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THE SENIOR CLASS is a Beautiful Animated Film with an Ugly Message (Fantasia Review)

The Senior Class is a profoundly frustrating movie. It charges boldly and with best intentions into the razor-sharp maw of a consequential, topical social issue, only to come up insultingly short.

Written by Yeon Sang-ho of Train to Busan and Seoul Station fame, and directed by Hong Deok-pyo, the animated film deals frankly with the love, sex, friendship, and confusion of students on the cusp of graduating from art college. In the vein of The Shape of Things, its main focus is Jung-woo (voiced by Lee Joo-Seung), a shy, sensitive boy who worships a girl in his class, making secret offerings to her in the form of a comic strip that says all the poetic things he can’t bring himself to utter out loud.

The object of his idolization is Ju-hee (voiced by Kang Jin-ah), the most gifted, prettiest, self-isolated girl in the class. She’s creating a complicated maze for her thesis project that represents the paths we face in life and the uncertainty that they’ll lead us where we want to go.

The Senior Class Rooftop

She’s also paying for the school, and an ambitious future grad program in Paris, by working as an escort at a private club. When Jung-woo accidentally discovers her secret, they begin spending time together, and he–after worshiping her–starts to wonder what she’s like as a person.

Their budding friendship has the patina of a romantic comedy, including a surface-level fight after he asks her to quit working as a prostitute, but the film is more interested in exploring young honor and shame than watching these two connect in a gross display of wish fulfillment. The potential of attaining the woman he draws as an angelic bird in his comics, though, makes Jung-woo both thrilled and terrified.

The clearest villain of The Senior Class is Jung-woo’s best friend Dong-hwa (voiced by Jung Young-ki), a blustering asshole who grumbles about debasing himself as an errand boy and talks non-stop about sex. The film’s opening chapter is dominated by his relationship with a dancer at a club he works at, which ignites because he wants her body and fizzles because he thinks she’s bad at giving oral. He chalks this up to incompatibility and not the fact that she was too drunk to consent, she calls him a rapist, and he spends the rest of the movie hiding from her and ducking her texts.

Senior Class Chaos

We get to see all of this play out, including the rape, but it’s viewed from the sidelines by Jung-woo who has made a virtue of being invisible to his classmates.

The drama unfolds with Ju-hee’s secret job and her lofty ambitions dangling like a double-edged sword above everyone’s heads. Jung-woo wants her. Ju-hee wants a career. Dong-hwa wants sex.

The Senior Class has to be applauded for its awareness of the kinds of sexism it portrays. It could also be argued that there’s a subversive element to a movie that offers up a narrator protagonist for our empathy only to recognize his White Knightism for a different, dangerous flavor of assholery than the one embodied by his best friend. It certainly could have followed the staid path where a female object of desire, given a name for convenience’s sake, is won by the Boy Who Really Gets Her.

The film is smarter than that, which is why it’s so damn frustrating. It’s like wrapping a diamond in toxic waste. The complicated sexual politics see-saw from refreshing to aggravating and back again because The Senior Class takes the form of every other movie where boy wants girl and the girl’s character is an afterthought.

The Senior Class

Jung-woo is a young woman who isn’t at the center of her own story. She’s betrayed by the movie’s disinterest in her actual personality–one defined at all times by other people, selling us the snake oil of her attractiveness using shorthand, and changing her capabilities as the Jung-woo-centric plot demands. She’s displayed both as cleverly manipulative and as harmfully naive to create situations for Jung-woo’s emotions to emerge, and she’s either imminently capable or meekly helpless when the plot calls for it. The reason for these contradictions is that the filmmakers–like their Nice Guy main character–treat Ju-hee as an object and not a human being. They’ve totally forgotten to let us into her head.

If that’s all low level betrayal, the film commits treason against her when it uses Jung-woo’s panicked, jealous fantasies to give us extended looks at her having sex, luxuriating on her naked body, staring at an imagined version of her that’s pliable and enthusiastic, all in the service of the personal growth of some random boy in her class. Voyeurism and validation for angry young men.

For a bit of icing, the only other women in the movie are two gossipy classmates and the girl Dong-hwa date rapes, who may as well have been ordered from The Bimbo Catalog.

Even with flashes of conscience and the struggle Ju-hee must be facing, The Senior Class is guilty of all the storytelling versions of the real-world sins it seems to want to indict. A movie that recognizes the weaponized sexism against women, without recognizing women.

The animation is beautiful, but the plot is impossible to see past.

Rating: 1 out of 5 chaotic burritos

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Images: Studio Dadashow

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