defy their ages, allowing them to blend in seamlessly with their younger co-stars. Kim Hyang-gi possesses both the cherubic looks and an air of melancholy to make Cheon-Ji a credible victim while TV teen Kim Yoo-jung essaying of the prissy Hwa-yeon with delicately nuanced.
Veteran Kim Hee-ae returns to the big screen after a ten year absence and has arguably the most difficult role to fulfil as Hyun-sook not only suffers deeply but has to keep herself together for the sake of Man-Ji, yet is involved in much of the comedy. Both Kim and director Han Lee ensures that this light and shade of Hyun-sook’s personality isn’t a jarring juxtaposition saving her from appearing schizophrenic.
For a film with such a dark subject matter the aesthetic is bright and vibrant at all times, with no darkness or dull lighting just uplifting sunshine. Yet Thread Of Lies is as powerful a dissertation on bullying and teen suicide as any of its predecessors, standing alone for its forensic take on the human cost of an avoidable tragedy and the folly of Korean society in trying to ignore it.