Thursday, March 09, 2017

NYICFF ’17: The World of Us

It might be a cliché, but it could very well be true bullying is more emotionally intense among girls, compared to boys. It is probably even more so in more socially rigid South Korea. Regrettably, that is the situation eleven-year-old Seon faces. She is a sweet kid, so it is often rough watching her in Yoon Ga-eun’s The World of Us (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Seon is not popular and it seems like social class is the primary reason why. A few years ago, she was good friends with mean girl queen bee Bo-ra, but now she is treated like an outcast. However, due to fortuitous timing, Seon meets a new classmate just as summer vacation starts, forging a fast friendship with the well-heeled Ji-ah. They argue and make-up as girls of that age do, but they share a legit friendship, until catty Bo-ra gets a hold of Ji-ah during cram school (which Seon’s parents can’t afford).

Suddenly, Seon finds herself alone again, but Ji-ah’s rejection makes it sting even worse. However, Ji-ah’s new position in the popular clique may not be as secure as she assumes. A kernel of their old friendship might still persist between Seon and Ji-ah, but they only seem to lash-out at each other, out of frustration with peer pressure and their own dysfunctional family lives.

You have to give Yoon credit, because she never waters-down or sugar-coats any of the pain and humiliation Seon experiences. Young Choi Soo-in is also so remarkably expressive, she makes us feel every slight deeply and profoundly. She is just a natural, who will rip your heart out and stomp on it. Likewise, Seol Hye-in gives a completely grounded, utterly unaffected performance as Ji-ah, who is arguably an even more complex character.

Unlike most bullying dramas, Yoon establishes the complex social dynamics that ultimately foster the emotional bullying Seon (and to some extent Ji-ah) endures, including parental alcoholism, divorce, and the lingering emotional baggage from their parents’ childhoods. This is not a reductive story of rich vs poor and jocks vs geeks, even that is essentially what it boils down to on a day-to-day level for Seon.

This is an excellent film, but probably one you will never want to revisit through repeat viewings. However, watching the careers of Choi and Seol blossom (as they surely shall) will be all the more rewarding for those who have seen their debuts under Yoon’s sensitive direction. It is a bold, challenging selection for NYICFF, but it is definitely a film that should develop empathy among viewers (young and old alike). Highly recommended for those who think they can take it, The World of Us screens again this Sunday (3/12), as part of the New York International Children’s Film Festival.