‘Dear Jinri’ is provocative portrait of late K-pop idol Sulli

1 of 3 | K-pop idol Sulli, who died in 2019, appears in a never-before-seen interview in the new documentary “Dear Jinri.” Photo courtesy of Busan International Film Festival

BUSAN, South Korea, Oct. 11 (UPI) — When K-pop star and actress Sulli (real name: Choi Jin-ri) was found dead in her home in October 2019, the news sparked a public reckoning about the pressures of South Korea’s entertainment industry and a culture of cyberbullying by a toxic and misogynistic fan base.

Four years later, Sulli is back in the spotlight in Dear Jinri, the powerful new documentary by director Jung Yoon-suk (Non-fiction Diary) that premiered last week at the Busan International Film Festival.

Dear Jinri is based on Sulli’s final project, an unfinished film and documentary for Netflix that was still in production when she took her own life. Its centerpiece is a lengthy interview that Jung conducted, interspersed with archival clips and personal journal entries, artwork and vlogs.

The result is an unsettlingly close look at the late moments of the outspoken star’s life — a life spent almost entirely in a public arena where she never seemed entirely comfortable.

From the very start of Dear Jinri, we can see the 25-year-old has not mastered the game of the entertainment business: the stock responses, the glib non-answers, the manufactured persona hiding the real self.

When Jung asks her to introduce herself, she seems thrown by the question, a range of emotions plays across her striking features. She finally gathers herself, looks into the camera and says, simply, “Hello, I’m Choi Jin-ri.”

These are the parts that would usually be left on the cutting room floor, but Jung leans into all the pauses, sighs, backtracks, faltering starts.

Often, the tortuous navigation leads to answers that are remarkably honest and insightful, revealing truths about an industry in which her goal was to become “the highest quality product,” or her complicated childhood relationship with her mother.

Sulli “raised important topics in our society,” Jung said at a screening of Dear Jinri over the weekend. “These can be issues about women, the vulnerable or equality.”

The slickly produced film avoids filling in much narrative context, assuming a familiarity with Sulli’s work and real-world incidents she references, such as a lawsuit she ultimately dropped against an online bully or her much-criticized public relationship with rapper Choiza.

Dear Jinri also does not address Sulli’s cause of death, mentioning only briefly on-screen that the interview was recorded “shortly before her passing.” Several other K-pop stars, including Moonbin, SHINee lead singer Jonghyun and Sulli’s close friend Goo Hara, have also died of suicide in recent years.

The Busan native began her career as a child actress and then moved into the world of K-pop in 2009 with the superstar group f(x). In 2014, she took a hiatus from the group due to physical and mental suffering “from malicious and untrue rumors spreading about her,” as the band’s management agency put it at the time.

She would go on to focus on an acting career in films such as 2014’s Fashion King and 2017’s Real, as well as her own solo music projects including the 2019 album Goblin.

Sulli’s talent was unquestionable, and in Dear Jinri she comes across as thoughtful, genuine and truly artistic — qualities that were perhaps her greatest vulnerabilities in the factory-like entertainment industry. Her forthrightness also fanned the flames of an online mob that found outrage over issues such as going braless in public.

At other points in the film, however, she seems lost and still so young, the burden of her emotional suffering playing out in long silences and quicksilver changes in facial expressions. There is a voyeuristic element to the viewing experience, an uneasy complicity in the very system that preyed upon the private life of this public figure.

Jung said at the screening that he worked closely with two human rights lawyers and a psychologist to vet the material used in the film and to be respectful of Sulli’s memory.

The film points out that the name Jin-ri means “truth,” and Jung said that the pursuit of a deeper meaning was his goal with the project.

“The reason I ultimately released this movie is that it is a movie about the main character, Jin-ri, but I think it can also be a movie for the countless truths in this land that misses her,” he said.

The question that goes unanswered, of course, is what Sulli herself would have wanted. Tragically, we will never know.

If you or someone you know is suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

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