South Korean film “Elegant Lies” has a fair share of tears to shed inside its story, but it holds them with admirable restraint while rarely resorting to cheap melodrama overflowing with tears. This is a sad story about how its ordinary characters cope with the aftermath of a devastating incident which changes their lives forever, and it touches us with several restrained but painful moments as gradually revealing how that sad tragedy happened – and how it could have been prevented.
On that unforgettable day, everything looks mostly fine to Cheon-ji’s family at first. Hyeon-sook(Kim Hee-ae), Cheon-ji’s mother who has solely supported her family since her husband’s death, prepares breakfast in the morning, and she and her two daughters have some mundane talk over the table before beginning each own daily routine. While her first daughter Man-ji(Ko Ah-seong) is curt and haughty as usual, her second daughter Cheon-ji(Kim Hyang-ki) is sweet and mild despite her introverted personality, but they get along well with each other as sisters, and they and their mother look like a good family in their small residence.
And then something terrible happens. After her school time is over, Cheon-ji commits suicide in her room, and Hyeon-sook and Man-ji are shocked by this sudden tragedy. As far as they can remember, Cheon-ji showed no odd sign on that day except a minor demand involved with her birthday present, and she did not even leave a suicide note to tell her reason.
Confused and devastated, Hyeon-sook and Man-ji wonders whether they could have helped Cheon-ji if they had paid more attention to her, but they also know that they must move on no matter how much they feel sad and guilty about it. While they move to a different place to live, Hyeon-sook continues to work at a neighbourhood mart where she has worked for years, and Man-ji stays in her high school with no apparent problem.
But Man-ji slowly begins to search for the reason behind her sister’s suicide, so she meets Hwa-yeon(Kim Yoo-jeong), Cheon-ji’s “best friend” at her middle school who seems to hide a lot more than she tells. We are also introduced to Mi-ra(Yoo Yeon-mee), who was one of Cheon-ji’s classmates like Haw-yeon. It looks like this quiet girl was not so close to Cheon-ji although her elder sister Miran(Cheon Woo-hee) is one of Man-ji’s high school friends, but she has some reason to be angry about Hwa-yeon, and there is a moment of cold anger in the classroom when she bluntly points out what Hwa-yeon did to Man-ji.
As you have already guessed, the main subject of the movie is alienation at school, and we come to witness its thoughtless cruelty through several flashback scenes as Man-ji comes to learn more and more about what her sister had hidden from her and her mother. We come to see that Hwa-yeon has deliberately exploited and tormented Cheon-ji in the name of friendship, and there is a hurtful scene where Cheon-ji is alienated by Hwa-yeon and others at Hwa-yeon’s birthday party although she is “invited”. Everyone seems to be nice to her on the surface, but they actually ridicule her behind their backs through texting, and Cheon-ji seems to sense that she is not cordially invited at all.
It can be said that Hwa-yeon is mainly responsible for Cheon-ji’s death, but the movie does not present her in simple black-and-white view. While trying to avoid the blame directed toward her, Hwa-yeon starts to face her responsibility in Cheon-ji’s death, and she finds herself in an ironic position when everyone in her class alienates her after Cheon-ji’s suicide. We also come to learn that Hyeon-sook had a certain motive when she moved to a new place for her and her daughter, and there is a quietly unforgiving moment where she confronts a minor character indirectly responsible for the heartbreak still remaining inside her.
The movie becomes more like a mystery story as it turns out that Cheon-ji did leave her last words for several people around her. That naturally leads to the obligatory melodramatic scenes during its third act, but the movie stays cool even when its story gets a little more tearful along with its characters, and the director Lee Han, who previously directed “Punch”(2011), has a number of good actresses to handle these melodramatic moments. Kim Hee-ae, Ko Ah-seong, and Kim Hyang-ki are believable as family members from the beginning, and the emotions churning inside their low-key performances are visible even when they do not signify a lot. Kim Yoo-jeong, Cheon Woo-hee and Yoo Yeon-mi also give solid supporting performances, and Yoo Yeon-mi is especially good as a girl who belatedly realizes her serious misunderstanding and deeply regrets about it.
“Elegant Lies” is far from being perfect. I guess its comic elements are supposed to lighten up the mood for us, but they are distracting rather than effective in my opinion. Yoo Ah-in, who was the lead actor of “Punch”, appears as a young man living next door to Hyeon-sook and Man-ji, and you may be amused by his awful long hairdo in the movie, but his comic scenes do not mesh well with the other serious scenes including the one he shared with Ko Ah-seong. I am willing to accept a certain coincidence involved with Seong Dong-il’s character, but this character is so broad that he looks like a character coming from some other movie whenever he appears.
Despite its notable weaknesses which make it less elegant than it wants to be, the movie works on the whole thanks to its thoughtful handling of the dark subject, and the performances in the movie bring considerable life into its story and characters. As I noticed from the other audiences in the screening room on last Sunday morning, the movie is essentially a tearjerker ready to pull our heartstrings, but I won’t deny that it did its job well while never going too far in pushing our emotional buttons.