To Sir With Love (2006) Directed by Dae-wung Lim
Released in America as Bloody Reunion
Starring Seong-won Jang, Dong-kyu Lee, Ji-hyeon Lee, Hyo-jun Park, Yeong-hie Seo, Hyeon-soo Yeo, Seol-ah Yu, Mi-hee Oh

It would be a magnificent feat to successfully combine social critique, psychological tension and gory violence into a tidy package. Although To Sir With Love attempts this balancing act with confidence the movie ultimately takes a pretty nasty spill. Regardless of its ultimate failure there’s something intriguing about aspects of To Sir With Love which make it engrossing enough to watch without being driven to kick the screen or talk to the cat, but I can’t say it’s worth any special effort.

The jarring opening sequence of a young teacher enduring the difficult birth of a deformed child and subsequent suicide of her husband grinds to a halt amidst a shocking display of carnage. Police are investigating a basement full of tortured corpses and attempting to question one of two traumatized survivors. From her former instructor’s bedside a young woman begins to relate the previous day’s events.

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A group of old classmates have traveled from parts unknown to visit their teacher who is slowly dying in her seaside home. This is the first time many have seen one another since they were children and there’s an obvious nervousness about the proceedings; the collection of students is varied, two have married, one has become a glamour queen, one looks like have a drug problem and likes leather jackets, one is found hitchhiking, one has been driven by circumstances to live with the teacher and one has suddenly reappeared after a mysterious absence. No one had expected to find their teacher in such an advanced state of decay, wheel-chair bound and unable to care for herself, but the sheepishness at never having kept in touch is soon found to be tempered by some deep-rooted resentment.

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Dark thoughts are dampening the bright sunny day and each shares a common target. Things were not so fun back in grade school and everyone is haunted by some humiliation. Miss Park was not a kind woman, overseeing class with a hard-knock philosophy and a penchant for calling kids out in front of their peers. As the students quietly share their memories along one another rage slowly builds, but no one seems prepared to take issue with a dying woman. That, to me, is a sign of maturity and patience. Realistically only the most sociopathic person could start ripping on an old woman coughing to death, and Dae-wung Lim understands how to use this natural conflict to now only pace the movie but to show without needing detail the complexities of the characters.

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After the cake has been cut and the sun sunk below the horizon a day of hard drinking drags the cat out of the bag. Everyone is embarrassed but the outburst proves a cathartic moment, and sleep is hard-coming for those ruminating on their unspoken anger. Perfect time to knock the students off, one by one and blame it on the ghost of Miss Park’s deformed child.

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Actually, that’s a major stumbling block for the story. The deformed child factors largely in the past, obviously as an introduction to the movie but also as a curiosity for the students when they were children. Where has the deformed child disappeared to now that it’s no longer locked away with crayons and a bunny mask in the basement? No one knows, everyone assumes he’s dead, but the question remains the buffalo in the room no one wants to acknowledge.

The psychological thriller feel which governs the first half of the movie is pretty effective and compelling enough to allow the mood to build. Asian horror films are known for slow pacing and To Sir With Love exploits its wealth of characters to keep things moving without having to resort to scare tactics. The issues that the students share seem overwhelmingly genuine (some push it) and the past traumas they discuss are serious enough to add a sense of imbalance without actual violence. Knowing some background also allows the characters to feel more fleshed out, excusing the behavior of some which would otherwise dictate them as simply assholes.

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During the first half of the movie there’s also an examination of social class, courtesy of the treatment the poorer students received while growing up and the limitations they feel now coming from poverty. The topic is discussed without real shame, giving you the sense that being treated shabbily is just how it is when you’re from the wrong side of the tracks. More overt is the obvious focus on how schools are run in Korean, a topic which is more thoroughly exploited in Whispering Corridors to great effect, and the lasting impression this leaves on the students who pass endure the stress and humiliation of their scholastic pursuits.

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That all gets thrown out the window when the killing starts and it becomes an entirely different movie based on slasher flicks of the early 80’s. The suspense is sacrificed for the thrill of the chase and wince-inducing acts of savagery. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with blood splattering everywhere and seeing people whacked to pieces or worse but introducing the video-game antics of murder to a slowly cooked thriller seems like a waste. As a result of this sudden shift in priority nothing is really resolved that had been interesting earlier on which isn’t very satisfying. This also means a twist ending is required and, sad to say, it’s possibly the most disappointing and most obviously contrived thing about the movie.

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To Sir With Love takes cues from several sources and stylistically suspense-based horror is the influence. The long shots of empty coastal scenes recalls movies like The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby, just as the almost washed out daytime sequences feel like 70’s cinema. As night closes in a considerable debt is due to Friday the 13th and the original Halloween. There’s some interesting decisions made by the camera and while there’s some bad ideas you have to admire the attempt. Some of the earlier group scenes are shot with a floating camera in the midst of the actors which successfully builds on the nervousness and awkwardness everyone feels. Other things, such as the chaotic zooming to accentuate Miss Parks becoming overwhelmed by mixed memories and her illness, call too much attention to the camera and drag you angrily out of the movie to rub your eyes.

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The actors and actresses are all pretty capable of handling the mixed emotions being thrown around. That divide between wanting to confront their teacher for past wrongs and the acknowledgement that she is dying is well played by most, as is the unsettling nature of this gathering. The two characters who stand out as being less than good are both made out to be caricatures, tho by scripting or bad acting I couldn’t say. Whatever the reason their screen time is often shared so the effect of being one-dimensional is tame. However, not one of the ensemble really stands out as great.

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There’s very little incidental music which is probably a good thing. Using sound in place of music has been a pretty effective technique for horror movies for a long time and honoring that tradition is a safer bet than trying to find someone who can compose the next Jaws theme. The sound is well recorded but at times the more fleshy effects are a little over the top and too comical to be grotesque. This movie requires a lot of flashbacks (you know, childhood and all) but these never become too jumpy, drawn out or excessive. Considering that the entire tale is being told by a survivor of this party you can only expect to time travel a little.

My copy of the puzzlingly named To Sir With Love is the International version released by CiNexus which has a clean widescreen print (this was probably direct to video anyway) and legible, literate subtitles. Well, except they’re referred to as “subtrite” on the box. Anyways, Tartan Asia Extreme released this in the states as Bloody Reunion which probably looks and sounds exactly the same but is more available for your renting or whatever needs. If you want. Whatever, it’s up to you.