Misbehavior (Yeo-gyo-sa)

Korea (2016) Dir. Kim Tae-yong

It’s tough getting older, having worked hard all your life, giving your best years to the same job and the same people, then a younger model comes along and usurps it all. How you handle this depends on your resolve, but sometimes you are gifted the perfect ammunition to strike back. Let’s just hope it doesn’t get messy…

Park Hyo-joo (Kim Ha-neul) is a part-time teacher at an all male high school where she was due for a full time position, which seemed imminent when a colleague takes off for maternity leave and Hyo-joo is chosen to replace her duties on top of hers. Instead, the school board chairman’s daughter, the younger Choo Hae-young (Yoo In-young) is given the job and receives preferential treatment.

Taking over her colleague’s night class, Hyo-joo discovers dance student Shin Jae-ha (Lee Won-keun) practicing in the school gym instead of attending classes. Curious about the lad, Hyo-joo enters the gym one night to find him having sex with Hae-young in the back. Initially Hyo-joo uses this to her advantage but in separating Hae-young and Jae-ha, another illicit relationship blossoms.

Misbehaviour is the English title for this film and considerably more apposite and enticing than the bland Korean title of Female Teacher, but doesn’t tell us the whole story, while the poster is equally enigmatic without giving anything away either. Writer-director Kim Tae-yong, not to be confused with the helmer of the same name behind school horror Memento Mori, explores the lengths people will go to be loved.

Presented here is a story that is sympathetic towards women and their struggles to be treated fairly within a patriarchal society but doesn’t shy away from showing how some female foibles can also be catalysts for their downfall – and yes, a man is the root cause. Emphasising the overpowering male influence, in the wake of the maternity leave, all female staff at the school have an amendment added to their contracts agreeing to leave if they ever get pregnant.

Hyo-joo is in her thirties, lumbered with idle writer boyfriend of ten years Pyo Sang-Woo (Lee Hee-Joon) who takes her for granted, just as the school have by dumping extra workloads on her. In contrast, keen and green Hae-young with her pretty, fashionable appearance is the blooming flower among the weeds for male teachers and students alike. Being handed a job over Hyo-joo goes unmentioned because of who Hae-young’s father is, while ruder students tell Hyo-joo’s she is “not a proper teacher” when she asserts her authority.

But these two are not strangers to each other, as Hae-young studied under Hyo-joo at university which only adds to the seething resentment Hyo-joo holds towards her. Already having to pull the rookie tutor up for her inappropriate behaviour for a teacher, catching Hae-young in flagrante with Jae-ha – when she already has a rich boyfriend – is the icing on the cake.

With everyone else siding with Hae-young, Hyo-joo decides to play it cool and agrees to keep this revelation to herself if Hae-young ends it with Jae-ha and helps her get a full-time position, which she agrees to. But after learning of Jae-ha’s rough home life, Hyo-joo takes him under her wing, paying for dance lessons and offering him the sofa at home in the wake of her split with Sang-woo.

Perhaps now the English title makes more sense although it does feel a tad understated given how things turn out. You can make an educated (pardon the pun) guess on what transpires next but don’t think you’ve figured it all out because Kim has a few twists up his sleeve. The first two acts may play out like your average steamy melodrama but the final act brings new meaning to the term “bunny boiler”.

Don’t worry no animals were harmed in this film but I can’t see it being much of a positive advertisement for becoming a teacher – or indeed being a strong woman in the male dominated Korean work force. As Aretha Franklin famously sung “All I’m askin’ is for a little respect” and with her love life equally moribund, it is no surprise that Hyo-joo would feel reborn with some male attention, even if it is “inappropriate”.

Kim also lulls us into a false sense of security with the idea that we are watching a run of the mill love triangle drama but in fact this is an acute character study of a woman facing the familiar existentialist trial of being cast aside for a newer alternative. Some face it with resignation, others charge at it head on. Hyo-joo fits into the latter category but in more of a slow burn, turning her from victim to manipulator and back again.

Then there is Jae-ha, the prospective world class dancer living in the school gym and has the best of both worlds in getting some physical exercise (same for actor Lee Won-keun I suppose). In the eyes of the law he is a victim but his player credentials are soon revealed, not that this makes it right when his two lovers should know better. Without a central protagonist this is an awkward story to watch unfold.

It is the fabulous performance Kim Ha-neul that really holds everything together and provides the gravitational pull for the viewer on an emotional front in essaying the painful and often cringe-worthy journey Hyo-joo goes on. We warm to her, sympathise with her and root for her but we also can’t condone her actions or decisions she makes, but the same applies to Hae-young, deftly brought to life via a measured turn from Yoo In-young.

Behind the occasionally lurid content Kim Tae-yong imparts an important life lesson or at least a potent warning with Misbehaviour in the value of realising our self worth and perhaps not accepting the first deal that comes along is the right move. A familiar story given a dark twist, this is a stark reminder of how complex people are.