Film: The World of Us (South Korea, 2016) – written and directed by Yoon Ga-eun

for V, C, L

I’ve been intermittently feeling very guilty for not writing something about “The World of Us” – written and directed by Yoon Ga-eun – in the 2016 London East Asian Film Festival because during and after the screening I very much wanted to try to say why this was such a special film.

But now I can at least point to an excellent review by Andrew C Routledge.
While preparing this post I found several good reviews of “The World of Us” and I want to especially mention two reviews which in their own ways are as perceptive as that by Andrew C Routledge. All three should be read in full.
* Sanja Struna at ViewOfTheArts
* Sara Hayden at WeAreResonate

I originally intended simply to add a comment to Andrew C Routledge’s review, but this grew and grew until I felt it was more polite to make a post here (it was also easier to control the formatting), and add a short comment on his review with a link to this. What follows is a combination of what I thought while watching this film (including some films I was reminded of), reinforcements of some of his points, and two relatively small disagreements. I recommend first reading the three reviews by him, Sanja Struna, and Sara Hayden. (In what follows quotes from Andrew C Routledge’s review are preceded by “ACR:”.)

  • Other interesting reviews I found, which are worth reading carefully. (I’d be grateful for notification of any good reviews of “The World of Us” which I haven’t listed.)
  • Letterboxd.com: some very perceptive comments by people who have seen the film, including:
    *iceberrie: How much raw can a film be? There was never a single moment that I thought “Hmm… here should be some gorgeous shots of scenery…” I mean, this film shows why sometimes thinking about mise-en-scene or exhibiting awesome filmmaking skills is not at all important. Not. At. All. The director leads the audience into this world of friendship between two girls in a way that is never artificial or melodramatic. This is such a precious film. I have to cherish it.
    *Dave Crewe: … The World of Us, in many ways, feels like a prepubescent, Korean version of Mélanie Laurent’s Breathe. Like that film, it closely interrogates the politics of female friendship; like that film, it feels like it could only have been made by a female filmmaker. It’s a simpler story, naturally; the younger characters don’t allow for the psychosexual tension humming under Breathe’s surface. It’s not as formally flashy as the French film, either, but its cinematographic subtlety is shared with an ending that sidesteps Laurent’s misguided gearshift into full-on thriller territory. This is a quieter film, and as – perhaps more – devastating for it. …
  • TimeOut-US: “…rarely has the world of a young child been so vividly and delicately brought to life… It is a small marvel that cloaks its complexities with an effortless simplicity.”
  • koreanfilm.or.kr: a plot summary and some stills
  • Jason Bechervaise’s review is very positive, but suggests that in some respects Yoon tackles too many issues at once, a view which I disagree with.

First my two disagreements with Andrew C Routledge’s review:
* ACR: “The pacing is deliberately slow, which can be frustating” – The pacing is slow, but I didn’t find it in any way frustrating: I was completely held throughout the film.
* ACR: “In a few rare moments, the kids feel like they are acting inorganically for the sake of plot, rather than character.” – That’s not something I noticed.

I’ve occasionally been at plays where almost everyone but me seems to be loving the performance, and I’m thinking it’s dire. One experience: I and two friends were at a play because they knew one of the actors, and all three of us found it clunky and simply bad theatre. But the rest of the audience – who were a quite different demographic from us – were enthused by it, I suspect because their lives were only infrequently represented on stage. In other words, I think the rest of the audience were – not unreasonably – using different criteria to judge the performance. From a purely artistic viewpoint, I think we three were correct, but we weren’t the main target audience.

The reverse has also happened: I’ve loved a performance (play, dance, music) and seem to have been in a very small minority. On those occasions of course it’s mostly due to me having far superior artistic judgment to those lesser mortals who didn’t get it, but there’s sometimes a small nagging doubt that if I’m seeing a wonderful performance by (for example) someone I know, maybe my view is being clouded by non-artistic factors.

So: when I was at school I was something of an outsider, which is why I empathised and identified with Sun (judging by what the writer/director and others said in the Q&A I was not alone in that), and that may account for the two things which were negatives for Andrew C Routledge completely passing me by.

Now for the much more positive thoughts. I make some direct comments on “The World of Us“, but more often praise it indirectly by citing other films (and two plays and two books).

* ACR: “There’s something strangely unassuming about The World of Us that actually makes it quite compelling.” – A particularly perceptive comment. My similar thought immediately after the screening was that a very great strength of the film is in what it doesn’t do. For example: no tricksy camera movements, and almost no use of music. I’m not using that as a general artistic criterion (there are superb films which use one or both of those), but here it absolutely reinforces what the film does. And I suspect it’s more difficult to make a compelling work of art by not doing things than by doing things?

