Diary of June aka Bystanders (2005) Movie Review

Kyung-soo Lim’s “Diary of June” enters a Korean market already well treaded by films about formerly docile women on the road to bloody, and sometimes shocking vengeance. Counting among this suddenly popular subgenre is Park Chan Wook’s much-hyped “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” and the not-so-hyped “Princess Aurora” with Jeong-hwa Eom. Sharing more in common with “Aurora” (in fact, the two films share a lot in common), Lim’s “Diary of June” (which also goes by the spoilerific title “Bystanders”) is about a vengeful mother (played by “Lost’s” Yoon-jin Kim) seeking to wreak death upon the school bullies who made her son’s life a living hell, eventually leading to the boy’s suicide.

The film begins with young Detective Dong-wook (Eric Moon) and his senior, Tomboy partner Ja-young (Eun-Kyung) investigating the suicide of a student. Ja-young isn’t convinced the boy’s death is a suicide, and when a red capsule shows up in the boy’s stomach, with a torn piece of someone’s diary stuffed inside, her suspicion is bear out. Linking this new victim to an earlier murder victim that went to the same middle school, the Detectives stumble across serial killer Yun-hee (Yoon-jin Kim), although uncovering her identity proves to be easier than locating her, even though, as it turns out, the killer and Ja-young were once best friends back in middle school before a tragic incident separated them.

It bears repeating that “Diary of June’s” central serial killer plot is almost identical to that of Eun-jin Bang’s “Princess Aurora”, sharing not only a grieving mother as serial killer gimmick, but also giving the killer a past relationship with the lead cop that makes the investigation emotionally difficult for the cop. Of the two films, “Princess Aurora” is easily the more violent and visceral, not to mention being much more daring in content. But whereas “Aurora” makes a couple of half-hearted stabs at social commentary, “Diary of June” is clearly a movie with something to say (or believe it is), focusing much of its passion on the terrifying subject of school bullying and the adult indifference that permits it.

To this end, “Diary of June” works as an indictment on society, as well as a personal drama about a single cop struggling to raise her sister’s son. Star Eun-Kyung Shin (“My Wife is a Gangster”) mugs perhaps just a bit too much as a carefree cop who does what she wants when she wants, which includes making fun of her boss and dressing like a 25-year old hip-hop chick. Her slacker partner is played by Eric Moon, who I would say doesn’t have the cop look down, but then again, neither does anyone else in the film. The film’s most heartfelt moments all involve Ja-young’s ineffectual relationship with her young nephew, who as coincidence would have it also goes to the same school as Yun-hee’s late son.

Unfortunately, “Diary of June” suffers from a script that takes great liberties with logic and rational plotting when it comes to its thriller elements. Most notably, the cops stumble across major revelations by strokes of fabulous luck rather than investigative skill; Yun-hee’s string of murders are more like the work of a seasoned ninja, judging by her ability to appear, kill, and disappear at will; and the film’s major plot points take place with such random abandon that one has to wonder if writer/director Kyung-soo Lim just made them up as he went, or if he simply can’t grasp that A leads to B which results in C. There’s also a lengthy epilogue that keeps going for an additional 10 minutes, long after even the dullest audience member will have guessed the big “twist”.

Fortunately “Diary of June” does other things well to compensate for its lack of sophistication with thriller plotting. Ja-young’s constantly clashing relationship with her nephew is a strong aspect of the film, as well as the topic of school bullying. The film takes a hard look at the subject, showing it in sometimes gruesome details. In order to drive home the idea that Yun-hee’s son could be anyone’s son, Lim hides the boy’s face for almost the entire length of the film, showing it only once in a still shot at the very end. It works, and parents everywhere should be running home from “Diary of June” to grill their sons and daughters about their school.

It’s hard to put a finger on what holds “Diary of June” back from being a highly recommended film. The familiar storyline may have something to do with it, as Korea seems female serial killer crazy at the moment. Perhaps it’s the film’s cop elements, which are poorly put together, with a number of major plot contrivances designed simply to draw out the film to the conclusion Lim envisioned. (The inept car chase and subsequent church confrontation between the two female leads is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.) Fortunately I still have a soft spot for Eun-Kyung Shin, and one can’t fault the film for actually saying something when so many movies say nothing at all. It’s just too bad more care wasn’t taken with the plotting of the thriller element.

Kyung-soo Lim (director) / Kyung-soo Lim (screenplay)
CAST: Yoon-jin Kim ….Seo Yun-hee
Eric Moon …. Kim Dong-wook
Eun-Kyung Shin….Chu Ja-young
Ju-sang Yun

Buy Diary of June on DVD