Kim Ui-seok's livewire debut features Jeon Yeo-been and Seo Young-hwa.
The New Currents competition gets a jolt of energy with Kim Ui-seok's livewire debut After My Death. Much like fellow competition title Last Child, the grief and guilt surrounding a high schooler's death also forms the crux of this film, but what separates them is a focus on the group rather than individual characters and punchier pacing that drives towards an intriguing finish.
A high school girl dies one night and the next day the police descend on her school to investigate. It seems like a clear cut case of suicide, but several questions arise about the motives for this high-performing student's deadly act. The classmate who was last seen with her is suspected of egging her on and she becomes a target of ruthless bullying within the school. Meanwhile, the girl's grieving mother is desperate for answers, while the school is doing everything it can to save face and move on.
After My Death gets off to a nervy start as it ripples through the microcosm of a school in the direct aftermath of a shocking death. There's an intensity at play that initially gives the film the feel of a Japanese thriller as we work out a complex and breathless group dynamic. Things slow down after the opening salvo, giving us space to work out who everyone is and what the stakes are as the story then settles into more familiar Korean narrative tropes and social themes.
Though the mystery never really takes off, there's enough meat to the main characters' motivations to keep the story engaging for most of the running time. However, at close to two hours, it occasionally feels repetitive. Supporting characters are less well rounded, as several classmates pop up a handful of times at crucial moments, leaving too much burden on the viewer to remember who they are and how they contributed to the narrative in the first place.
A crucial turn of the events later on kickstarts a rush to a faintly ludicrous but nonetheless effective climax that seeks to shock and thrill without bothering too much to follow its own logic. It might not be the right fit for the story it sets out to tell, but there's no denying that it's a heck of a lot more fun than the glum end points of many of its indie brethren.
A chief ingredient of the film's initial energy, which immediately draws us into the mystery, even before we understand what it is, is the menacing score by Junga Sunwoo, a musician who's worked with major mainstream Korean pop stars and on a handful of other low-budget films. The music remains a highlight in several key sequences, such as when its pulsing rhythm builds during a shaman ritual at a funeral and bleeds into the psychological state of its participants.
The celerity of the plot doesn't leave a great deal of room for the cast to breathe, but nevertheless quasi-lead Jeon Yeo-been (a co-star in last year's New Currents contender Merry Christmas Mr. Mo) is acquits herself well as the classmate who last saw the girl alive, while Seo Young-hwa (Hong Sangsoo's On the Beach at Night Alone) deftly handles the part of the mother.
Director Kim, who has made a few shorts in the past, most recently worked in the directing department for The Wailing and given the dark, menacing edge of his feature debut, it seems that director Na's intensity has rubbed off on him. A little more clarity might have added an emotional edge to the plight of the various protagonists, but there's a lot to admire in After My Death, namely as a deft cinematic package that creates a tense mood though its well-tweaked technical specs.