I don’t recall when I first suddenly realised there was no music (maybe about 20 minutes into the film), and in the Q&A I asked a question about the almost complete absence of music. From memory, Yoon Ga-eun said it was a very deliberate decision, and that she had chosen to use music in only two places: first, in a scene where the two young girls are playing on swings and enjoying each other’s company; second in the closing credits, using music which is similar to, but not the same as, the music during the swings scene to give the film’s audience a reminder that the two girls were close friends, and might or might not – the film’s superb last scene, similar to, but not the same as, the film’s first scene, is very ambiguous on this – be reconciled in the future.

* Bearing in mind what I said above about my empathy for Sun, during the screening I was thinking this is one of the best films I have ever seen, and – since I was comparing it with films like Sopyonje by Im Kwon-taek (for me one of the two best films ever made) – I was also thinking is it really that good, or is my personal history clouding my judgment? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that I would very much love this film to have more UK (and worldwide!) screenings, and that I would be doing my best to persuade people to see it.

* ACR: “The two young leads, who had never acted before, are extremely well cast.” – They gave superb performances, as did the rest of the cast, adults and children. In this regard I was very strongly reminded of a 2008 South Korean film which I admire very much: “Treeless Mountain” written and directed by So-yong Kim. There are some differences: for example, “Treeless Mountain” was made for children but also has a strong appeal for adults; by contrast, I think “The World of Us” is a film for adults. (And maybe also for older children: I’d be very interested to know how children the same age as Sun and Jia would react to this film.) After the screening I said to Yoon Ga-eun (though the excellent translator at the Q&A) that I’d been reminded in a good way of “Treeless Mountain” and she replied that it was a film she liked very much.
MORE about other films with excellent acting by young children

* In the header to ACR’s review: “The politics of the playground” – As an example of independent convergent thought, after seeing the film I too thought of using the word “politics” to describe the changing relationships between all the young girls in the film. From ACR’s review: “what happens between Sun and Jai might seem trivial to adults, but clearly it’s life and death for these girls at this particular age“. True, but also one thing that struck me was that although the film is about changing relationships between ten year old girls, with little (or even no!) changes it also serves as a metaphor (or even as a very direct model) for changing relationships between adults, both in social relationships which are “political” and in “purely political” machinations.
MORE films about personal relationships
MORE films, plays, and books about the politics of relationships

Films which I thought of after seeing the superb acting by the young children in “The World of Us”

