by Jason Suzuki
If Nobody Knows taught us anything it is that being a child is not necesarilly the nostalgically good time it is remembered for, being just as complicated if not more so than adult living. And knowing how less sensational Kore-eda made that film compared to the real-like events it was based on, the social dynamics between children can be just as nuanced and cruel as the world of adults. The "us" of Yoon Ga-Eun's debut film refers to children, in this case a group of schoolgirls and the back swaying of alliances between them.
Our focal point is Sun (Choi Soo-In). She gets picked last during recess games and avoided by her other students. What sets her apart from her classmates is her lower economic level (she's the only one without a cell phone) and she tends to stare a little. She's observational just as the film is, with lenses pointed at the finer details of interactions and activities. When she is invited to the birthday party of Bora (Lee Seo-yeon) in exchange for taking over her classroom cleaning duties, Sun carefully hand-makes a friendship bracelet out of string, one red and one blue. The intimacy with which we see her make it curiously enough recalls Bresson's A Man Escapes. Of course it was a joke in order to get Sun to do the work. This blow to Sun, and this extra friendship bracelet, happen just as new transfer Jia (Seol Hye-in) shows up.
Jia transfers just as school is letting out for break, giving Sun the perfect opportunity to nurture a friendship away from the bullies of her class. They hit it off and there is relief that Sun has someone who doesn't turn away from her but actually wants to hang out. Jia is more than happy to pay for Sun's time at the trampoline gym and doesn't seem to notice or care the difference in living situations between the two of them. In the back of the mind is the reality that this can't last forever. Once Bora and her friends get a hold of Jia, who has an allowance and a mom who lives in Britain, she might not be able to get her back. Choi Soo-in gives a performance that seems aged and expert, conveying these worries as the start of school nears closer.
Sure enough, this does happen. When Sun discovers that Jia's friend at her English tutoring classes is none other than Bora, her heart sinks while Bora's realization Jia hangs out with Sun gets her to resume the bullying. It's not long before Jia is walking around with the cool kids and ignoring Sun. She does all this while still wearing the friendship bracelet Sun gave her. Just one of the many little instances of hope, or denial, that pushes Sun to fixate on what happened and why she lost her best friend just as quickly as she made her.
There is trouble at school and at home for all these kids. But despite shared experiences each girl knows that any unattractive family details will be used by the others to put them down. For Sun it's an alcoholic father, whose rocky relationship with his own dad who is in the hospital is making it worse, and for Jia it's her parents divorce. The film seem to fully see all of this as true problems though, but the necessary evils of growing up. The sometimes surreal feeling of watching a kid grow older that Boyhood delivered on occasion is happening in The World of Us but through the stares and the moments of silence between these kids.
Relationships don't mend overnight, and we see Sun and Jia skirt around each other, neither really knowing what happened or how to go back. Somehow her younger brother, who is constantly brawling and bruising with his best friend, knows that it's not always finger-nail dyeing and friendship bracelets in a friendship. It's a perfect message to impart to kids, who unfortunately may not be coming out in droves to see this film. Treating film as a form of escape, it was a treat to escape to the world of Sun and Jia, even if you're bound to get that feeling of a pit sinking further in your stomach the further the school year goes on.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor of Cinema Adrift.