Thread of Lies: Filmart Review

Thread of Lies Still - H 2014
Courtesy Movie Collage.
A smart and challenging look at high school bullying that blessedly jettisons sensationalism.

The latest from "Punch" director Lee Han showcases the next generation of Korean talent.

The impact of bullying and the subsequent impact of suicide on a single mother and her daughter are the subjects at the center of Thread of Lies, a drama with hints of mystery and revenge thriller that don’t need to be there but which are, thankfully, overshadowed by a sensitive look at that most au courant of teen subject matter. Director Lee Han follows his career best Punch by exploring bullying from a decidedly alternative perspective, one that makes it all the more insidious for its vague parameters and lack of easy villains. Lee proved he had an ear for adolescent outsider angst with his last film, and in Thread of Lies he ably carries on that tradition.

Already a surprise hit at home, the currency of the topic, the film’s polish and its engaging non-linear storytelling point to a limited release at the very least coming in Asian territories where the high school culture in the film is familiar, and it should earn considerable festival play overseas well. Targeted art house release isn’t out of the question.

Thread of Lies’ plot is a simple one. Single mother Hyun-sook (television veteran Kim Hae-ee) is doing her best to raise her two teenaged daughters, the bookish Cheon-ji (Kim Hyang-gi) and the older, cooler Man-ji (Ko Asung, Snowpiercer). When Cheon-ji commits suicide, Hyun-sook and Man-ji are left reeling, unsurprisingly shocked at her death and determined, in their own ways to get answers. Man-ji doggedly investigates (as it were) her sister’s so-called friends, chief among them the would-be mean girl, Hwa-yeon (an archetypical character that Kim You-jung shades nicely) and Mi-ra (ditto for Yu Yeon-mi), whose guilty conscience sees her lashing out at Hwa-yeon. Man-ji and Hyun-sook assume Cheon-ji didn’t leave a note, but in truth she left behind a series of notes tucked inside the yarn she was so fond of for her knitting hobby.

Lee and screenwriter Lee Sook-yeon keep the tone dispassionate throughout the film, and are meticulous in not judging any of its characters but making them all complicit in Cheon-ji’s death—including Cheon-ji herself. It’s a tricky balancing act but Lee pulls it off, largely because there’s nothing sensational about Cheon-ji’s dilemma. She’s never physically assaulted or publicly humiliated on a grand, easily dramatized scheme. What drives her is the ceaseless campaign of petty cruelties that are compounded to a breaking point, cruelties inflicted by kids just as fragile or damaged as Cheon-ji. And that’s where the film’s true tragedy is found.

In the end and after all the fussy vaguely mystery elements with the yarn have been exploited, Thread of Lies reveals itself as just not a complex exploration of bullying but also as a quiet meditation on grief and how the family and friends of a suicide deal with the loss. The subject doesn’t really demand the more traditional sleuthing Man-ji embarks on, and Hyun-sook’s need for closure through vengeance could have been excised completely with no detriment to the film’s impact. Given its lack of solutions and someone to blame, Lee is also proving himself one of Korea’s bravest commercial filmmakers. 

Producer: Kim Jae-joong

Director: Lee Han

Cast: Kim Hee-ae, Ko Asung, Kim You-jung, Kim Hyang-gi, Yu- Yeon-mi, Yoo Ah-in, Sung Dong-il

Screenwriter: Lee Sook-yeon, based on the book by Kim Ryeo-ryeong

Executive Producer: Simon Lee

Director of Photography: Lee Seung-hyub

Production Designer: Kang So-young

Music: Lee Jae-jin

Costume Designer: Yu Ji-yeon

Editor: Nam Na-young

International Sales: CJ Entertainment

No rating, 117 minutes