Director Im Kyung Soos second film is an exiting, tight police investigation thriller with a serious moral message.
Detective Chu Ja-young (Shin Eun-kyung) and her rookie partner Kim Dong-wook (Mun Jeong-hyuk) arrive at the scene of an apparent suicide of a young schoolboy which turns out to be murder and not suicide at all. In fact, it is the second murder of a young schoolboy in a couple of days. Schoolboys - who were also classmates. And more murders lie ahead. A serial killer is on a killing spree among the young students why?
Its the why? thats the heart of this film. How it was done, and how the two detectives find out is the skin. There is quite a lot of heart in this film, but still the skin is the main protagonist.
Skin is surface, but if the surface looks good, it can be hard to tear your eyes away. From the first scene you know, youre in for a ride.
Ja-young is on a tightly packed subway train, where an older salary man is groping a young girls ass. She gropes his, and the look on both their faces as she slaps the handcuffs on him, has the film up and running. Ja-young has attitude and bad mouths everyone who dares oppose her. In defense most of the males in the film accuses her of having PMS.
Shin may be overplaying this attitude/wisecracking part a bit, which may turn off some of you. It is quite obvious that the film is trying to point out that while this kind of behavior is ok for a male it is still not normal/acceptable for a female in Korean society (or most other societies).
But Shins character is far from being one-dimensional and superficial. She has unofficially adopted the teenage son of her dead sister, and the problems of a situation like that are shown with both depth of feeling and understanding beautifully played by Shin.
Quite a bit into the film we are introduced to Seo Yun-hee - played by Kim Yoon-jin of the TV-series Lost. She is a childhood friend of Ja-young; they were best friends in school. Yun-hee had a bad marriage, and now her son has committed suicide. The part of the grieving mother allows Kim Yoon-jin to show how good an actress she really is.
And here we come to the heart of the film. On top of the issues already mentioned a lot of social and moral issues are tackled. The difficulties of childrearing, what to do about bullying in school, sexism, youth suicide and the general pressures put on both parents and children in todays competitive society.
These issues are not dealt with in a dogmatic way, but they are an essential part of the film and clearly there for everyone to see without slowing down the action in any measurable sense.
Bystanders is not a perfect film. Several scenes are in need of a rewrite: Some scenes are very unconvincing in terms of police procedure, some are just too clearly plot devices and especially the epilogue is trying too hard to get a message through (Kim Yoon-jins great acting in that epilogue notwithstanding). But the tight plot and pace makes for a very exiting film.
And that might be a problem for some.
If you are just looking for skin (the fast paced thriller/action film) - the heart (the moral and social issues) might turn you off.
It seems clear to me that the director has set out to make a fast paced thriller, in which he has succeeded. That he has also wanted to address quite a number of social and moral issues only makes it work better for me but may not be to everyones taste.
The two different English titles of the film show, that on the marketing level people did not agree, what kind of film they had: Bystanders is the moral issue title, Diary of June is the thriller title which will be clear to you, when you have watched the film.
This review tries to respect the thriller aspect. I am trying not to give too much of the plot away, while still making it interesting enough for you to go and watch the film.
I saw it first at a market screening at the Berlin film festival and then again yesterday on DVD. Bystanders is extremely watchable give it a shot, will you?