Korea (2013) Dir. Choi Seung-Ho
A young actress Jeong Ji-hee (Min Ji-hyeon) commits suicide but the investigation into her death leads to the exposure of the “casting couch” practice active in the Korean entertainment industry. With talk of a diary Jeong kept, naming her abusers and everything done to her and was forced into doing, a dogged TV journalist Lee Jang-ho (Ma Dong-seok) joins forces with rookie prosecutor Kim Mi-hyeon (Lee Seung-yeon-I) to locate the diary and the truth, while Kim conducts her civil law action against Jeong’s agent, film director Choi Chul-Soo (Jang Hyuk-Jin) and company CEO, Gi Ju-Bong (Hyoun Sung-Bong).
Amazingly this “favours for fame” shortcut to stardom for actresses still exists in the entertainment industry and in Korea it has been the subject of some rather ugly and shocking recent news stories. The most recent involved Open World Entertainment which upsettingly even included a charge of sexual assault against two minors.
Before the closing credits, alarming statistics from a survey on the Violation of Women’s Rights in Korea inform us that 45.3% of actresses are forced to serve at drinks parties where they meet the right people to boost their career prospects, while 62.8% have been asked for “Sex Bribes” by industry and media heavyweights.
In his feature film debut, writer-director Choi Seung-Ho has chosen to confront this issue using as his inspiration the true story of actress Jang Ja-yeon, a popular TV star with a bright future who suddenly hung herself in 2009, leaving behind a diary containing every bit of evidence of the sex acts she was allegedly coerced into performing to further her career.
In Choi’s story the diary becomes the conceit of the whole trial when the number of witnesses available to testify in favour of the prosecution becomes hard to come by, either suddenly leaving the country or disappearing altogether. While Kim struggles to mount a strong case against such setbacks, Lee sets out to find the diary and the truth, also beset by interference from forces wanting the trial to go in their favour.
Such corruption is of little surprise, even with this being a dramatisation, but what it highlights and exposes is the arrogance of the perpetrators which along with the central story has angered many female viewers of this film in Korea. To add a little extra pressure on our main antagonists – the living ones at least – prosecutor Kim is on her first case and up against an old friend of her father’s, veteran Yoon Ki-Nam (Park Yong-Soo) who seems to have close ties with judge Lee Sung-Ryeol (Seo Tae-Hwa).
Her key witness is actress Ko Da-Ryoung (Lee Do-Ah) who suddenly went AWOL and has ignored every subpoena sent her way, putting the case in jeopardy. Meanwhile journo Lee was recently sacked from a national newspaper, now working for an obscure online news service. He may still have his ways of getting the information he needs but his current lower standing makes it a lot more difficult to get credible sources onside. Coupled with anonymous members of the abusers’ periphery subtle and not so subtle intimidatory tactics, Lee’s tasks is looking increasingly insurmountable as sentence day looms.
With the majority of the action taking place in the courtroom when not following Lee’s search for the diary, we meet the tragic Jeong Ji-hee through flashbacks, cutting a sympathetic figure almost immediately with her sad facial expression and dour pouting to illustrate what a miserable existence she is experiencing as a norigae (sex toy) en route to the stardom, she blindly believes to be awaiting her.
Some of the scenes are graphic but not too explicit (Korea is still a bit tame on that front) yet are effective enough to engender support for Jeong and raise the ire of the audience, along with the underhanded methods of the accused to corrupt the outcome of the case.
One of course can ask the question why Jeong puts up with it if it is so abhorrent to her and is clear that the early promises of fame and work, but as we are shown it is indoctrinated into the girls that opening their opens doors for them. Sadly even when sympathetic males on the scene are aware of this and not party to it, they are compromised into keeping quiet. A terrible state of affairs.
In just 100 minutes Choi Seung-Ho paints a rather grim picture of the Korean entertainment industry, particular films, but how much is completely accurate and how much is exaggerated will only be known to a few. It should certainly put young women off from embarking on an acting career if this was a common practice but we know it won’t, and while some may be unscrupulous enough to follow this part anyway, one can only hope that enough strong women will be judged for their talent and for services rendered.
On a technical front, Choi delivers a well shot and rather tense outing that moves along at a brisk pace, and manages to cover all the ground necessary for the story without resorting to extraneous filler. Character development is not high on the agenda aside from prosecutor Kim who rises up from nervous newbie to devoted defender of justice, a solid turn from Lee Seung-yeon-I.
Ma Dong-seok as journalist Lee has that grizzled poker faced presence about him that makes him a convincing lead as someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly while TV actress Min Ji-hyeon in just her third movie role is suitably haunting as the tragic Jeong Ji-hee.
Even as a fictionalised account of public tragedy Norigae packs enough of a punch to open some eyes about this egregiously deplorable practice although whether it will initiate any changes in the industry is another matter entirely. Either way Choi’s debut is a solid and provocative one.