"You stole my school uniform from the clothesline when you were drunk outside my house last night! I know it was you!
Why would you do that, are you some kind of pervert? Give me back my uniform and pay for the crockery you broke!"
While at home one evening, Ye-min (Yeom Da-hae) and her family are subjected to a torrent of profanity laden abuse from a heavily inebriated man banging repeatedly on their door, breaking outdoor crockery pots and claiming repeatedly in no uncertain terms that Ye-min's father beat him up.
The following morning, long after the man has staggered off in a frustrated, drunken stupor, Ye-min discovers that her school uniform has been stolen from the clothesline outside her house and utterly incensed she strides straight into the same man's restaurant business demanding the return of her clothes and accusing him of being a pervert, right in front of his schoolgirl daughter Min-ji, aka MJ (Oh Yu-jin). Though the man vehemently denies knowing anything of the theft, a plastic bag containing a school uniform left at Ye-min's door soon after leads her to naturally assume that her righteous admonishment served its desired purpose, after all.
However, when the real culprit is subsequently forced to admit to stealing her clothes, Ye-min realises she must seek out the only person who could possibly have had a reason for anonymously giving her the second blouse and skirt...
Consider for a moment depictions of youth in Korean cinema. While narratives focused on the very young can often be said to be both warm and uplifting, stories of adolescence have a far greater tendency to be hard hitting dramas detailing the often difficult rite of passage into adulthood. Before we go any further, I am fully aware that such an overarching statement is very much a generalisation and simplification (perhaps overly so) - there are, for example, many comedies and romances dealing with sexual awakening in a light-hearted manner, by contrast - but in terms of drama the ease with which high-school-age characters lend themselves to searing critiques of the school system as a whole; the pressures placed on the young to conform and achieve, and the often resultant consequences; issues of bullying and the sometimes heartless cruelty of children; or even familial dysfunction as a contributing factor to individuals going off the rails (whether those characters are specifically used to enable such critiques or alternatively if social commentary appears as just an element of individuals' journeys) to my mind directly leads to adolescence-based narratives being so often used to starkly detail a loss of innocence - the very same innocence extolled in the aforementioned tales of pre-school-age children.
Don't get me wrong, that's not a criticism on my part, and I'd go as far as to say that such films are not only wholly warranted but also necessary and/or even vital to the underlining of awareness of societal issues impacting on those who are mid-journey towards becoming part of the adult world. However, their prevalence does on occasion prompt me to wish for somewhat warmer cinematic depictions of school age life and I challenge anyone, regardless of how hellish they found their years in education, to say hand on heart that they never experienced a wholly uplifting, deeply meaningful and forever memorable life affirming moment in their adolescence that played a major part not only in shaping their journey into adulthood but also in defining the people they would ultimately and eventually become.
So, step forward 'MJ'; a short film that in spite of having a duration of just 22 minutes details such a defining moment in the lives of two young girls (stemming from a seemingly inconsequential incident) and does so with a warmth, beauty and depth of which any two-hour-plus feature would be proud:
As already mentioned, 'MJ' begins with a scene in which the titular character's father unleashes his drunken fury outside Ye-min's home (even though the subject of his violent rant, Ye-min's dad, is not actually at home) but while fitting perfectly with and indeed initially appearing to herald another hard-hitting storyline akin to those referenced above, its uses are in truth more extensive and less blatant. Implying not only a home life for Min-ji with a parent prone to violent, drunken outbursts (and by extrapolation for Ye-min, too, considering the full links between the two girls' fathers that later become apparent as well as the fact that her dad is the one being blamed for beating up Min-ji's) and of course on a basic level allowing the setting up of the uniform theft that will ultimately underpin the entire story, this scene may indeed have a harsh undercurrent but, to my mind, deliberately so to gradually underline the polar opposites of the volatile relationships of the older generation and the childhood warmth and acceptance that will soon form the basis of the girls' friendship. Not only that, but a tiny passing moment within this scene in which Ye-min stands and heads straight for her door ready to stand up to the man causing the furore outside not only speaks of her absolute confidence in herself - especially when viewed alongside her altercation with him the next day at his restaurant - but also stands in stark contrast to Min-ji dejectedly hanging her head in silence on being told to mind her own business by her father, after quietly asking him "What have you done this time, dad?". Considering how similar their fathers (and therefore home situations) increasingly show themselves to be, this to my mind allows a clear statement that the early differences in their personalities and confidence levels come from their standing in the other significant portion of their lives; i.e. their gaining acceptance (or lack thereof) and friendship/respect from their peers.
As if to underline the point, 'MJ' shortly after features a musically accompanied 'montage' sequence showing Ye-min spending the day hanging out with her closest friends. We watch her checking to make sure her buddies' short skirts are just long enough to prevent their underwear showing as they walk up steps; keeping an eye on the train station guard to allow them to jump the barrier and travel free; and challenging them to (not to mention winning) a mechanical street punching ball game, but here too the sequence's underlying importance only becomes clear at a later stage: As the two girls spend time together (after the full story of the uniform theft/return has been revealed), we see Ye-min taking Min-ji through almost exactly the same activities - going to a clothing shop to have Min-ji's skirt shortened; riding the train together; Ye-min attempting, in vain, to convince Min-ji to take a swing at the mechanical punching ball - and gradually, ever so gradually, we see shy and introverted Min-ji begin to open up to her new associate, in the process giving her the confidence to approach Ye-min for her help with an issue that faces them both later that night.
(As a side note, it could be claimed that Min-ji's polite, shy and repeated refusal to punch the mechanical punching ball perhaps implies a deep seated aversion to violence and her sneaking into school in the early hours of the morning to put two chairs together to lie down and sleep on subtly implies something further about her home life, but whether that truly is the case, I admit, is pure conjecture on my part).
The final, aforementioned, collaboration between Ye-min and Min-ji late at night seals their friendship once and for all; proved by Ye-min gently (and with genuine caring and empathy) brushing Min-ji's hair out of her eyes when she begins crying in frustration at the task at hand, and shown even more so by Min-ji's noticeable use of informal Korean to thank Ye-min for her help (while thanking a third person using formal, polite language). Certainly, in Min-ji's case the thought of making as confident a move as this would never have even entered her mind before Ye-min brought the girl hidden shyly within to the surface and made it clear that she welcomes her friendship.
'MJ' concludes with a simple scene showing the two girls walking, one after another, up the street from their homes towards school and the depiction of both girls equally striding with purpose; equally happily; and with heads held equally high is, to my mind, as beautifully uplifting a coda on the power of friendship as you could possibly ask for.
Cast: Yeom Da-hae (as Ye-min), Oh Yu-jin (as Min-ji, aka MJ)
Beautifully understated in its narrative realisation, 'MJ' takes a seemingly inconsequential, almost passing moment and deftly details the part it plays in changing the entire life of a young woman for the better. Though just 22 minutes in duration, director Kim Hee-jin's Korean Academy of Film Arts short easily stands alongside, and in contrast to, the plethora of hard-hitting two-hour-plus features centred on the journey from adolescence to adulthood; its warmth and uplifting nature becoming ever more noticeable (and indeed welcome) by direct comparison.
'MJ' (2013) / Directed by Kim Hee-jin
Duration: 22 minutes (Full-screen aspect ratio)