"You've really got it all, don't you?
Rich family, pretty face, young and healthy. Your father secures you a job... A trophy fiancé and a young student lover.
Last night in the gym, I saw you. For you, school may be a playground but it's not a motel for you to have sex..."


Hyo-joo (Kim Ha-neul) is a chemistry teacher at an all boys school where she’s hoping to get a tenured position when her current contract runs out at the end of the year. Trying to further boost her chances of continued and permanent employment, she agrees to take on the home-room responsibilities of a colleague on maternity leave, coming into contact for the first time with student Jae-ha (Lee Won-keun) whose prowess in classical dance instantly intrigues her.
However, not only is Hyo-joo utterly incensed by the sudden tenured appointment of the daughter of the school board’s chairman, Hye-young (Yoo In-young), instead  of her but on looking for Jae-ha in the school gym late one evening she also catches the two having passionate sex, driving her already growing hatred for the privileged young woman through the roof.
Determined not to allow Hye-young to get away with such immoral behaviour (especially with Jae-ha for whom her feelings are quickly growing), Hyo-joo decides it’s way past time to make Hye-young pay, once and for all. However, she is wholly unaware of the sheer vicious and visceral battle of wills about to be unleashed...


Sexually-infused narratives in Korean cinema have long been peppered with depictions of relationships historically deemed inappropriate by traditionalism. Whether focusing on simply adulterous affairs (April Snow); same-sex lustful need and indulgence (Yellow Hair); sadomasochism (Lies); an older woman’s sexual desire for a much younger male (Green Chair) or vice versa (Eungyo); or even more specifically a teacher’s carnal entanglement with a student in their care (Innocent Thing), such long-time, societally frowned upon (and as a result taboo) sexual encounters – whether repeated or indeed singular – almost always form the basis for cautionary tales requiring an ultimate price to be paid for carnal gratification. With Korea historically being a wholly patriarchal society, for decades since the very earliest years of Korean cinema that price – whether family ruining, life decimating or indeed life ending – was demanded of women first and foremost and in fact the first ever Korean film that didn’t ultimately punish a sexually voracious woman for her wanton actions was The Adventures of Mrs. Park which wasn’t released until 1996.
Since the New Korean Cinema wave of the late 90s and early 2000s such culminating depictions have become more balanced, to an extent at least, but female punishment is still largely the norm and you can virtually guarantee that if a male is made to pay for his sexual voracious indiscretions his female counterpart will suffer too, at least equally if not even more so. Not only that, but narratives of the like lend themselves so naturally to tropes of betrayal and/or revenge that a plethora emerge as thrillers with sexuality at their core that not only depict the (visual) physicality of pleasure and (resultant) pain but also dissect them in an emotional and far larger thematic sense.
In the case of Misbehaviour, that pleasure, too, is tinged with pain from virtually the outset (e.g. Hyo-joo trying to convince herself that Jae-ha ultimately loves and cares about her more than Hye-young, knowing all the while at the back of her mind that’s unlikely to be the reality of the situation but unable to admit it to herself) and indeed while the pain and punishment for one character is as we'd expect from all of the above (though thankfully staying unexpected in its actual form), for another it is ultimately as physically sexual as the pleasure itself, and frankly shockingly so.

The majority of Misbehaviour is presented more as dark drama than thriller per se, as much an in-depth, increasingly visceral character study of Hyo-joo as it is a building narrative. Early in proceedings, Hyo-joo is described by colleagues as friendly and helpful but it quickly becomes clear that that is a mask for show that allows her to keep those around her at arm’s length. For here we have a woman forced to watch (and grudgingly accept) life incrementally stripping away anything of meaning – her prospects  of continuing employment looking increasingly precarious; her useless writer boyfriend expecting her to provide for and indeed virtually serve him while giving nothing in return and in fact walking out on her when she tries to take a stand; etc. With the arrival of Hye-young at the school in the tenured position Hyo-joo desperately yearns she sees the personification of everything she wants but doesn’t have, her jealousy of Hye-young's privileged and seemingly easy life instantly driving her to absolute hatred, almost laying the entire blame for everything that’s wrong in her life at the young woman’s feet. As such, when she catches Hye-young having sex with Jae-ha it is, from her point of view, the final straw pushing her to the belief that retribution is not only justified by also entirely necessary.

Director Kim Tae-yong (who also wrote Misbehaviour’s script) deftly contrasts the increasingly cold, aggressively negative attitude of Hyo-joo towards Hye-young with the latter’s bouncy, ever-bubbly smiling countenance to ensure that though we can easily understand and even relate to what Hyo-joo is going through we begin to see her frankly nasty interactions and cutting statements as rather mean-spirited, even if we do have the suspicion that Hye-young's overt niceties are likely forced and fake. As such, for a time at least, our sympathies veer more towards Hye-young but as her actions gradually allow us to peek beneath her veil, if you will, it becomes blatantly apparent that she is every bit as manipulative, cold and power hungry as her soon-to-be enemy, once more allowing us to start to see Hyo-joo as the victim of the piece even if she’s guilty of bringing some of the angst and adversity she faces on herself.
Combine these ideas with the repeated narrative switching of hunter to hunted and vice versa, as it were, as the power play between the women ramps up and Misbehaviour’s true strengths cannot fail to be seen.

It could be said that no-one in a twisted love triangle such as this escapes entirely unscathed but Misbehaviour deftly shows that in this case each of those involved is ultimately as much a victim of themselves as of each other, even if one can be entirely blamed for the pain and (inappropriate relationship demanded) punishment of the other, adding a further thought-provoking layer to proceedings in the process.

However, where Misbehaviour ever so slightly slips is in the sex scenes themselves. In a film like this the believability of the passion, the aching longing, the carnality between characters is vital but in Misbehaviour the love-making in the first two sex scenes feels somewhat less evocative than it, to my mind, ideally should (especially in the second). Kim Tae-yong  has said these scenes were originally written to be stronger and more explicit but were toned down on the request of actress Kim Ha-neul (who felt they would detract from the thematic focus of the narrative). While I certainly agree that the third and final sexual encounter should indeed be cold and less graphically explicit considering its context, as far as the earlier sex scenes are concerned I feel their dilution was a misstep.
Thankfully, the sheer visceral nature of scenes leading to the film’s culmination, along with exemplary performances from both Kim Ha-neul and Yoo In-young, manage to redress the balance but I can’t help but feel that if Kim Tae-yong had stuck to his guns in terms of what he originally wanted these scenes of unbridled passion to be they would have underlined and added to the film’s ultimate darkness to a more effective degree. But that being said, is a sophomore director ever really going to argue with an actress as well respected and famous as Kim Ha-neul especially as her agreeing to star in the film was a major coup for a fairly new feature director? Probably not, understandably.
In spite of this, Misbehaviour does succeed as a provocative twisted drama with a deliciously dark thriller culmination and those positive, sometimes gripping aspects certainly stayed with me far more and longer than any minor flaw.



Part character study of a broken individual; part twisted relationship drama; part visceral revenge thriller, Misbehaviour while not perfect ultimately succeeds in being at times provocatively gripping, at others thought provoking, all the while pointing to the lineage of depictions of overt female sexual pleasure, pain and resultant punishment in Korean cinema as a whole.

MISBEHAVIOUR (여교사) / 2017
Director: Kim Tae-yong
Starring: Kim Ha-neul, Yoo In-young, Lee Won-keun, Kwak Dong-yeon


All images © Filament Pictures, Finecut
Review © Paul Quinn