Friday, 6 April 2007

To Sir With Love 스승의 은혜 (2006)

It was then that he realised he wasn't the teacher's pet

Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express casts a long shadow not just on the paperback mystery, but on movie scripts in Hollywood and far beyond. It's all in the twist in the tale, the trick ending where the revelation of a hidden truth (pulled out of nowhere) forces the reader to reconsider and reinterpret every event that led up to that moment. Other mystery writers had attempted similar trick endings before her, but this novel from Agatha Christie was the best shining example of the last minute twist - it was plausible yet unexpected, outrageous without being ridiculous, and instead of making the reader feel they wasted their time with the story before the twist, actually made them return to the first page, to let their new-found knowledge inform their re-reading of the book. The sheer artistry of the novel weighs heavily on the minds of scriptwriters even today, with The Sixth Sense being the finest tribute. It's not just the mystery movies now, because almost all Korean horror movie in the recent 2-3 years have gone crazy with the "unexpected revelation of completely unknown plot details" twist ending.

More often than not, though, movies with twist endings (I'm talking about Korean horror movies of the recent 2-3 years, of course) leave a sour taste on the mouth, because their directors and scriptwriters forget the paramount rule of the trick ending: never make your audience feel they've wasted their time. The most extreme example of a bad trick ending would be "it was all a dream/nightmare!", and no modern director would commit this mistake. What makes them stumble instead is their resort to the "it was all a lie!" ending, which is the equivalent of slapping the audience on their faces, and makes them ask "Why did I watch this movie if nothing that happened in the first 80 minutes ever happened at all?" Thing is, the trick ending in Murder on the Orient Express never invalidated anything that happened right up to the point of revelation. And even considering The Usual Suspects, where the story that Keyser Sore told was a lie, the details of his story were almost all true, and the revelation did not invalidate the movie leading up to the point of revelation either.

I don't think the surprise for the audience in To Sir, With Love will be its last minute, out of nowhere twist ending and revelation. That part of its scriptwriters' cue from Agatha Christie is a little to close to the dreaded "none of this ever happened, and there's no way you can reconstruct the entire movie - if at all, if coherently at all - without feeling cheated" feeling. What's more satisfying is its adoption of the other great innovation from Agatha Christie's train mystery, the part where all the travellers on the train are in on the plot. To Sir, With Love is the rare slasher film where all the traditional, conventional slasher victims turn out to bear an animus against their old primary school teacher whom they fete at a school reunion. They're all harboring secrets and grudges against her high-handed treatment of them in the past, and would be more than happy to plunge their collective knife into her. But of course, they all end up as the victims instead...

Personally, I was impressed with the premise - Korea is afterall a deeply conservative society where speaking out and criticising teachers is a taboo, beyond the pale desecration of polite behaviour. Societal attitudes towards teachers in Korea is comparable to Singapore in the late 80s and early 90s, simpler and more innocent days where the Ministry of Education groomed superstar teachers, featured them in MOE recruitment ads (remember "Teach. Do something with your life"?), and parents wouldn't bat an eyelid if a teacher used sarcasm, hyperbole, or more unusual punishments on their kids. Having a slasher movie where the kids return to settle scores with an emotionally abusive teacher is something you won't expect from the Koreans - the subversiveness is just about on par with Bewitching Attraction, a Korean sex comedy about university lecturers. What was less impressive was the actual slasher third act, where the execution of the gore and the squeamish factor was disappointing.

To Sir, With Love has a great premise but viewers may find its trick ending a little too much of a letdown, given its so-so slasher sequences. Its sheer audacity and imagination, though, make this one of the better Korean horror movies for a long time.

First published at incinemas on 12 April 2007

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