Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world as the pressure cooker society conspires to railroad those who find themselves in someway excluded from its rigourously conformist demands toward inescapable despair. With the phenomenon so common, has it become true that society itself has become inured to its effects, seeking not to ease suffering but to control damage? For the clutch of schoolgirls at the centre of Kim Ui-seok’s After My Death (죄 많은 소녀, Choe Manheun Sonyeo), suicide has taken on its own allure as an escape from the demands they feel themselves unable to meet but there are few looking to guide them away from the abyss rather than to negate their own responsibility for failing to do so.
A high school student, Kyung-min, is missing. Her backpack and shoes have been found near a local bridge and it is feared that she may have committed suicide though there is no note or additional evidence to suggest that she has taken her own life nor have they found a body. With speculation rife, all eyes are on another student, Young-hee (Jeon Yeo-Bin), apparently one of the last people to have seen Kyung-min alive. Though Young-hee and Kyung-min had been good friends in the past, they were no longer close and had apparently run into each other by chance along with another friend of Young-hee’s, Han-sol. Han-sol’s testimony differs from Young-hee’s in that she says Kyung-min seemed “gloomy” and that the evening had taken an intense turn after she suddenly declared her love for Young-hee only for Young-hee to tell her to prove her devotion by dying.
Things get worse for Young-hee when the police track Kyung-min’s movements via CCTV and find footage from a nearby tunnel which appears to show a gentle kiss between the two girls. Hounded, Young-hee finds herself a target of persistent harassment by her school mates who insist that she is in someway cursed and “infects” people with “bad thoughts” while Kyung-min’s mother (Seo Young-hwa) has also started semi-stalking her hoping to find out “the truth” about what happened to Kyung-min.
The other girls, testifying to Kyung-min’s character, reinforce the view that she was “gloomy”, a loner who didn’t fit in. She didn’t like K-pop, didn’t socialise much, and was into depressing things. When suspicions rise regarding her possible suicide, the school is quick to leap to conclusions – that like many in South Korea she had become over anxious about college applications, but as her grades were good and Kyung-min was a diligent student this explanation seems unlikely which works out well for the school. Kyung-min’s teacher quickly goes into damage limitation mode, confirming that she had been withdrawn, struggled to communicate with her classmates, and was probably very lonely though he lays most of the blame on melancholy ‘90s shoegaze which he assumes must have somehow tipped her over the edge. What all of this means is that it’s not his fault, and he feels he has justification for “failing” in his duties of pastoral care towards a student whom by his own admission he suspected of being in distress.
During Young-hee’s questioning, she repeatedly tells the police officer in charge that she too is suicidal and that she told Kyung-min about her own plan to jump off a bridge because she thought it might help. Young-hee is quite clearly depressed even before all of these very difficult events but finds no one willing to listen to her distress, only making herself a magnet for further hostility from just about everyone with even her teacher berating her for stealing Kyung-min’s thunder in insisting that she stole her idea of jumping off the bridge rather than trying to commit suicide through an overdose of sleeping pills which, Young-hee claims, was her intention before she discouraged her lest she end up still alive but brain damaged.
The lingering doubt is to which “me” is the owner of “death” in the title, or to whom the Korean title of “unrighteous girl” might apply. The motives for Kyung-min’s (presumed) death may be beside the point as a policeman investigating the case suggests – perhaps she didn’t want “understanding” so much as oblivion. What we’re left with is a rather poignant love triangle and the suggestion that Young-hee’s intense depression is a result of repressed same sex attraction which opens another series of questions about which acts are “unrighteous” – suicide or love, with the unfortunate implication that perhaps one cannot but lead to the other. In any case, the problem is that all these kids want to die and the adults no longer want to stop them, only to avoid any potential responsibility for what the children in their care may or may not try to do. Melancholy and drenched in despair, After My Death has nothing but sympathy for its lonely teens but finds no possible escape from the crushing vice of a blame fuelled conformist society.
After My Death was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.
Original trailer (English subtitles)
Interview with director Kim Ui-seok from the 2017 Busan International Film Festival (English subtitles)