Cheong-ji (Kim Hyang-gi, “A Werewolf Boy”) was every parent’s dream — top of her middle school class, kind to her financially struggling single mother and helpful around the house. But one day, her family returned home to find that she had committed suicide — with no explanation left behind. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Korean film “Thread of Lies” follows Cheong-ji’s older sister Man-ji (Ko Ah-Sung, “Snowpiercer”) in unraveling the interactions with classmates and family that lead Cheong-ji into unnoticed depression, and ultimately convinced her to end her life.           

At first glance, the film’s portrayal of girlhood seems intoxicatingly sweet. Airy, light-filled cinematography and shrill giggles relay a quintessential image of youth’s charms, but pressure to live up to that image forces girls into devastating social warfare. The flashback-heavy narrative framework allows for an economical use of screen time, a multi-character reconciliation of guilt and loss and an expose into teen girls’ labyrinthine social nexus all at once.

Given Cheong-ji’s reserved nature, her friendship with Hwa-yeon, a pretty and popular classmate, seems out of place. Man-ji finds that their “friendship” was a subtly manipulative power dynamic in which Hwa-yeon demanded gifts and favors from Cheong-ji and actively set up situations to mock her in front of other girls. Those other girls, who felt they were kinder, still were complicit in ignoring Cheong-ji and trapping her in a situation where Hwa-yeon was the only friend she had. Even her family failed to notice times that Cheong-ji tried to reach out to them. Early teenage years are characterized by a pervasive need for group acceptance, creating a predicament where to ensure self-survival means putting another down. With naivety and no appropriate emotional outlet confounding the problem, each girl’s personal insecurities quietly fracture Cheong-Ji’s emotional health, wearing her down over time.

As more realizations unfold, it’s clear that what originally seemed like a blame game turns out to be a complex web of guilty behavior, some parties actively bullying Cheong-ji into emotional isolation and some unconsciously furthering her depression by not recognizing it. So often bullying is portrayed as simply explicit taunting or physical violence, making it difficult to understand it when it happens. The success of this film comes from probing into deeply fleshed out character motives, with every act of cruelty guided by realistic, common insecurities. Subtle yet emotive performances from all cast members reveal how personal fear of blame and social isolation made it difficult for the classmates and family members to come to terms with their involvement.

South Korea has the highest suicide rate among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development-defined developed countries, and “Thread of Lies” is a nuanced exploration that penetrates the social pressures that devastate teenage girls and opens up a conversation about how symptoms of depression can easily go unrecognized.

“Thread of Lies” was screened as part of the Korean Cinema Now series at the Michigan Theater, presented by the Nam Center for Korean Studies.

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