After My Death (Joi manheun sonyeo)

Korea (2017) Dir. Kim Ui-Seok

Bullying and teen suicides seems to be a popular theme for Korean filmmakers over the last few years, implying this is becoming a handy “go to” topic to draw the punters in, or more worryingly, that this is still such a huge problem in Korean schools that the need to draw attention to it remains a necessary one.

One school night, three classmates Young-hee (Jeon Yeo-been), Han-sol (Go Won-Hee) and Kyung-min (Jeon So-nee) are out together about town. The next morning only two of them arrive at school, Kyung-min has disappeared, her backpack found on a bridge overlooking a river. As the police investigation intensifies, the focus is on Young-hee having been reported as the last person to see Kyung-min alive.

Young-hee explains the odd relationship she had with Kyung-min but denies any wrong doing, though Han-sol implicates Young-hee by mentioning their conversation about suicide. Kyung-min’s mother Mrs. Park (Seo Young-Hwa) demands Young-hee tell the truth but Young-hee doesn’t believe Kyung-min is dead and vows to clear her name. But when the body is found and her classmates turn on her, Young-hee decides to take her own life too.

For his debut, Kim Ui-Seok has picked a tricky subject, partly for the reasons outlined in the opening paragraph above and partly because it is one that doesn’t lend itself to originality without going too heavy on graphic content to hit its audience harder. Yet, Kim has tried a different approach with After My Death by looking at the aftermath of the tragic suicide and shifting the attention from the victim to explore the guilt and struggle of those directly – or indirectly – involved in their death.

Told through a narrative that flits between linear and non-linear Kim weaves a complex yarn of broken relationships and tenuous new ones brought about by Kyung-min’s death that paints another sobering and unpleasant picture of modern Korean society. For example, as seems to be the case, the school is concerned more for their image in the wake of this tragedy than Kyung-min’s family pain.

Since we are to assume Kyung-min is a victim of bullying, further mystery arises from the police interviews with teachers and classmates that paint a confusing picture about her. It seems despite being a top student from a good home, Kyung-min could be difficult, listening to dark music, and remaining distant from others – the exception being Young-hee, until drifting apart some months earlier – to give the police an early “valid” motive for suicide.

It is the revelation from Han-sol that Kyung-min confessed her love to Young-Hee who asked her to “prove it with her life” that seals Young-hee’s fate. The police believe this triggered Kyung-min but Young-hee insists that Kyung-min “stole” her own suicide plan which was what they discussed. Her classmates are also quick to judge, taking action by beating Young-hee up, whilst she gets no support from her (all male) teachers either, all ignoring Young-hee’s evident melancholy.

As you may have surmised, the men in this film are not portrayed in a sensitive light, which seems a little ham fisted but the interesting facet to this is that they are all in a position of authority – there are no female teachers at the all-girl school and no female police officers either. Mrs. Park therefore takes on all of these roles in trying to uncover the truth about her daughter’s death, realising Young-hee, may not be directly culpable after all.

Except Young-hee’s suicide attempt during the wake for Kyung-min held at the school -itself a peculiar ceremony to western eyes – turns the whole situation on its head. True to the aphorism about not letting facts get in the way of a good story, it is remarkable how quickly the class forgive Young-hee, warmly welcome her back to the fold and turn on the troublemaking gossipmongers instead.

But one development feels detached by its sudden arrival and lack of context. Young-hee’s homeroom teacher is accused of inappropriate behaviour in an essay yet the girl still flirts with him. The teacher hits her causing some cuts to her face which she then augments prompting an investigation. Is this to get revenge for Young-hee and Kyung-min, or is she a fantasist causing trouble on her own?

Just as The X-Files used to say “The truth is out there” Kim is intent on holding many facts back, the incongruity of the above scenario being one of them. Backstory for the characters is limited, but the primary concern is about the present than the past, so Kim relies heavily on the dialogue and the character’s actions to flesh them out. In the case of the male characters, their refusal to understand any of the girls and find an easy “out” to resolve the issue is ample direction for them.

Kim certainly is going for a sympathetic vibe towards young girls struggling with teenage life in a patriarchal society but doesn’t shy away from showing the spitefulness and fickle traits they possess. His script is smart enough to show flaws in everyone, eschewing the lone “sugar and spice” victim in a world of bitches; any sympathy engendered is through circumstance and recognising the pain caused by the ignored calls for help.

With a harrowing story to tell, the cast needed to have some grit, possibly explaining why the leads were in their mid-20s despite playing 16 year-olds, but the payoff is in the performances. Jeon Yeo-been’s mesmerising turn as Young-hee earned her numerous awards and deservedly so, not just for being a convincing teen but the sheer depth of her nuanced essaying of this complex girl. Veteran Seo Young-Hwa also provides the emotional gravitas as Mrs. Park.

A few remaining dangling plot threads isn’t enough to prevent After My Death from delivering another savage cinematic dissertation on two pertinent and avoidable blights on modern society. Kim’s debut is a dark and brooding journey of guilt, regret, and oddly, hope yet its inherent melancholy is deeply affecting.