Patron Pick – The World of Us

This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will get to pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

The World of Us (2016)
Written & Directed by Yoon Ga-eun

South Korean cinema consistently surprises me with how well-made it is. It shouldn’t because I’ve been seeking out and watching Korean films for around 14 years. Because movies are so dominated by American-made fare, it’s easy to forget how excellent other cultures are at producing films. The World of Us was a movie that was nowhere near my radar until suggested by Matt as his Patron Pick for December 2021. I did a little research before watching it, and it’s a film cited by Bong Joon-ho when asked about contemporary movies from his country that he recommends. I had no real idea what to expect but knew this would likely be another fantastic picture.

Sun (Choo Soo-in) is an upper elementary student who has become a social outcast among her classmates. Her family is working class and struggling financially; the father is an alcoholic but doesn’t abuse his family; he just drinks until he passes out often on the street at night. Sun is very loved by her parents; her mother (Jang Hye-jin) is a beautiful balance of firm but sensitive to her children. Things change for the better with the arrival of Ji-ah (Seol Hye-in), a transfer student. Sun is the first person Ji-ah meets, and the bullied girl manages to keep her new friend away from the other kids as the school year is ending for the summer break. They spend weeks and weeks playing together and bonding closer. Eventually, Ji-ah has to attend a private tutoring academy to prepare for the new school year, and she and Sun drift apart. When the new year begins, Sun is heartbroken to find that Ji-ah has befriended the same girls who have ridiculed Sun.

The World of Us traffics in the same themes as Parasite, just in a different tone. Although Parasite was a darkly comic satire on the class divide, The World of Us is a more grounded, standard drama. That isn’t to say this movie pulls punches; it just never goes as absurd as Parasite eventually becomes. Sun is hyper-aware of her placement in her community’s social & economic strata. Being poor wears on her in ways that feel very true to the experience of many children in the same situation, even outside of Korea. Ji-ah is a tense element to put into Sun’s life because her new friend is very well off. Ji-ah lives with her grandmother while her parents often travel for work; she’s given money to spend as she pleases and ends up buying things for Sun. Sun is happy to experience having things and grows worried about seeming like a leech on her friend. Those fears are realized when they reunite in the new school year, and Ji-ah displays hostility towards Sun, which hints at being told by the other girls that she was indeed being used.

Having just seen disappointing child acting in Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman, I was delighted to watch these young performers just blow it away. They never come across as unnatural, and the emotions expressed are painfully honest. You also have a beautiful performance from Jang Hye-jin, who also played the mother in Parasite. It might seem like typecasting, playing another working poor matriarch, but she delivers an entirely different, nuanced performance. While her character in Parasite is a very jaded, shrewd, and deceptive figure, the mother in World of Us is gentle & caring even while being overwhelmed. Sun lashes out at her father for drinking, snatching the bottle and smashing it but slicing her own hand. Sun’s mother reacts by attending to the wound, wanting to know if Sun is both okay physically and understanding what is making her behave like this.

The World of Us explores the stratified thinking that comes with intensely capitalistic societies. Sun is emotionally tormented with being reminded of how much “lower” she is than the other girls in her class. Her antagonism with Ji-ah hurts much more because we see how closely they bonded. The film also manages to comment on how wealth often doesn’t guarantee domestic bliss either, as Sun has a much more loving relationship with her mother and even her father than Ji-ah has with her ever absent parents. What I appreciated most about this movie is that we do not get an ending that ties everything up in a bow. The conclusion isn’t dark or pessimistic; it’s just presenting how life often goes. We don’t know if these two young women will eventually get past these disagreements and become friends again. They certainly seem to be at a turning point, and there’s a sense of momentum as the picture closes. It’s perfectly reasonable to think they develop a neutrality that ends the conflict, or they could equally become the best of friends again. 

Writer/director Yoon Ga-eun certainly has the right mindset when making a film like this. It so easily could have devolved into schmaltzy maudlin trash in the hands of an American filmmaker, the studio whispering over their shoulder to make things more upbeat. The movie never feels hopeless, but it isn’t going to pander and pretend life is simple. The friendship situation Sun ends up in just as realistically complicated as childhood friendships can be. Children and many adults aren’t given the tools to understand how to navigate conflict. They often take cues from the grown-ups to determine their response, which in turn says a lot that these girls would end up in such an intense rivalry. South Korea continues to produce filmmakers who are saying so much about class, better than anything being released by a major film studio in the States, without a doubt.

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