Han Gong-Ju (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 113 minutes approx.
In his debut Lee Su-Jin tells of the harrowing nightmare experience of the eponymous 17 year-old schoolgirl (Chun Woo-Hee), the foundations of which are found in the infamous real life Miryang Gang Rape Case of 2004. Without going into too much detail, the eleven month gang rape spree by forty-one high school boys caused national outrage when the victims were persecuted by some of the culprits’ parents due to police leniency.
Lee’s fictional story hits hard with its indictment of social injustice but does so in a chillingly calm and detached manner. We are introduced to Gong-Ju as she is being taken to a new school mid-term by her former teacher Lee Nan-do (Jo Dae-hee) who also sets her up with a room with his mother Mrs. Lee (Lee Young-lan). Gong-Ju doesn’t feel welcome anywhere, keeping to herself and rarely smiling, making no mention of her parents who have all but given up on her.
Eventually Mrs. Lee warms to Gong-Ju and invites her to stay while a classmate Eun-hee (Jung In-sun) tries to encourage Gong-Ju to join her singing group after hearing her sing one day. Things gradually seem to pick up for Gong-Ju until her tragic past returns with a vengeance, causing the truth to finally surface.
It is no secret that Korea, like most Asian countries, is home to a distinctly patriarchal society and filmmakers over the past few years have stood up to address this, Lee Chang-dong’s superb 2010 film Poetry being a potent example of this. Han gong-Ju is a little more subtle in doing this but by no means less pointed in getting this message across. Where Lee strikes a deep chord with his story is by revealing key bits of information via flashback at regular intervals and keeping the more upsetting moments to a minimum for greater effect.
In the meantime we follow Gong-Ju as she navigates her way through her new life while trying to piece together the remnants of her old one. Having finally tracked her alcoholic mother down, Gong-Ju finds her with a new man who doesn’t know about Gong-Ju. Just as Mrs. Lee seems like a suitable surrogate she too is loving it up with her new paramour (a funny scene sees them falling out of bed while in flagrante) leaving Gong-Ju again without any adult support, a recurring theme in her life.
Through the flashbacks we learn that irresponsible parenting is rife in Gong-Ju’s circles with her friend Dong-yoon (Kimchoi Yong-joon) being picked on by the cool kids he wants to hang around with, that his parents ignore the seemingly permanent bruises on his face. It is through Dong-yoon that the rape occurs when the gang leader Min-Ho (Kim Hyun-Joon) arranges for him and his mates to have some fun at Gong-Ju’s expense, also targeting her drunken friend Hwa-ok (Kim So-Young).
It is highly probable that the piecemeal revealing of this pertinent information might feel like Chinese water torture with the anticipation becoming unbearable, and on occasion the frequent time shifts can confuse. However when the pieces all come together everything naturally makes sense, not that things are any easier to digest after knowing what we know. Lee’s method of not bombarding the audience with the horror of Gong-Ju’s ordeal works exceptionally well in creating a sense of false security and the modern day story is captivating enough for us to temporarily forget there is more of it to come.
However gripping and well crafted the script is, it needs a great cast to bring it to life, and in Chun Woo-Hee, Lee has presented us with a new star. Remarkably this twenty-six year old easily passes for someone almost a decade younger yet has a meagre CV which includes a TV role and small part in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother. Regardless Chun makes the most of this opportunity and carries the weight of the film on her slender shoulders with a rare perception and understanding belying her modest experience.
Gong-Ju is a complex character with many sides to her personality as a result of her suffering and Chun conveys each one with depth and conviction while maintaining the singular essence of her character. Whether depicting loneliness or the physical and emotional pain of being attacked, a simple look from Chun speaks louder than dialogue could, a sentiment justified by the many awards she earned for this role.
The supporting cast are called upon to buttress Chun’s performance and do so with aplomb, whether the role is big or small. Lee Young-lan as Mrs. Lee is the closest thing to comic relief but she too is a damaged woman with own problems which like Gong-Ju, she hides away from the world.
With quite a daunting and serious topic to handle for a debut feature Lee Su-Jin acquits himself admirably as director. His style is a mix of conventional movie drama pacing with indie sensibilities, relying on an elliptical, non-linear narrative and visual subtleties to convey the emotion of a scene or to grab our attention. Lee uses the camera dispassionately despite the story having a distinct manifesto while his fondness for using silence to create an atmosphere is evident early on.
There is no escaping the fact that this film is a sombre experience that deliberately toys our emotions, through provocation and not sentimentality. Rape is not a subject that needs any glorification and while nothing here is too explicit Lee leaves most of the horror to our imaginations and the strong performances from his cast. Arguably the greatest sin committed comes in the final act, a shaming indictment of a corrupt and misjudged society in need of urgent moral cleansing.
Han Gong-Ju broke box office records in Korea for an independent film, earned many awards worldwide and the praise of one Martin Scorsese to boot. It’s rare to see such a bold and distressing film receive such honours but the proof is very much in the pudding, even if is a hard one to swallow.
Short film – Enemy’s Apple
Rating – ****
Man In Black