After My Death (South Korea, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

“Your long awaited friend has returned today,” declares a teacher to his class. “Was that your seat, Young-hee? Go sit.” Instead, high schooler Young-hee (Jeon Yeo-bin), “decapitated” with only her body visible in the frame, addresses her classmates in Korean Sign Language, a language that likely none of her classmates and few viewers can understand. Without subtitles, this sets a mysterious tone to this film in its opening scene.

Directed by Kim Ui-seok’s After My Death is a tense examination of a student tried in the court of public opinion at school and made a pariah by her own classmates and teachers. When high school student Kyung-min goes missing and it seems like she has committed suicide, her classmate Young-hee, who was the last to see her, is thrown into a world of swirling accusations and rumors when her friend Han-sol, who was also with the girls that night, declares that Young-hee “egged on” Kyung-min.

South Korea has the highest suicide rate of both males and females in the developed world, a fact not lost on one of the math teachers, who tells his class that he has seen three suicides in his career. According to him, this will all soon be forgotten. His cavalier attitude shows that he sees suicide as a common, even unavoidable, occurrence.

But the school is still thrown into chaos after the death of Kyung-min. No one is spared. She was an “offbeat” student who was close to no one and seems to be defined by the fact that she listened to “dark…North European music,” as if that could explain her actions. Teachers and students alike grapple with the repercussions of this case. While the school administration wants to keep thing under wraps in order not to soil the school’s reputation, the girls turn against Young-hee.

The inner lives of teenage girls—and their prejudices and insecurities—are put on full display. They search Young-hee’s desk for any clues, and later destroy her shoes in the entryway outside her home. Things escalate quickly as they go from slashing her Converse with a knife to brutally attacking her when she arrives home. The scene borders on hysteria, proving that, though girls may often fight with words, they are as capable of violence as boys. After a self-inflicted wound leaves Young-hee unable to speak, girls curl their eyelashes and put on lipstick as they discuss Young-hee’s “act to gain sympathy.” Still, despite the attitudes of many of the girls, the relationship between Young-hee and Han-sol is one in which breakthrough is possible. This comes when Young-hee pulls out her tracheostomy and lets the other girl touch the hole in her windpipe, the source of breath and life.

Structurally, the film succeeds in many respects and falls short in others. Tension builds gradually throughout, and the desperate act by Young-hee represents a clear midpoint, sending the story in a new direction. But other elements seem out of place or are never explored fully. For example, consider the scene in which Kyung-min’s mother (Seo Young-hwa) tracks Young-hee down and confronts her outside of the local cram school (where Kyung-min studied so diligently, one reason why the oblivious teachers find it odd that she killed herself). Young-hee tells the mother that she doesn’t believe that Kyung-min is dead. “I’ll find her. I’ll prove you wrong,” she declares. This declaration never comes to fruition, and this statement could be simply read as a product of Young-hee instability, as she says that Kyung-min “stole [her] idea” to jump off the bridge. Still, it would have been an interesting journey for Young-hee if she had taken a more active role in the search for Kyung-min.

Similarly, Han-sol’s harassment accusation against a teacher seems very out of place and a distraction from the events of the story, especially because it is introduced so late and nothing comes of it. When the scene in sign language repeats with subtitles, lending great dramatic irony, Young-hee’s words never pay off, lessening the tension. The majority of the plot, however, is so compelling and tightly wound that it is easy to overlook these few missteps.

While the film’s pacing, dialogue, and acting are naturalistic, the visuals are highly arresting and carefully composed, from the police dropping a dummy into a river to Young-hee and Kyung-min walking through a tunnel without (and later with) sound to students bowing in unison at Kyung-min’s wake, where light and dark collides.

Ordinary scenes take on an extraordinary tension, most notably when Kyung-min’s mother shops for a tent. When Young-hee is interrogated in an empty classroom as Kyung-min’s mother watches, the tension is also palpable. Kyung-min’s mother, whose stoicism belies her unimaginable anguish, becomes obsessed with Young-hee. This obsession comes to a head when Kyung-min’s mother confronts Young-hee’s father at the girl’s hospital bedside. It is a powerful scene, but its power is lessened by the fact that Young-hee’s father is only shown one other time, and remains an absentee presence that is never explained. The relationship between Young-hee and Kyung-min’s mother, filled with distrust, misunderstanding, and pain, is one of the highlights of the film, coming to a head with an unexpected but inevitable climax and resolution.

This timely story dives deep into the lives of teenage girls and does not let the audience off the hook easily. Instead, it stays with you because it lays bare the truths of culpability and innocence, guilt and blame, in a relatively contained setting in which tensions run high.

After My Death is showing on July 8 at the New York Asian Film Festival.