South Korean film “Misbehavior” slowly boils with its dark, nervous tale of desire, jealousy, and manipulation. While it is quite uncomfortable mainly due to a number of serious misbehaviors committed by its main characters, the movie is compelling to watch none the less thanks to competent direction and engaging performance, and it feels like watching the irreversible progress of a destructive chemical reaction as they go further with each own desire.
The story is told mostly through the viewpoint of Hyo-joo (Kim Ha-neul), the chemistry teacher of a boys’ high school. The early scenes of the movie show how her life recently becomes more difficult than usual. Shortly after one of her colleagues has to leave her position temporarily because of her pregnancy, Hyo-joo is tasked with supervising that colleague’s class, and she cannot say no mainly because of her upcoming contract renewal. When she comes back to her place late, her slacker boyfriend does not seem to notice at all how much she feels pressured and exhausted, and this insensitive prick even demands her to make a late dinner for him.
While Hyo-joo manages to go through her hard days, there comes a new teacher. Apparently younger than Hyo-joo and other teachers in the school. Hye-yeong (Yoo Yin-yeong) is the daughter of the chairman of the school board, and that is certainly why she is employed so easily unlike others while never having to worry about getting fired.
Naturally, Hye-yeong’s very existence exasperates Hyo-joo a lot, and she coldly responds to Hye-yeong even when she instantly recognizes Hyo-joo as a senior during her college year. Quite oblivious to how much Hyo-joo dislikes her, Hye-yeong keeps trying to be nice to Hyo-joo, and that only brings out more harsh responses from Hyo-joo. At one point, Hyo-joo points out how inappropriate Hye-yeong’s bright, colorful attire is in front of those hormone-charged boys in the school, and she does not even try to hide her displeasure in front of Hye-yeong and other teachers.
And then it turns out Hye-yeong has already done something far more inappropriate. During one evening, Hyo-joo drops by the school gym for checking Jae-ha (Lee Won-guen), one of her class students who routinely practices during after-school hours for his upcoming ballet contest. While looking for him in the gym, she hears something from a storage room in the building, and then she happens to witness Jae-ha having a sex with Hye-yeong.
On the next day, Hyo-joo tells Hye-yeong about what she saw during last evening, and she certainly feels empowered as Hye-yeong is thrown into panic in front of her. Now she becomes advantageous with her control over Hye-yeong’s scandalous secret, and that changed circumstance also prompts her to follow her secret desire toward Jae-ha. As she helps and supports him more than before, this good-looking boy shows her some gratitude in exchange, and she does not mind when he approaches to her closer for giving her more than a pupil is permitted to do.
Partially reminiscent of “Notes on a Scandal” (2006), another psychological thriller about two female school teachers and one male teenager student, the movie steadily dials up the level of suspense as calmly observing how its main characters’ situation becomes more unstable along the story, and we become more involved in the conflict between Hyo-joo and Hye-yeong even though both of them are not very sympathetic to say the least. It goes without saying that she suffered unfair disadvantages from the beginning because of Hye-yeong, but Hyo-joo has no problem with taking advantage of Hye-yeong as well as Jae-ha. In case of Hye-hyeong, she can be insufferable with her chirpy superficiality, which is exemplified well by a later scene where she casually confides to Hyo-joo what she actually thinks about Jae-ha.
We accordingly watch these two very unlikable characters from the distance, but the two lead performers of the movie keep holding our attention. In what may be her best performance since “Blind” (2011), Kim Ha-neul is terrific as subtly conveying the emotions bottled up behind her character’s frigid façade, and Yoo In-yeong is equally convincing as balancing her character well between innocence and hypocrisy. While he looks a little too old as an adolescent character, Lee Won-guen, who previously appeared in “The Net” (2016), is mostly adequate as another crucial part of the story, and Lee Hee-joon, Lee Ki-woo, Ki Joo-bong, Lee Kyeong-yeong, and Jeong Seok-young are also solid in their small supporting roles.
“Misbehavior” is the second feature film from the director/writer Kim Tae-yong, who previously impressed me a lot with his first feature film “Set Me Free” (2014). That modest but powerful character drama was fueled by the considerable tension generated from its young, opportunistic hero’s desperate struggle to get out of his depressing reality, and I came to care a bit about him although I did not like him much even in the end.
I did not care a lot about the main characters of “Misbehavior”, but I enjoyed at least how their disturbing drama approaches to its critical point with accumulating tension. What happens after that point feels so sudden at first, but it is undeniably inevitable, and we are chilled by its devastating consequence. You may feel a little sorry for them, but they surely knew they were playing with fire, didn’t they?