Student A (Yeojungsaeng A)

Korea (2018) Dir. Lee Kyung-Sub

School life isn’t easy, especially during the awkward phase of puberty every child goes through, that often tumultuous period of physical change and confusion. Unfortunately, some kids develop unpleasant personalities, believing they have the right to make the lives of others a misery. But whom can a pariah turn to for support?

Jang Mi-Rae (Kim Hwan-Hee) is the school outcast with an even worse home life due to her abusive father (Jung Hyung-Suk). Her only escape is an online MMOPRG game and writing short fantasy stories loosely based on her own woes. Coming third in a school writing contest, Mi-Rae is suddenly approached by the winner of that contest, popular class president Baek-Hab (Jung Da-Bin) expressing an interest in working together.

Meanwhile Mi-Rae has a crush on quiet male classmate Tae-Yang (Yoo Jae-Sang), but even though he is friendly towards Mi-Rae, he is actually interested in Baek-Hab instead. When the online game shuts down, Mi-Rae has no-one else to confide in except another player in the game who works as a cartoon girl mascot in the local town square giving out free hugs – but “she” turns out to be a “he”, older boy Jae-hee (Suho).

I can personally attest to how horrific and soul destroying is to be the victim of bullies, so much of the content in Student A is hard to watch, as it would be for anyone in the same situation. However, there is a surreal bent to this tale that threatens to undermine the emotional resonance of Mi-Rae’s plight giving her a safety net that just doesn’t exist in real life.

The whimsical nature in how Mi-Rae finding strength via video games and the enigmatic way in which she finds solace in a mute mascot is clearly designed to lighten the mood following the darker moments, but we can accept them as they offer Mi-Rae that ray of hope she needs in her life; it is the way it is implemented in the final act that is hokey, at least it is until a last minute twist throws everything into disarray.

However, it appears the message being imparted, based on a web comic by the curiously monikered Heo5Pa6, is actually letting us know that help can come from the least likely places, illustrating the benefit of confiding in strangers rather than those in immediate proximity.

But this takes a while to be established as director Lee Kyung-Sub is more concerned with piling on the misery for the first thirty minutes to ensure we are firmly behind Mi-Rae. To achieve this Lee opens the film with someone reading a newspaper with the headline regarding the death of “Student A” before cutting to Mi-Rae’s body falling past a classroom window.

Only this is possibly a bad dream, followed by its apparent cause put into context as Mi-Rae is treated like dirt in class, including her boorish teacher (Lee Jong-Hyuk). At home, Mi-Rae’s drunken father terrorises her so badly she wets herself, but gets no tangible support from her mother (Kim Jung-Hwa), presumably also a victim of his abuse, so her despair is understandable.

Things start to look up for Mi-Rae when Baek-Hab and Tae-Yang befriend her but even the popular kids aren’t immune to the fickleness others when they fraternise with the outliers, as Baek-Hab is to find out. But first, Mi-Rae is to face further humiliation when she is embroiled in a plagiarism scandal and, of course, as the resident whipping post she is naturally the guilty one in everyone’s eyes.

It is one thing to demonise bullies, as they deserve it, but quite rightfully so the Korean school system is also a target. The opprobrium isn’t as sharp as it could be; the teacher’s culpability in not recognising bullying and his own part in it is as mordant as it gets. This a weakness of the writing, failing to properly address institutionalised bullying and the official handling of it by covering it up rather than snuffing it out.

Once Jae-Hee reveals himself to Mi-Rae, the mood should lighten a little and it does, allowing us to see Mi-Rae smile for the first time, yet this Bieber-hair cut sporting chap has a nihilistic side of his own. He first teaches Mi-Rae that someone will need her through a series of jokey vignettes but the point remains valid, and then opens up about his own life, revealing his bucket list.

Jae-Hee is a real person despite any guardian angel vibes he may emit and his own story comes with an interesting twist, yet none of this is about proselytising to Mi-Rae but to encourage her. Having compiled her own bucket list, we are treated to another surreal scene that would work better in anime form but carries its own catharsis for Mi-Rae and poignancy as she takes steps to facing her problems.  

Heading towards the conclusion there are a number of call backs to earlier occurrences in moving Mi-Rae closer to a resolution, adding a timely message about standing up to bullies in the most passive way possible. The implied subtext here is no retaliation is the best form of retaliation, a worthy and valid sentiment in this tolerant age of ours, and to his credit, Lee doesn’t overdo it with a sudden change of heart by Mi-Rae’s tormentors.

The climax is quite something, likely to polarise opinion and, as suggested earlier, questions the sincerity of addressing bullying – unless the intention was to make a point through sneaky means. Frankly, it’s hard to tell, otherwise Lee presents us with a stark, often bleak tale of a horrific subject boasting a sublime performance from Kim Hwan-Hee, a future star no doubt.

Student A juggles quite a few balls in the air and not all of them stay in motion, the fantasy diversion jarring in a live action setting that would work better in animation. When it focuses on Mi-Rae’s torment however it hits as hard as any film on this subject should.