Seen in Jeonju

Bystanders (2005)

23rd January 2011

207231Detectives Choo Ja-yeong and Kim Dong-wook are assigned to a case that seems like an open-and-shut murder/suicide. However, further investigation leads them to the conclusion that both deaths were murders and that the killer will strike again. The victims were both middle school students in the same class and the detectives link their deaths with that of Jin-mo who was the victim of a hit-and-run (likely a suicide) months earlier. Jin-mo had been bullied to the point of no return and even the people whom he ought to be able to turn to, namely his parents and teachers, had failed to protect him from his merciless classmates. The detectives quickly work out who is killing the youngsters in Jin-mo’s name, but knowing who is plotting the murders and catching the perpetrator are two different things.

The identity of the murderer is revealed quickly but, unlike my DVD cover, I will not be revealing it to you. Even though the killer is known within the first thirty minutes of the movie, I would have appreciated not knowing that information before going into the film. The movie is really less of a mystery than it is a character study, and there seems to be four characters that the movie wants to explore. Shin Eun-yeong gets first billing, so I’ll start with her character, Detective Choo.

While I generally liked the movie, I have to admit that the way Shin portrayed Choo was the thing I disliked most in the film. I will also admit that 1999 was the last year I feel she was in a film I liked.  Shin grimaces and snears are almost buffoonish, suited more to a still comic book or a detective spoof than a mystery. Her character is interesting though, especially as we learn more about her background. In her childhood, she was indirectly responsible for the death of a classmate by not helping when she had the chance. She has spent the rest of her life making up for this. Her past also contributes to her tough, abrassive demeanor. That in turn makes it difficult to connect with her nephew to whom she is acting as a surrogate mother after the death of her sister.

Her nephew is another character worth exploring although he gets far less screen time than the others. Jang Joon-ha is played by Maeng Se-chang, a young actor who had been in five films before this one but has not appeared in anything since. Joon-ha is somewhat withdrawn and quiet at school preferring art to study. At home, however, he is openly hostile to his aunt. For her part, Choo does not know how to relate to him and her beligerent attitude does not help in forging any bonds. Almost all their interaction is confrontation without resolution. It is not Jang spells it out for her that Choo realizes her nephew is still a frightened child traumatized by the death of his parents.

Detective Kim Dong-wook tries his best to bridge the gap between Choo and Jang but, for the most part, fails. Kim is played by Moon Jeong-hyeok formerly known as ‘Eric’ of the defunct singing group Shinhwa. Whereas his partner, Choo, approaches suspects every case rather coldly, Kim seems to bring a more sensitive side to his dealings with people. This does not mean that he is a pushover. On the contrary, he is an exceptional fighter and tolerates no backtalk during interrogations. Nevertheless, he is heart of the partnership even as Choo is the logic and the movie treats both detectives as equally important.

Finally there is the best thing about this movie–Kim Yoon-jin as Seo Yoon-hee. Her performance alone is worth seeing the film for. She plays the mother of Jin-mo and lifelong friend of Ja-jeong. She gives an amazing performance, particularly in the last scenes–after the conclusion of the movie. In this portion of the film, we are shown a woman who is at her wits end. She does not know how to deal with her son whom she mistakenly believes is acting up after her husband abandoned them and left them with crushing debt. She witnesses the death of her child immediately after a terrible argument wherein she tells her young son to go–anywhere–just for her to be away from him for awhile. But it is when she watches video clips of what has been happening to her son at school that we are treated to some great acting simply through facial expressions as shock, abhorance and then a terrible understanding play out in turn across her face. It is a great moment that elevated my estimation of the film.

Comments are closed.