The opening night film of this year’s Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF) was The World of Us (우리들), a poignant film about girls on the cusp of growing up. The screening officially kicked off the 5th annual TKFF, a festival that showcases films from Korea and the Korean diaspora to Canada.
The World of Us is the story of Sun, a ten year old girl who’s always picked last for sports and who is a bit of an outcast at school. During summer break she meets and becomes fast friends with Jia, a transfer student. All is well until school starts back up and the mean girls pressure Jia to not hang out with Sun. It’s a film about bullying, peer pressure and friendship at a time when friends are becoming increasingly important.
The World of Us was a film that I was looking forward to seeing when I heard who the director was. A few years ago, I had watched one of her shorts, Sprout (콩나물), at TKFF – it was a part of the Korean Shorts Competition, a showcase the festival has yearly – and loved it. I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed director Yoon Ga-Eun’s short as it won the Audience Choice award at TKFF (and the Best Short Film (Crystal Bear) Award at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, Generation Section). Luckily, The World of Us lived up to my expectations and more.
Director Yoon appears to understand kids, their relationships and interactions and the pressures they face. This was evident throughout the film, in the dialogue and the way her characters act and interact with each other. There is an innocence that’s apparent, even the bullying isn’t overly dark and it’s balanced often by other factors – whether the love of Sun’s family or the shifting alliances that are formed.
Yoon also resists casting the bullies as pure villains by showing the social pressure they face from academic ranking even at such a young age. Bora, who is the main bully and leader of the ‘mean girls’ becomes human when we see how she reacts to losing her first ranking in class. Between the academic burden and the different social classes that are apparent, it’s easy to see why and how issues and divides might arise.
The young actors were amazing, especially Choi Soo-In (최수인) who played Sun. Her facial expressions are so subtle yet telling. It was such a fantastic performance by someone so young and inexperienced. She was able to convey so much emotion and appear so authentic that it’s like the audience is viewing the entire film through her eyes. The close-ups employed by Yoon also helped emphasize Sun’s feelings and point-of-view.
While the characters are a bit too young for it to truly be a coming-of-age film, it nonetheless, portrays a pivotal point in a young girl’s life. A time when friendships become not just increasingly important but also start to truly play a part in self-esteem. It’s a moment where family is still a key factor and a hug from Mom can still make a huge difference but friendships are becoming equally crucial.
Given that bullying and peer pressure play a significant role in the film, there were still lots of lighter moments that kept the film from becoming too dark or depressing. The kimchi bokkeumbap (김치 볶음밥, kimchi fried rice) scene was adorable and super funny – lots of giggles in the audience. Sun’s younger brother was super cute and added a needed lighter element to the film.
That’s what makes it even more heartbreaking to see the bullying and peer pressure; and more so to see Jia do the same behaviour to Sun. But it’s a time when tides turn quickly and perceptions are constantly shifting.
I loved the ending. There was so much I liked about the film – from the acting to the close-ups to the accurate portrayal of what it’s like to stand on the cusp between childhood and your teen years – but the ending was just the icing on the cake for this complex, fresh and touching film.
The World of Us is a beautiful film that I would recommend to anyone. It has everything one might want in a drama – a story that flows naturally, characters that are authentic and easy to connect to, and superb acting. It’s complex, emotional and yet simple. Despite the subject matter, it never gets too dark and the central character, Sun, keeps her innocence and innate kindness throughout. Definitely a film to watch and a lovely film to open the 5th annual Toronto Korean Film Festival.
Disclosure: While not involved in any way in selection of films or programming, I am the chair of the board of directors for the Toronto Korean Film Festival. However, the opinions expressed are mine and not that of the festival.