  • Treeless Mountain” on Wikipedia – I’d forgotten this in the Wikipedia article: “… Most reviews generally praise the quiet and subtle nature of the film along with the performances of the two young actresses. Negative reviews generally cite the lack of dialogue and slow plot progression. …” (Given Andrew C Routledge’s perception of the slow pacing of “The World of Us” as being sometimes frustrating I wonder how he’d react to “Treeless Mountain“?)
  • Treeless Mountain” on IMDb
  • Treeless Mountain” review in The Daily Telegraph – I hadn’t seen this review before, and several comments in it could have been written about “The World of Us”. For example: … Treeless Mountain is … a film that prefers to show rather than to tell, and to intimate rather than to show. Its minimalism – not unlike that of Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008) – is a kind of maximalism. Its silences lasso our imaginations, and speak greater truths than those in any number of more eloquent, gabby independent movies. … (In passing, that’s excellent writing by Sukhdev Sandhu – I very strongly recommend reading the whole review. The phrase “Its minimalism is a kind of maximalism” reminds me of the C major prelude in Book 1 of Bach’s 48 preludes and fugues for The Well-Tempered Clavier.)
  • Written for a screening at Dundee Contemporary Arts, this review could also be about “The World of Us“. For example: … Without artifice, cheesy music, or special effects, “Treeless Mountain” has a purity and restraint that is reminiscent of some of the best films ever made about childhood, like “Ponette”, or “Kes”. As Truffaut was blessed with the discovery of Jean-Pierre Leaud in “The 400 Blows”, Kim has been very lucky to discover in her two non-professional leads two extraordinary actors. Hee-Yeon Kim was found in an elementary school in Seoul City, while five-year-old Song-Hee was auditioned along with her fellow housemates at a Korean orphanage. …
  • Very interesting Berlinale festival information by the writer/director on how “Treeless Mountain” was made. An extract: … The most important and difficult task in making the film was finding the two leads. In order to cast Jin, we visited 14 elementary schools and kindergartens in Seoul. When I first met Kim Hee-Yeon, who plays Jin in the film, I had this gut feeling that she was the one. When I approached her in the school’s cafeteria, she told me it was her dream to have a younger sister. After that she corrected my poor Korean. I fell for her completely. …
  • A document on the filmmaker’s site; almost all of this information is also in the Berlinale site document.
  • review by Kristi Mitsuda, astaff writer on ReverseShot.com: So Yong Kim’s cinema can break your heart. Not by invoking the usual tearjerking music swells and dramatic crescendos, but by constructing narratives authentically attuned to the behavioral and emotional rhythms of particular age groups, from childhood to teenage years. In the course of only two films — the impeccable adolescent tale “In Between Days” being the first – Kim has demonstrated a mastery of the medium similar to Ramin Bahrani; both directors craft character stories and share realist aesthetic tendencies, evincing an almost anthropological attention to detail whilst weaving immigrant experiences into the fabric of a shared American narrative. “Treeless Mountain” again sees Korean-American director Kim – drawing upon memories of growing up in Pusan – expertly turning her gaze upon a female protagonist, this time undergoing an experience more harrowing than high school. … Numerous shots also capture Jin and Bin peering out of windows, and a mournful tone haunts the frequent dusky shots of the horizon, another day passing in which their mother doesn’t return. Lingering over the bodies of the listless sisters after they come to the realization that a full piggy bank isn’t a genie in a bottle, Kim makes palpable their sorrow simply, through careful composition and pacing; later, a joyful endpoint is just as subtly expressed through lighting. Skillfully steering clear of sentimentality in relaying her semiautobiographical tale – not just of childhood but also of women – the director creates a raw portrait that’s exquisite in its miniaturist scope.
  • Mostly just the plot but has some insights.
  • Links to several good reviews, including:
  • Robert Koehler in Variety: … Drawing out beautifully natural performances from her child actors, Kim once again has a distinct way of letting her camera observe her characters with kind thoughtfulness, allowing for a quiet mood to wash over the scenes. …
  • David Jenkins in TimeOut – London: … Not since Jacques Doillon’s enchanting 1996 drama ‘Ponette’ have the collective, small-scale traumas and vertiginous learning curve that come with a childhood on the lam been captured with such psychological diligence and hardscrabble poetics as in this autumnal, toddler’s-eye heartbreaker. …
  • Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian: Korean director Kim So Yong has made a sombre yet touching film about the vulnerability and loneliness of children in a world of not-very-benign neglect. … Not an easy watch, but worth sticking with.

[BACK to the superb acting by young children in “The World of Us”]
Some more films that I love which have excellent acting by young children:

  • A 1961 South Korean film for adults: My Mother and Her Guest (or “Mother and a Guest” or similar variations). More information and links here, and there is an essay on Blue Devil’s Blog which at a quick first read seems interesting.
  • A 2005 Dutch film for children (and adults!): Winky’s Horse (original Dutch title “Het paard van Sinterklaas)“). On IMDb. From the Dundee Contemporary Arts website: A magical Christmas story about Winky, a little girl who has come from China to make a new home in Holland. Winky has one burning desire, to have her own pony, but her Mum won’t hear of it. When she [Winky] discovers a tradition in Holland that is new to her, she realises that Santa Claus and his present bearer Schwarte Pete might be able to help her to fulfil her dreams. A lovely film, no matter what country you come from.
  • A 1996 Chinese film for children (and adults!): “The King of Masks“.

    • Spoiler warning: if you haven’t seen this film then please don’t use any of these links for more information until you have seen it: there’s a plot twist which will come as a lovely surprise. The film is wonderful even if you know the plot twist (I’ve seen it three times), but it would be a pity not to be surprised by the plot twist the first time you see the film.
    • The_King_of_Masks” on IMDb
    • Roger Ebert’s review including a very perceptive observation
    • CultureVulture

[BACK to the superb acting by young children in “The World of Us”]

Films about personal relationships which I thought of after seeing “The World of Us”

