At the beginning of "Compassion", A girl kills herself. Why did she kill herself, someone asks? Probably bullying, says someone else. Well, let's move on then. The entire opening takes on a pretty creepy subtext in light of all the other films released this year about bullying and teen suicide. Sure, we can talk up the tragic nature of the situation, and lament the sad state of a world where such things are inevitable. But is anyone actually going to do anything about it?
That anyone is Sang-tae (played by Jung Min-sung). A teacher at the school where the suicide took place, Sang-tae takes it upon himself to play close attention to what the students are doing lest another such situation arises. His due diligence soon becomes essential. Ha-na (played by Lee Chung-mi) falls in with the wrong crowd, and finds herself threatened with shame and humiliation if she resists.
What makes Ha-na's situation so troublesome is that the causes of it are very transparent and preventable. She has a lousy home life, a small group of friends at school, and is mistrustful of authority figures in general because they've never really done much for her. Ha-na is, in fact, the perfect target. Bullies don't go after the smart, charismatic cool kid with lots of friends. They attack the person least likely to fight back, because that's the whole point of bullying.
This works to invoke a major spark of realism in the proceedings that's only accentuated by how awkward everything is. Sang-tae, too, is not a cool teacher by any stretch of the imagination. He, like Ha-na, reacts to the ongoing situation with awkwardness and timidity, not smart comebacks. Both of them don't really have any idea what to do about bullying. Again, while this year's films have been very good about telling us that bullying is bad, none of them have offered anything in the way of meaningful solutions.
But Sang-tae is determined to keep trying. His method- trying to make Ha-na feel safe. Trying to get her to understand that she can trust him. And when worse comes to worse, he ends up reassuring her that things will get better. What Ha-na is sorely lacking in life is faith- not necessarily in the spiritual sense, even if a significant part of Sang-tae's argument involves a religious organization. Ha-na fell into this mess because she didn't have anyone to fall back on. Ha-na trusts the bullies' threats more than she does the promises of the people who are supposed to protect her.
That's what we need to change if we're ever going to tackle the problem meaningfully. "Compassion" is admirable in the way it presents a trustworthy community as being the true answer to the social epidemic of bullying. Individualism? Ha- Ha-na's individualistic behavior is what keeps her from getting help. The bullies' individualistic behavior is what keeps them from having any moral qualms about abusing a younger girl solely for their own profit.
The criticism "Compassion" makes is a forceful one- and even if it lacks the artistry of a technically better film like "Han Gong-ju", I admire it all the more for daring to suggest that moral standards are what we need to keep bullying in check. "Compassion" is a movie about action, not talk, and director Sin Seong-seop is to be commended for bringing such a message to the forefront.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Compassion""
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