As we grow up and get busy pretending that we are fully-fledged adults, we sometimes forget the trials and losses and gains that helped us grow and shaped us while we were growing up. Childhood is the era in one’s life when friends have as much influence as family – or even more; and it is an era in which many a heart blossoms … and many a heart gets chipped.
This limited yet vast space-time continuum of the growing up process is where Yoon Ga-eun set her debut feature The World of Us. The 10-year-old Sun (Choi Soo-in) is an outcast at her school, while Bora (Lee Seo-yeon) is the most popular girl in class who actively pushes Sun into the sideline. Sun’s lonely world as a child of a working class family, who spends her days by taking care of her baby brother, finally changes with the start of the summer – and the arrival of the newcomer Jia (Seol Hye-in). Though careful at first, Sun and Jia become fast friends and spend the summer together, visiting each other’s houses and getting to know both the beautiful and the painful secrets that each of them has. After a while, their friendship is tested for the first time – Jia comes from a wealthy family while Sun’s family is quite poor.
As they manage to find their way to each other again, the start of the school year brings yet another bout of clouds – Jia meets Bora, who promptly steals her away, feeding into Jia’s wish to not become an outcast herself. What once was a blossoming friendship now becomes a source of pain, and before the storm is over, more secrets resurface and more than one heart gets broken.
Yoon Ga-eun has previously dealt with the topics of childhood and the issues on the path to adulthood in her magnificent two shorts, Guest (2011) and Sprout (2013); the latter won the Crystal Bear for Best Short Film at the 2014 Berlinale. The World of Us is her directorial debut feature film that she also wrote the screenplay for; in many ways, it is a simple film with a simple story. But what may seem simple on the surface actually carries levels of complexity – which is how this film is structured. It is a film about growing up. It is a film about friendship, and a film about being an outcast; it is a film about how the ‘adult issues’ impede what should be a carefree childhood. The film, which is (with the exception of a few scenes) completely void of music score, has a completely natural feel, in part due to the terrific, incredibly natural acting by the young cast – director Yoon herself mentioned during her Q & A session after the LEAFF screening that this was only possible because she worked hard to establish a relationship of trust with the actresses.
This trust, along with the steady pace of the story and smart sequencing, might be exactly what totals in an admirable level of intimacy that makes the audience feel the happiness that Sun feels when she finds a friend, and later, even though there is no direct conflict at first, through a smart use of both background sounds (and almost no score) and camerawork, we almost directly feel the budding pressure and stress, and then pain at the loss of something so delicately valuable.
Added to that, the story carries many elements that are so realistic that most members of the audience can find something (or a lot) that they can relate to – I myself found myself reliving parts of my own childhood while watching the screening, and based on the questions from the audience, I was not the only one; Yoon Ga-eun really managed to strike the perfect audience frequency. If you think that only the female part of the audience can relate because this is a strongly female-oriented film, you are wrong; among the questions, half came from the male part of the audience, with a firmly voiced “I could relate” message. No matter your gender alignment, this is a film that will make you feel, then feel more; it will bring you back into contact with your inner Sun, or her adorable baby brother, or Jia, or even Bora – and watching it, you will feel everything from happiness to confusion to anger, to the partial catharsis; even if the film and the relationship have no clear ending – neither does life. Just like the girls, in each of our worlds, we push and grow and feel on, challenge by challenge.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © The World of Us