Diary of June or Bystander or Yu-wol-ui il-gi or 6월의 일기 (2005)
In deciding to watch this film, I’m vaguely exploring how successfully people who move from one country to another can bridge the two cultures. Kim Yunjin was born in South Korea but her family moved to the USA when she was ten. Having decided to make acting her career, she picked up small parts in America but became better known in South Korea. Then came her breakthrough in US television with Lost in 2004. During a break in the television schedule, she returned to South Korea to make Diary of June or Bystander or Yu-wol-ui il-gi or 6월의 일기 (2005). This adopts the format of a senior detective and a rookie. In this case, the experienced officer, Detective Chu Ja-Young (Shin Eun-Kyung) is a slightly older woman, very dedicated and hard-working. She’s looking after a teenaged orphaned nephew who, in Korean terms, is not exactly the most reliable of characters. Like many countries in this part of the world, there’s a major focus on education as a precondition to future success, yet this boy prefers to spend his free time spray-painting graffiti and hoping not to get caught. This creates real tension between the teen and his aunt. The rookie, Kim Dong-Wook (Moon Jung-Hyuk), is a young man yet to commit to the idea of being a detective. To him it’s a civil service job with cool perks, i.e. he gets to be seen walking through police lines at the scenes of investigations and drives a car with the siren going, acting like he’s a racing driver. That said, this relationship actually feels real. She’s both patient and a leader by example, pulling him through the thinking processes to see beyond the apparent suicide of a schoolboy, to link it to the murder of his class-mate, and then to speculate they are dealing with a serial killer. She also has a magnificent way of cooking squid which you should all try.
The essence of the story quickly emerges. In the school her nephew attends, a rather wimpy boy is subjected to continuous bullying over a period of some months. During this time he writes a diary. But, because he prefers to get everything done quickly and neatly, he writes several months in advance. This, as the title suggests, includes entries for the month of June in which he plans six murders in retaliation for the bullying. However, he dies in a hit-and-run. It therefore looks as though his mother, Seo Yun-Hee (Kim Yunjin) is acting out the different scenarios described in the diary, killing the first boy in a knife attack and the second to make it look like a suicide out of remorse for the first murder. Then there’s a third death in the ER of the hospital where the mother works as a nurse. When the detective goes to the address given for the mother, she realises they were at school together and “best friends” until a fateful day. When they should have cared more about one of their fellow schoolmates who was being attacked by some boys, they hurried by, telling themselves they were late for an appointment. Both have carried a burden of guilt because the girl later died.
With the mother missing, the problem for the police is to identify who else may be at risk. Initially they think they have found the right diary but, when they turn up in the wrong place to protect the wrong boy, it’s obvious they are working from a fake copy. Fortunately, one of the boys in the class decides to help the police by showing them a secret website where video of the bullying has been uploaded.
At this point, the film rather cleverly pivots and although it continues to be a police procedural, it really becomes a drama about bullying, the parents’ responsibility and the wider role of the school and other authority figures. An investigation into the background of the mother finds she had been abandoned by her husband and was continually harassed by his creditors. When Jin-Mo also proves a problem, she tells him to go away for a while. She needs a break from all her troubles. Jin-Mo reacts by deliberately walking out in front of a car. This tips the mother over the edge and into revenge mode. She wants to kill not only the immediate ringleaders of the bullying but also the bystanders who did nothing. This inevitably involves the failures of the school in general and the class teacher who was aware of the bullying but did nothing to stop it. But the question posed and answered by the film concerns the identity of the most guilty bystander and how he or she should die.
Although I think the ending goes on for slightly too long in stating the obvious, Diary of June or Bystander or Yu-wol-ui il-gi or 6월의 일기 remains a provocative and emotionally satisfying story that transcends language and cultural boundaries. No country is free from the curse of bullying, whether in schools, the workplace or elsewhere. That Korea may have a culture that prefers to save face which makes it more difficult for those involved to intervene or deal with the phenomenon, does not prevent this film from having a powerful message for all who see it. Kim Yunjin is very effective as the broken mother seeking revenge. In this pivotal role in a highly dramatic film, it’s interesting to compare her with Daniel Henney who was born in America to a Korean mother but has found success in South Korea even though, initially, he could not speak the language, see Seducing Mr Perfect and The Fugitive Plan B. He gets by on good looks, whereas Kim Yunjin is bilingual and can act. Yet they have contrived to achieve relative success in both countries. Although it’s not, strictly speaking, a fair comparison, in the long term, my money is on Kim Yunjin to be the more successful. She has more talent.