  • There’s an excellent portrait of relationships between 17 year olds (who are also outsiders) in the 1991 Australian film Flirting, which has Thandie Newton in one of the leading roles, and Nicole Kidman in a supporting role. The film is very carefully made, and there’s an excellent review by Roger Ebert: excellent both in the sense that it highly praises the film, and excellent in the sense of being perceptive and well written – his review ends: So often we settle for noise and movement from the movie screen, for stupid people indulging unworthy fantasies. Only rare movies like “Flirting” remind us that the movies are capable of providing us with the touch of other lives, that when all the conditions are right we can grow a little and learn a little, just like the people on the screen. This movie is joyous, wise and life-affirming, and certainly one of the year’s best films.
  • Another excellent portrait of relationships between teenagers (who are also outsiders) is the 1981 Scottish film Gregory’s Girl. and there’s another excellent review by Roger Ebert. Here is a retrospective review from 2014 which also makes me want to see “Gregory’s Girl” again, as does this (formerly on the Film4 website): … The film has fresh, no-nonsense performances and a script so rooted in truth that it seems to have materialized not been written. The strength is in the uncluttered presentation of this slight story of adolescent pangs (about both football and first love) that never veers over into passion. …. The comment about “a script so rooted in truth that it seems to have materialized not been written” could also have been said about “The World of Us
  • A wonderful film about the relationships between six somewhat older characters – five young women who have just graduated from school and (as acutely observed by a speaker at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival) Incheon, the city they live in – is the 2001 South Korean film Take Care of My Cat. There’s an informative Wikipedia article and, intriguingly, this fullwiki article is allegedly from Wikipedia but is actually even more informative! I first saw this film shortly after it was made and loved it: even the somewhat unsympathetic character of the five is a sympathetic character! In 2016 it was screened again in London, and I was more that somewhat worried that on re-seeing the film it wouldn’t live up to my memories of it, but I was very relieved to find that my memories were broadly correct. Indeed the film exceeded them: for example, I recalled that the identical twins were somewhat subsidiary characters to the other three young women, but re-seeing the film I realised that they have more important roles than I remembered (this article captures my former view of the twins, is perceptive, and has several stills from the film.). Also the twins are ethnically Chinese, so in some ways even more outsiders than the other three. And “Take Care of My Cat” easily passes the Bechdel test: see this perceptive article by Adam Hartzell.

Films, plays, book which I thought of relating to the “politics of relationships” in “The World of Us”

The World of Us” indirectly reminded me of a 1992 film from South Korea: Our Twisted Hero, based on a short South Korean novel of the same name by Yi Munyol. (I’ve seen the film – IMDb – but I haven’t read the novel.) Ostensibly this is a story about bullying in a boy’s school of and by pupils aged maybe 15 or 16, but there is no doubt in my mind that it is really about adult politics in South Korea. And not just about South Korea – think carefully about what the film shows (and it really does “show, not tell”), and you realise it has a universal application to politics. (Yes, even here in the – for now – United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.)

About two years ago (in 2014) I had no idea this novel and film existed, and the Korean Cultural Centre held a screening at SOAS. I arrived a little while after the screening started, but I rapidly decided this was an exceptional film, an impression which was strongly reinforced by the end of the screening.

The story (I’m describing the film, which seems to have a somewhat different ending to the novel) is of a 15 (or thereabouts) year old boy whose family moves to another town and he attends a school in that new town. He joins a class which is dominated by a boy who is a bully (even the teacher of the class is intimidated), and the new boy is bullied but tries to resist the bullying. Eventually he stops resisting, and is accepted by and joins the gang of bullies. A year goes by, and all the pupils move up a class. Their new teacher realises what is happening, and breaks up the gang and destroys the power of the chief bully and his accolytes. But: the film is told in flashback – the now grown-up new boy is attending the funeral of a former teacher, and eventually the now grown-up chief bully also (sort of) attends, and we discover that this bully has actually done rather well for himself in adult life.

Question: did the new teacher’s reforms actually achieve much?

An even more important question: who is the “twisted hero” of the story? During and immediately after the screening I was sure that it was the new boy, who first resists the bullies, then joins them: not so heroic. I’ve seen a review suggesting that the twisted hero is the chief bully: I can see there’s a sort of argument for that, but I mostly disagree. (Unless you think that it’s heroic – albeit in a “twisted” way – to bully and succeed by trampling on people.) As I write this, I wonder if the new “reforming” teacher of the class is not also in a way a twisted hero: his reforms have an immediate effect, but the bully still eventually succeeds.

