“What is loneliness and where does it come from?”
Director Ga-eun Yoon still wonders humbly if the emotions in her deeply touching film THE WORLD OF US can be understood worldwide. They certainly can! The film does not tell a straight-forward bullying story, but speaks of an outsider, a vulnerable girl drowning in supreme loneliness. Sun, 10 years old, tries to fit in, but is ignored by everyone, always the last to be picked out for class teams. Everything seems to change the day she meets Jia…
Ga-eun Yoon: I never wanted to tell a story about bullying, I wanted to tell about relationships between friends, that can be very complex. Sun is longing so hard for a friend, but doesn’t have the required social skills: she is shy and not brave enough to make friends. There is some bullying involved, but not with evil, premeditated intentions. There is no bigger plan behind it. Sun’s nemesis, Bora, a top student under great pressure, is no evil monster. Like everyone else, she likes to hang out with the popular kids, not with outsiders like Sun. That’s very natural.
This already speaks from the opening scene: children are picked one by one for the teams in the gym class, until only one girl remains…
Yoon: In the gym, children are physically active. While playing, they express themselves through a very honest body language. That’s the perfect setting to show their feelings: even if you lie with words, your body will speak the truth. Since they’re only playing, it looks all harmless and innocent, but still the situation is cruel and can hurt a child deeply.
But Sun never shows or tells how much it hurts. She keeps it all to herself.
Yoon: Sun’s parents already have so many problems of their own and she probably doesn’t even realise how big her problem is. As a child I sometimes felt very lonely, but didn’t know what loneliness was or where it came from. I simply considered it a part of everyday life, not worth paying too much attention to. Only when growing up I came to realise it, that’s why I made this film not only for children but also for adults.
Is the closing scene a subtle way to tell that you still have a certain belief in friendship?
Yoon: The ending changed many times in different ways, from very sad to extremely happy, but I think this version is the most realistic option. I wanted to offer these girls one more chance to get along and become friends again. Every time when watching that closing scene, I think it might as well be some kind of dream or fantasy. But still I believe that some kids are able to offer each other another chance.
The film is partly based on your personal experience?
Yoon: When I was 12 years old I had a tough time. I was new at school and met one friend who was really nice. I thought she would be my eternal soulmate. Until one day she started hanging out with the cool kids, ignored me and started bullying me. It was terrible and I felt really devastated. Later I wanted to find out why she did it. I’ve been wondering: maybe she had her reasons that I couldn’t understand, maybe she had problems at home, just like me. Maybe her family situation made her stressful, like it happened to me. Of course THE WORLD OF US doesn’t literally tell my story, but some of the feelings I felt and the moments I went through are in the movie.
Your film captures very well the dynamics between children, especially all the ‘girlish’ things: the nail polish, the friendship bracelets, the intensity of their conversations…
Yoon: I love to watch children play. I sometimes go to a school near my house, only to observe them. I see them in the schoolyard and hear their conversations. I was never among the cool kids. Maybe in my next life, but not in this one, although I always wanted to be like them.
Also the dialogue feel natural. Did the young actors improvise?
Yoon: I wrote the dialogue very carefully, but never gave them the script. I explained the situation and then they played it how they understood it, in their own words. Chooi Soo-in (Sun) was very well qualified for her role. She had no acting experience, but when she applied for an acting class, she was refused for being too shy. On meeting her for the first time I realised how well her personality fitted to the story.
Sun’s little brother is remarkable.
Yoon: Everybody adores him. So do I, but… He didn’t listen to anybody: not to us, his parents or anybody else in the world. Such a strong personality and only 6 years old. In the script he was supposed to be very gentle. But in the auditions I noticed that shy boys had difficulties to express themselves. While this cute boy had so much energy. I rewrote his role, making him a much more extravert type. We created the right atmosphere for him, pretending that acting was just ‘playing’… So he played!
Have I ever seen a film with as many close-ups?
Yoon: I love close-ups. I constantly want to show the drama expressed through my main character’s face. Again it’s about the honesty of body language, children have no poker-face. For young actors it’s easier to act with their face than with their hands. There was also a budgetary reason: the film was made on an extremely small budget, leaving us no money for an elaborate art production or many extras. So we focused on the faces.
There’s also very little music in the film. Another budgetary decision?
Yoon: Not at all. While writing the script, I never thought about music. In this film I want the audience to feel the ambiance: the sounds, the words, the yelling… To take you into the children’s world and make you feel their energy. You can identify with all their emotions without feeling ‘forced’, which music sometimes does.
The children all carry their parents’ problems on their shoulders.
Yoon: Children and parents have to deal with each other, they have a mutual pact. That might seem unfair, but that’s how it goes. They have to find a way to live together and if that doesn’t work, children must find the strength to live their own lives.
Between mother and daughter are nothing but good intentions. She really wants to be a good mum, if only she had the time.
Yoon: Even if she has to work hard and deal with a drunken husband, still she does the best she can. In this film every parent cares for their children in their own way. Even the drunken father deep inside wants to be a good dad, but he can’t make it happen yet, maybe later. Most parents try and sometimes they fail. We’re not perfect.
Could you tell a bit more about the Korean education system, that seems so harsh.
Yoon: Korean schools and society are more competitive than you could ever imagine. Especially universities, they are the ultimate symbol of class and status. If you can enroll in one of the best universities this will guarantee you a successful career and a big salary, which are the only parameters in this extremely materialistic society. Education is nothing more than getting in the best possible position to apply for the best possible university.
For my generation things weren’t that harsh yet. Preparing for university only happened in high school. Nowadays already in kindergarten children study constantly. Very young students attend tutoring classes every day until 10 o’clock. There is no more time to play.
What if one little girl dreams of becoming a film director… What would her parents say?
Yoon: They’ll probably make her go to university first. Or if a child is really artistic, parents will think she is gifted and find her the best tutors. If a child is interested in film, he should win an Oscar. If a child is good at sports, he should become a champion. It’s always about being first and best, which might push children away from their true pleasure and talent. Koreans themselves realise this is becoming problematic and that the failure is institutional.
Could such stressful competition stimulate even more bullying?
Yoon: Children and adults all over the world treat each other cruelly. But if in Korea your school results aren’t good, you might indeed be considered a bad friend. Children might care more about your grades than about your personality. That’s sad, but when I was young, there were other reasons equally cruel. As you see in the film: when one is from a rich family and one is poor, this makes it more difficult to get along together.