‘Misbehavior’: Film Review | Hawaii International Film Festival 2016

Hawaii Int’l Film Festival - Misbehavior -H 2016
Courtesy of Hawaii Int’l Film Festival
Professional rivalry at its most cutthroat.

Korean filmmaker Kim Tae-yong’s psychological thriller stars Kim Ha-neul as a neglected woman determined to get some respect despite the high cost of retribution.

“Misbehavior” may be too mild a term for the escalating transgressions perpetrated by two high school teachers in the throes of an intense personal and professional rivalry that threatens to derail both of their careers. Although their conflict may appear rather extreme by some standards, it plays out convincingly enough onscreen, conveying the impression that a U.S. or European remake of Misbehavior could benefit from incorporating Kim's sly psychological provocations.

From the film’s earliest scenes, it quickly becomes clear that teaching cheeky teenagers at a boys’ high school might not be a dream job, but at least it holds out the possibility of secure employment for the beleaguered staff. For chemistry instructor Hyo-joo (Kim Ha-neul), there doesn’t appear to be many other options for her future if she’s going to continue supporting herself, along with her deadbeat writer boyfriend. In just a single week, though, she faces major setbacks when her colleague takes maternity leave and the vice-principal designates Hyo-joo to fill in as her replacement homeroom teacher, essentially doubling her workload.

Then the administration announces the appointment of a new tenured chemistry teacher, who as the daughter of the school’s board chairman effectively usurps Hyo-joo’s seniority, endangering the renewal of her teaching contract in the process. Even worse, instructor Hae-young (Yu In-young) is young and gorgeous, as well as a graduate of the same university who formerly studied under Hyo-joo's supervision. Although Hae-young seems eager to renew her acquaintance, Hyo-joo remains cold and distant, a reaction that represents her default relationship mode, even with her frustrated boyfriend. The only upside to the situation emerges when Hyo-joo discovers that her student Jae-ha (Lee Won-geun) is a good-looking and talented young dancer, intent on gaining admittance to an arts university.

Hyo-joo encourages his ambitions until she discovers that he’s conducting an illicit affair with Hae-young. Seizing the opportunity, Hyo-joo confronts her colleague and persuades Hae-young to support her tenure bid in exchange for ignoring the young woman’s indiscretions with her student and breaking off their secret relationship. Things take an unanticipated turn when Hyo-joo decides to sponsor Jae-ha’s dance training herself and the two become closer than she ever expected, giving Hae-young an opening for potentially devastating retaliation.

Doubling as screenwriter, Kim plays the first two-thirds of the film like a swelling melodrama, emphasizing the personal and professional indignities that Hyo-joo suffers as she goes unappreciated and disparaged by both her high school colleagues and her petulant boyfriend. Clues to her simmering resentment bubble up nevertheless, particularly in the clear resentment that she expresses regarding her co-workers and her dispassionate attitude toward matters of romance. As Kim ratchets the tension up to a surprising climax, Hyo-joo is revealed as both a tragic victim and a mercilessly vindictive retaliator wrestling to reconcile her violently opposing emotions.

Award-winning actress Kim Ha-neul (Blind) burrows deeply into Hyo-joo’s psyche, providing glimpses of a wounded woman filled with rage and maybe something like regret as well. As setbacks multiply however, Hyo-joo’s darker tendencies begin to overwhelm her, obscuring the sympathetic qualities that might have held her back from the brink.

Yu’s (Veteran) sweet-faced Hae-young carefully conceals her own ruthlessness, feinting at weakness, then gaining the upper hand in her campaign to utterly humiliate Hyo-joo. As Jae-ha, Lee plays along with whichever woman seems to have the uppermost hand, perilously attempting to determine which one will end up on top once the rivalry climaxes in an inevitable clash of wills.

Venue: Hawaii International Film Festival
Production company: Filament Pictures
Cast: Kim Ha-neul, Yu In-young, Lee Won-geun
Director-writer: Kim Tae-yong
Producer: Kim Hyung-min
Director of photography: Kim Tae-soo

Not rated, 96 minutes