I winced at times while watching South Korean film “After My Death”, a stark, melancholic drama about the anger, frustration, and grievance revolving around one devastating incident. Although this is not a pleasant experience at all, the movie is alternatively compelling and harrowing even as calmly observing its main characters’ increasingly complex situation from the distance, and there are small but striking moments of considerable emotional power which you have to see for yourself.
The story begins with the sudden disappearance of a high school girl named Kyeong-min (Jeon So-nee). Considering the circumstance surrounding her disappearance, it is suspected that she committed the suicide, so the police search around a river bridge where she was witnessed for the last time not long before her disappearance, but she has not been found yet, and that only frustrates and exasperates her desperate parents more, who barely hide their fear and despair while phlegmatically assisting the search.
When Kyeong-min was witnessed for the last time, she was with her classmate Yeong-hee (Jeon Yeo-bin), who was once close to Kyeong-min but has recently been distant from her. The cop assigned to the case surely has lots of questions to ask when he meets Yeong-hee at her school, but Yeong-hee does not answer well to his questions, and the cop comes to suspect that she is not telling everything to him.
After that narrative point, we see how the situation gradually gets worse for Yeong-hee. As it becomes quite more possible that Kyeong-min did commit suicide, her classmates talk more about what might cause the tragedy, though they never cared about Kyeong-min before. Not so surprisingly, they soon come to gossip about whether Yeong-hee was actually responsible for it, and we get several uncomfortable moments as Yeong-hee is consequently ostracized and harassed by her classmates.
Yeong-hee naturally feels quite angry and frustrated, but she does not get much help from others around her. While her friend/classmate Han-sol (Go Won-hee) becomes quite distant to her, her class teacher is mostly occupied with protecting the public reputation of the school just like the principal and many other teachers in the school, and her father is not much of help to her either.
However, Yeong-hee is not an innocent victim at all from the beginning. She could have been more honest when the cop asked her questions, but she unwisely chose not to tell anything about a complicated emotional matter between her and Kyeong-min. As becoming more conflicted, she later decides to do the right thing, but her attempt only makes the situation more complicated, and that subsequently pushes her into more guilt and despair.
The other substantial characters in the story also come to show each own complex human side. Although she initially resented Yeong-hee, Kyeong-min’s mother comes to make amends to Yeong-hee even though she still feels tormented by her daughter’s absence. While letting Yeong-hee bullied by other classmates, Han-sol begins to feel guilty about her friend, and she turns out to have her own emotional matter to deal with.
The movie is the first debut feature work from director/writer/editor Choi Ui-seok, and I admire how he skillfully handles story and characters to generate emotionally impactful moments. I was impressed a lot by one particular sequence which slowly dials up the level of tension and eventually culminates to a shocking moment, and I also appreciated the chilly irony of one small but memorable scene where Yeong-hee silently makes a big personal statement in front of her classmates.
Choi also drew several excellent performances from his main cast members. Jeon Yeo-bin, who previously played a small but substantial supporting role in “Merry Christmas Mr. Mo” (2017), is superb in her nuanced performance, and she is especially fantastic when she has to convey to us her character’s thoughts and feelings without saying a word. Her acting here in this film is definitely one of the best South Korean movie performances of this year, and it will be interesting to see what will come next from her after this commendable breakthrough turn.
In case of other notable performers in the film, they are all believable in their respective supporting roles. While Jeon So-nee is haunting in her brief performance, Go Won-hee, who was one of the main characters in “Merry Christmas Mr. Mo”, is effective in her several crucial moments in the film, and Go Won-hee, whom you may remember for her small supporting role in Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder” (2003), is also very good as Kyeong-min’s mother.
Like a number of recent notable South Korean independent films such as “Last Child” (2017), “After My Death” is quite difficult to watch, but it is a superlative drama packed with considerable emotional power and sensitivity thanks to Choi’s confident direction and his main performers’ solid acting, and it is surely another significant South Korean film of this year. This is a tough stuff indeed, but you will not forget it easily once you watch it.