The original webcomic version of "Student A" is very soft and introspective. Keep that in mind while watching the film version, which has surprisingly low dramatic gravitas even in its most shocking moments. Sure, Mi-rae (played by Kim Hwan-hee) has an abusive home life. She also has little to no social life, and is completely absorbed in a dying MMORPG. Mi-rae ends up getting embroiled in a vicious plagiarism scandal, and the opening scene of "Student A" strongly implies that the movie will end with Mi-rae committing suicide. Yet for all that, Mi-rae is fine.
That's because "Student A" is primarily about the coping mechanisms used by unhappy people to cope with their unhappiness. And the net ends up being thrown quite a bit broader than we're initially led to believe. Jae-hee may have the dashing appearance of Suho from EXO, but he still spends most of the movie hiding inside a cute costume (not the bear costume seen on the the theatrical poster) giving hugs to strangers.
Then there's Baek-hap (played by Jung Da-bin), who is nice to Mi-rae initially but is obviously implied to have sinister motives mostly because she's popular and well-liked. I really enjoyed how "Student A" puts us in Mi-rae's frame of mind when it comes to Baek-hap. While Mi-rae never totally trusts Baek-hap either, she recognizes that there's little material justification for her antisocial paranoia. When Baek-hap does eventually do something genuinely awful, her actions are couched in surprisingly sympathetic terms.
This is all a result of how Mi-rae is very emotionally withdrawn, and struggles to have particularly strong feelings about much of anything. Look at the MMORPG scenes. There aren't actually that many of them. What Mi-rae does in her virtual adventures isn't actually all that important. She just enjoys having friends with whom she can try to accomplish some sort of task, however pointless. That's what makes her scene with the giant so crushing. We see how Mi-rae has consciously decided that this is one more thing in life that she doesn't care about.
"Student A" only offers one prescription to resolve this depressive dilemma. Start caring. Which isn't exactly a magic bullet. All of the unhelpful, unreliable adults in Mi-rae's still exist after the climax. There's not much Mi-rae or any other student can do about them. But by choosing to doubt them, and recognizing how other teenage girls aren't really that much more different than she is, Mi-rae is able to seize agency and start trying to rectify the wrong she sees in the world.
This is also the main takeaway of Jae-hee's storyline. That which is broken can't be unbroken. All Jae-hee can do is resolve to do better, and that's where we're left with everyone at the end. They make a conscious decision to start thinking in terms of what they believe is morally right, and empathizing with each other rather than trying please authority figures that simply don't care about the mental problems of the next generation. The message is quite bittersweet- yet all too relatable.
Written by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a substack at williamschwartz.substack.com where he discusses the South Korean film industry in broader terms and takes suggestions for future movies to review.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Student A""
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