Indeed, maybe the twisted hero is the reader of the novel, the watcher of the film? Suppose I – or you, dear reader – had been an adult in, say, the regimes of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s 1930s Soviet Union with the horrific “purges”: would I – or you – have heroically resisted, or would I – or you – have been complicit by inaction. Worse: would I – or you – have collaborated with the regime in small (or large) ways simply to survive. (Like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s “1984″ would I – or you – want someone else to suffer instead of me – or you?) Worse still, would I – or you – have actively joined with the regime to further my – or your – careers? I hope that, at least, I wouldn’t have gone that far; but as for the “lesser” evils, who knows? In, for example, Nazi-occupied France in World War 2, there were heroic resisters, collaborators who were in sympathy with the Nazi philosophy, doubtless other collaborators who were just out for themselves, and the majority of the population who were unheroically somewhere on the spectrum between the heroes and the villains. (I’m not singling out France: if anyone seriously imagines that – for example – the British would have overall behaved much better than the French if Britain had been occupied by the Nazis then I suggest they think again. Fortunately the British were never put to that test.)

Put another way, who the twisted hero really is is – rightly – ambigous.

No character in “Our Twisted Hero” escapes censure. In that it is similar to a 2014 USA independent film Dear White People (well, actually there are two characters in “Dear White People“, one major, one minor, who largely escape censure), a very intelligent, imaginative, angry, funny examination of racial politics in an American university. And it has an excellent music score, using European classical music, jazz and hip-hop to underline differences in the main characters. (I once mentioned this to a university lecturer on music, who intelligently asked if it was similar to Wagner’s use of leitmotifs. Answer: sort of. In “Dear White People” styles of music are used instead of individual letimotif themes, but the actual music changes, which seems a quite close analogy to leitmotif. From Wikipedia: “the crucial aspect of a leitmotif – as opposed to the plain musical motif or theme – [is] that it is transformable and recurs in different guises throughout the piece in which it occurs“.) If you haven’t seen “Dear White People“, please do so as soon as possible!

[BACK to the relationships in “The World of Us”]

Some related works on individual responsibility, using and abusing political systems, and what would I or you do:

  • Antigone, a 1944 play by Jean Anouilh – this isn’t a simple heroine versus villain plot: King Creon (the “villain”) has some very persuasive arguments – in the 1980s I saw an amateur performance which was one of the best things I have ever seen in a theatre.
  • The Ivankiad (or, The tale of the writer Voinovich’s installation in his new apartment), a short (144 pages) 1976 book by Vladimir Voinovich – I have called this one of the most important books of the 20th century: Voinovich shows (using humour, satire, and fantasy, and his own entirely legitimate quest for a larger apartment) the deep flaws in the Soviet Communist political system in the 1970s. The excellent English translation is currently out of print, but secondhand copies can be easily found by searching the internet. Here is another view on “The Ivankiad
  • Good, a 1981 play by C P Taylor: “…it shows how John Halder, a liberal-minded professor whose best friend is the Jewish Maurice, could not only be seduced into joining the Nazis, but step-by-rationalised-step end up embracing the final solution justifying to his conscience the terrible actions…”
  • The Nasty Girl” (a more accurate translation of the original German title “Das schreckliche Mädchen” might be “The Terrible Girl“), a 1990 film. Question: is Sonja, the heroine of the film, a heroine? Maybe yes, maybe partly no. Put another way, is Sonja pursuing awkward truth purely selflessly, or has she an element of self-importance. With that in mind, consider review by Roger Ebert. After a reasonable summary of the plot, Ebert writes: “… It’s the film’s style that I object to. The story itself is fascinating, but the style seems to add another tone, a level of irony that is somehow confusing: Does Verhoeven see this as quite the cheery romp he pretends, or is there a sly edge to his method? As a rule I welcome stylistic experiments – most movies are much too straightforward – but this time I’m not sure the movie’s odd tone adds anything. Realism might have worked better. The tone is most noticeable in the film’s visual style, which uses obviously artificial sets and locations, and at times has its heroine walking in front of back-projected streets, or standing on pedestals in the embrace of the local statues. … as I watched the film, I found that the disparity between the subject and the style was so strange that it distracted from what the film was really about. …” That odd visual style is one of the things that make me like this film so much: it’s “Brechtian alienation” (an interesting alternative explanation of “Brechtian alienation”) makes the viewer think about my question “is the heroine of the film a heroine?“. In other words, I think there is “a sly edge to his method” and that it’s intentionally a much more interesting film than a simple “feel good” story of one good woman (or man) uncovering the truth against the odds.

[BACK to the relationships in “The World of Us”]

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About Colin Bartlett

I'm interested in arts, mathematics, science. Suliram is a partial conflation of the names of three good actors: Ira Aldridge, Anna May Wong, and another. My intention is to use a personal experience of arts to make some points, but without being too "me me me" about it. And to follow Strunk's Elements of Style. Except that I won't always "be definite": I prefer Niels Bohr's precept that you shouldn't write clearer than you think.
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