NOTE: Please be aware that this DVD is a Korean import and is coded for Region 3 DVD players. In order to view this DVD, you'll have to have either a Region 3 coded or Region Free DVD player. [Recommended Region Free Players] It will not play in standard Region 1 North American DVD players.
Bystanders (also known under the alternate title of Diary Of June) begins with two South Korean detectives, Kim Dong-wook (Eric Moon of A Bittersweet Life) and Chu Ja-young (Shin Eun-Kyung of My Wife Is A Gangster) on the job trying to figure out the details behind the death of a young male high school student who has seemingly committed suicide. Ja-young suspects foul play and she insists on an autopsy that reveals a strange red capsule inside his stomach. When they open up the capsule to see what's inside, the find a piece of paper that looks like it was torn out of someone's diary. Our two cops put two and two together and are able to make a co-relation between this death and an earlier case where a student from the same high school was also found dead.
As Ja-young and Dong-wook start nosing around the school and intensifying their investigation, they soon find that a serial killer is at work here but they're clueless as to the motivation or the reasoning behind the killings. To figure it all out the detectives must figure out how the diary figures into all of this and through some clever sleuthing they're able to trace things back to a student who, according to his mother (Kim Yoon-jin of Lost fame), has long suffered at the hands of his bullying peers. The catch? He's already dead, apparently the victim of a suicide. Some ties to Ja-young's past further complicate things as the cops try to catch the killer before he or she can kill again.
Comparisons are obviously going to be made between to Sympathy For Lady Vengeance and Princess Aurora as these films do share a few similarities in terms of plot, structure and style Bystanders stands well enough on its own that it's worth checking out. That being said, it's got some problems too. First and foremost is the pacing. The movie starts off very strongly, with quite a bang, but it can't keep up the momentum as the movie progresses. It throws some very clever psychological twists at us but the title itself, Bystanders, actually gives us too much information and because of that the red herrings aren't nearly as persuasive as they could have been. It also tends to beat us over the head with its message over and over again – we know bullying is bad, we know it hurts kids, and we know that yes, in extreme cases it can drive students to off themselves – stating it once is enough for most people to clue in, it's a rather obvious point that doesn't need the repeating that it gets in this movie.
Pacing and preachiness aside, Bystanders is a decent movie. It's not a classic, but the more dramatic aspects of the film do work well and some of the subplots, such as Ja-young's relationship with her nephew and her relationship with the mother which goes back to her own high school days do a good job of developing her character and making her interesting to the audience even if some of her mannerisms and personality quirks come off as surprisingly immature for a detective. The kill scenes are intense enough to matter and while the logic behind them is faulty at best (they strive more for intensity and shock value than realism) they are effective in their execution. Kim Yoon-jin is also quite good in the film, she's sympathetic when she needs to be and also manages to handle the stronger side of her character well.
The best part of the film has got to be the cinematography. The movie looks very good and while it doesn't have the flash of Sympathy For Lady Vengeance it's still a very slick film with some nice compositions and very interesting camera work.
The anamorphic 2.35.1 transfer looks very, very nice on this DVD release. Blacks are solid, colors are very well defined and flesh tones look lifelike and natural. Compression artifacts and edge enhancement are almost non-existent and there isn't a whole lot to complain about. There's plenty of both foreground and background detail present in the image from start to finish and color reproduction is nearly perfect. There's a tiny hint of aliasing present in a few scenes but other than that there aren't really any digital transfer issues worth noting aside from some very slight edge enhancement here and there. Print damage is pretty much non-existent and while there is some fine film grain in one or two spots, that's okay as it isn't ever once overpowering or distracting in the least. Bystanders looks very good on this DVD.
Surround sound options are available in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and a DTS 5.1 mix. The DTS mix is great – very active and properly balanced demonstrating distinct channel separation, crystal clear dialogue, and great use of the rear channels for sound effects and background music without going too far over the top. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix has slightly less LFE in it, but is also quite solid and the score sounds fantastic regardless of which option you choose. This is a very, very layered mix used in this film, and this DVD does a very good job of exposing everything that's hiding in the background with crystal clear audio. Optional subtitles are available in Korean and in English. Clarity is great both tracks, and the DTS mix sounds exceptionally good, particularly when the soundtrack kicks in or when the more action-oriented scenes take place.
On the first disc, there's a commentary track with director Kyung-Soo Lim who is joined by the cinematographer, however there are no English subtitles available for this track so it's pretty much impossible to get anything out of it if you don't speak Korean. It seems to be a fairly active track but beyond that, there's not much to be said here.
The second disc in the set contains a wealth of other extra features, but again, none of them are subtitled in English. A documentary on the making of the film, which runs for thirty-two minutes, has some nice behind the scenes footage and some interviews with the cast and crew members (twenty-one minutes, combined), and a separate interview with Kyung-Soo Lim (seventeen minutes in length) can also be found here as well. Some electronic press kit type promotional material is included such as some footage of some of the performers interacting with their fans and a music video, as is the film's Korean theatrical trailer. There are also some deleted scenes here as well.
The packaging for this release is quite impressive. Both discs are housed inside a sturdy clothbound package and a nicely illustrated booklet (again, all in Korean) is also included.
An enjoyable and atmospheric film, Bystanders – The Diary Of June is not without its flaws, but it manages to get more right than it does wrong. The Korean 2 disc release looks and sounds very nice and while it's a shame that the supplements weren't subtitled, some of them are worth checking out. Recommended for enthusiasts of South Korean cinema, a solid rental for everyone else.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.