“Thread of Lies” is a superbly constructed drama about events leading to the suicide of a 14-year-old girl, and the aftermath in which her sister attempts to make sense of the apparently inexplicable tragedy. Rarely, if ever, has the topic of teenage bullying been examined in such forensic detail and delivered with such devastating emotional impact as in helmer Lee Han’s flawless adaptation of the 2009 novel “Elegant Lies,” by South Korean author Kim Ryeo-ryeong. Pic has done sensational local biz, with more than 1 million admissions since March 13. Fest programmers and brave boutique distribs everywhere should take a look.

As with so many real-life teens who have taken their own lives, there are no obvious signs of depression in high-school student Cheon-ji (Kim Hyang-gi). A quiet girl who lives with older sister, Man-ji (Ko Ah-sung), and their financially struggling, widowed mother, Hyun-sook (Kim hee-ae), Cheon-ji mainly seems concerned about being the only one in her group without an MP3 player. With no further detail, the girl hangs herself, leaving Hyun-sook and Man-ji not just grief-stricken but utterly perplexed as to the reasons why.

The screenplay powerfully expresses how grief in such circumstances can transform into guilt and finally anger. While Hyun-sook remains stoic after being forced to move to a cramped apartment in a downmarket neighbourhood, Man-ji takes a different path. With a determination that’s utterly compelling, she approaches Cheon-ji’s classmates and starts asking questions.

At least one part of the explanation for Cheon-ji’s death seems to lie in the direction of Hwa-yeon (Kim You-jung), the prettiest and most popular girl in class, who made a special effort to befriend the less fashionable girls. As Hwa-yeon’s true nature comes to the fore in flashbacks, Man-ji’s attention in the present turns toward Mi-ran (Chun Woo-hee), a genuine friend who dumped Cheon-ji without explanation.

What emerges from Man-ji’s infiltration of her sister’s peer group is a riveting study of how bullying is carried out and how it affects those in the firing line. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, Cheon-ji is deliberately given the wrong starting time for a birthday party. Arriving when it’s almost over, she’s surrounded by smiling girls who are ridiculing her via text messages at the very same time.

From bold incidents such as this to the extremely subtle and sophisticated psychological techniques employed by Hwa-yeon and others, “Thread of Lies” presents a frighteningly believable picture of what goes on in teenage circles. Helmer Han maintains perfect tonal control and elicits fine performances from a predominantly female cast. Active on the smallscreen but unseen in features since the 1993 romance “The 101st Proposition,” Kim hee-ae is outstanding as the mother, and Ko is beguiling as a teenager with the investigative abilities of a seasoned detective.

Pristine widescreen images by d.p. Lee Seung-hyeob and a lovely, subtly applied score by Lee Jaw-lin are the prime assets of a classy technical package.

Hong Kong Film Review: ‘Thread of Lies’

Reviewed at Hong Kong Filmart, March 26, 2014. (Also in 2013 Toronto Film Festival — Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: <strong>112 MIN.</strong> (Original title: “Wooahan geojitmal”)

  • Production: (South Korea) A Movie Collage release of an UBU Film, Movie Rock production. (International sales: CJ Entertainment, Seoul.) Produced by Kim Jae-joong.
  • Crew: Directed by Lee Han. Screenplay, Han, Lee Sook-yun, based on the novel "Wooahan Geojitmal" (“Elegant Lies”) by Kim Ryeo-ryeong. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Lee Seung-hyeob; editor, Nam Na-young; music, Lee Jaw-lin; production designer, Kang So-young; art director, U je-hyeong; costume designer, Yu Ji-yeon; sound (Dolby Digital), Park Jong-kun; visual effects supervisor, Yook Kwan-woo; visual effects, Digital Studio 2L; assistant director, Lee Gyeong-won.
  • With: Kim hee-ae, Ko Ah-sung, Kim Hyang-gi, Kim You-jung, Yoo Ah-in, Sung Dong-il, Chun Woo-hee, Yoo Yeon-mi, Park Soo-young, Kim Jung-young, Lee Jae-gu, Kim ji-hoon, Lee Hee-won, Lee Young-eun, Park Ji-young.