South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, much of which is attributed to intense social pressures. Director Yoon Ga-eun’s debut feature film shows childhood isn’t so simple.
Before we see them, we hear them: “Rock, scissors, paper. Rock, scissors, paper,” the soft thump of fists against palms as children pick teammates for dodge ball. Blackness gives way to a lush palette of pastels and a portrait of 10-year-old Sun (Choi Soo-in). Her smile is hopeful, but it becomes increasingly awkward. It’s clear that she’s no one’s first choice. She never is.
“Sun sucks,” a student says, “I was just kidding.” But the sting effectively remained throughout the UK premiere of The World of Us on Wednesday 26 October.
“I think of a girl on a school playground, just standing alone. I spent of lot of time doing that…Fortunately, I’m old enough now it’s no longer traumatic,” Director Yoon Ga-eun explained of her film’s inspiration during the London East Asian Film Festival screening and Q&A session at Regent Street Cinema. “It’s about love and it’s about loss. And that’s where the story begins.”
Set in the deceptively innocent world of children, ‘The World of Us’ takes us on an intimate journey that reveals what can sometimes be a devastatingly cruel reality.
From little Sun’s point of view Yoon artfully shows that childhood really isn’t so simple. Her experiences become a microcosm through which the world’s greater pains and complexities are explored, particularly when they clash with those of her new friend, Jia (Seol Hye-in). In her own way, each feels the effect of wealth or lack thereof, the stress of being expected to perform well, the need to have a perfect family. The children reveal an almost heartbreaking perceptiveness that suggests they are more privy to the reality of their situations than the adults in their lives assume.
Soon after the girls meet, Sun cries on top of a bridge. She’s been tricked by someone she thought was a friend, and Jia happens to be passing by.
“It’s really high up here. And so many cars,” Jia says. The observation is nonchalant, almost a throw away line, but also haunting as Sun lays her head on her arms over the railing. South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, much of which is attributed to intense social pressures, not unlike those that the children face.
The film hints at heavy themes, but Yoon opts for a delicate poetic probing of these values. She illustrates this through carefully chosen symbols.
Sun wants to fit in, but close-ups of her homemade friendship bracelets contrast with her classmates’ expensive store-bought gifts, as do her pink nails stained from homegrown garden balsam next to their professional manicures. It seems like she’s the only girl who doesn’t have a cell phone of her own. They’re reminders of everything Sun doesn’t have.
Jia, on the other hand, has all this. She still embraces Sun’s lifestyle and they become fast friends. But she turns when small things remind her of everything she doesn’t have. Laughter shared between Sun and her mother and homemade meals exacerbate the absence of family love in her own life. She starts to keep company with girls who have the social capital that comes along with having money. Facing pressure from her new friends, she cruelly pushes Sun aside. Through their differences the film questions what constitutes true friendship and happiness.
It’s unclear whether the girls reconcile, but by the end of the film, it’s possible to imagine what Sun might do next. This is made possible by Yoon’s direction and Choi’s acting, and their successful working relationship.
Yoon said the casting process was unusual. She ultimately chose young actors who had never been in front of a camera before based on group auditions and interviews.
“I told them, ‘We have to be able to be open and tell each other anything and everything,” Yoon said.
They checked in with each other daily, and the children’s insights informed the script. Together, Yoon and Choi built out Sun’s character and her story so that they live and breathe.
Although pushed around, Choi’s Sun is never a pushover. She’s quick to beat up people who threaten her little brother and take a razor to her friendship bracelets when they seem to lose their meaning. In a particularly heated moment she and Jia get into a throw down in the middle of their classroom, both walking away scratched and bruised. The most devastating moment is when Sun confronts her drunk father.
“What could be wrong with kids? They just go to school, study, and play with friends,” he says of a seething Sun.
“It’s your fault. You’re an alcoholic!” she screams. In this rare moment of open blame, she calls out adults’ tremendous blinds spots about how their behavior affects their children.
In the last scene, Sun defends Jia who’s fallen victim to bullying from her fickle so-called friends.
These instances point to Sun standing up for what she believes in, even if others shun her for it. Remembering the little girl standing alone on the playground and the other children like her, one can only hope she keeps fighting.
World of Us now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.