To Sir, With Love (스승의 은혜, Im Dae-woong: 2006)

Retired teacher Ms Park is suffering from a debilitating illness. She is cared for by one of her former students who decides that as a gift for her old teacher she will arrange a reunion of some of her now adult students. As the guests arrive it appears to be a fun occasion, however as the evening moves on the students start to reveal that Ms Park may not have been the perfect teacher that she appears to be and their anger threatens to become more than just a minor upset…

A decidedly old school horror slasher which managed to stand out on it’s release not only because of the exclusion of even one long-haired ghost, but also in it’s unflinching brutality, To Sir, With Love (released as Bloody Reunion in the U.S. and also known as Teacher’s Mercy) is a horror film with a capital ‘H’ as it follows through with the blood and guts that its story promises.

With a fairly typical plot – a group of people are reunited only to reveal that they have some secrets between them, largely resulting in a lot of repressed anger and then blood – To Sir, With Love is more thoughtful than your average slasher film as it takes the time to establish just who its main characters are and the reasons why everything goes a bit messy for them. While it’s typical to create your characterisation with broad strokes with these types of films, To Sir, With Love develops just enough depth so that each of the ex-students are recognisable in their own right as well as giving them each more than enough of their own motives to possibly be the person behind the dead bodies that start dropping. It’s a standard hack-and-slash with regards to finding reasons to separate individuals away from the rest of the group so that they can be killed, but with a few little hooks to keep it more interesting. The first of these is that the story is told in one large flashback – we know from the outset just who has survived these terrible events because the film opens with the police interviewing a survivor in the hospital. Secondly, there’s the multitude of reasons that the students have to be pissed off with both their teacher and each other. As their stories come to light it becomes obvious that anyone here could be the killer, and the inevitable ‘reveal’ of their frustration works in both setting each of them up as a possible killer but also in creating a sense that they’re a victim regardless, that they’re not just a victim if they fall under a crazed killers knife. So they’ve not just lightweight slasher-fodder. Just.

As much as To Sir, With Love is a slasher flick it is also an examination of victimisation – each and every person is revealed to in some way to perceive themselves as a victim,and their reasons for doing so are vary from physical illness to physical or mental bullying. Or maybe a lack of love. There’s lots of reasons. By the time the killings begin To Sir, With Love suggests that identifying yourself as a victim can be as damaging as the literal taking of the lives themselves. It’s certainly an interesting way to approach the material, but the approach is kept within the boundaries of the genre and doesn’t become high-concept – which means that everything is kept moving fairly swiftly and the whole thing can be viewed as a straightforward horror flick if those ideas don’t grab you.

There’s a decent little cast who inhabit To Sir, With Love. Schoolteacher Ms. Park is played by Oh Mi-hee who manges to give a fairly subtle performance as the schoolteacher who may not have been the fine example that she thought she was. It’s an interesting performance and to the credit of the filmmakers they rely on the actress to flesh out the performance with a few looks pauses rather than spell out what is going on in her head. It works well. The rest of the cast – the students – also manage for the most part to pull a little more out of their roles than would usually be expected, recognisable as they each meet their demise rather than largely characterless ideas. Seo Yeong-hee (seen recently in The Chaser), Lee Ji-hyeon (Holiday), Park Hyo-joon (A Dirty Carnival), Lee Dong-gyoo, Jang Seong-woon  and Yoo Seol-ah (Ssunday Seoul) make up the students and there’s not a duff performance between, them although for a few of them it’s a lightweight role. As some of the characters reveal themselves to be thoroughly unlikeable you get the sense that director Im Dae-woong is actively tempting you to dislike them, that as a viewer if we’re encouraged to be excited at the prospect of their grisly demise then we’re victimising them as much as anyone else on screen. Which is quite an interesting idea, although ultimately this still conforms to the slasher norm.

Themes aside, To Sir, With Love is a pretty efficient little film. There’s few of those horribly redundant ‘fake’ scares that often plague slashers, and the killings are nasty enough to make you sit up and take notice. There’s some very effective special effects too – including one particularly memorable set up showing you exactly how not to use razor blades. The conclusion of the film is also fairly ballsy and will probably divide viewers between those who like their films to end with it all spelt out to them and those who prefer things to be a little greyer. If there’s criticism to level at the film it’s in some of the obvious plot holes which are there if you stop to think about them too long – one sub-plot seems to just be used for a red herring but results in a character going missing from proceedings without explanation, which is just messy. And not in a ‘blood splattering up the wall’ kind of messy, but in a ‘oh, we should have thought that one through better’ kind of messy.

All things considered To Sir, With Love is worth picking up. With a few flaws that prevent it from having as much impact as it could have (those plot points) it has it’s fair share of memorable death scenes, and the image of Oh Mi-hee as Ms. Park wondering where she went wrong makes it all the more worthwhile.

스승의 은혜 (To Sir, With Love)
Directed by Im Dae-woong
Produced by Kim Sang-o, Kim Min-gi
Written by Park Se-yeol
Starring Oh Mi-hee, Sen Yeong-hee, Yeo Hyun-soo, Lee Ji-hyun, Park Hyo-jun

To Sir, With Love Image © OZONEFILM, FineWorks