The Lost Choices (Eotteon salin)

Korea (2015) Dir. Ahn Yong-Hoon

Rape is never an easy subject to tackle in film, either dispassionately or without becoming exploitative. It is hard for men to appreciate the women’s suffering while woman are unlikely – and justifiably – to be able to contain their rage. Another issue, objectively depicting the reactions and fallout in a staunchly patriarchal society, forms the basis of this deeply harrowing film.

Chae Ji-Eun (Shin Hyun-Bin), a once promising marksman, is left with a severe stutter after a car accident which killed her parents. Now working in a dead end textiles factory with her best friend Won Kyung (Yim Seo-joo), they both have to fend off sleazy advances from their boss to get a promotion. After one such night, as Ji-Eun is walking home she is attacked and raped by three men.

Ji-Eun manages to walk to a police station to report the crime but Detective Park (Kim Kyung-Sik) is too distracted with his money problems to care, and accuses Ji-Eun of lying about the assault. Upon returning home, one of the attackers is in her flat, having taken Ji-Eun’s ID card, and tries to rape her again but this time Ji-Eun accidentally kills him. Believing the police are against her, Ji-Eun takes matters into her own hands.

In his debut, Ahn Yong-Hoon bravely takes a direct accusatory swipe at Korean society as a whole for their treatment towards sexual abuse victims and women in general. Through a number of unpleasant threads all connected by the theme of the male superiority over women, this bleak and unsettling watch makes its point by taking it to the extreme as one tragedy after another unfolds.

The men don’t come of too well in this film yet this isn’t exactly a rousing feminist clarion call either, but it is a provocative essay on a subject that should affect both genders, even if it causes 50% of the audience to rethink their attitudes. Admittedly, the plot is driven by a number of contrivances but each one highlights the various issues and unjust traumas female victims endure.   

It is not until late in the film when Ji-Eun’s skill as a shooter becomes vital to the plot despite its convenience, but it shows us the consequences when you pick on the wrong person. Ji-Eun’s stutter is also used against her, incurring derogatory nicknames and in the initial interview with Det. Park, making her more withdrawn and unable to feel confident in confiding in anyone about her attack.

Meanwhile Won Kyung is a lifelong victim of abuse from her alcoholic father and now her deadbeat boyfriend No Chang-Bae (An Se-Ha). Won Kyung stays with Chang-Bae because he “accepted her” yet he sees her as a meal ticket and a regular lay, this level of disrespect shown to Ji-Eun and everyone else. To escape this life, Won Kyung decides to acquiesce to her boss’s advances in the hope the better wage will eventually earn her freedom.

The third tragic story involves the one person who is on Ji-Eun’s side, female police Detective Kang Ja-Gyum (Yoon So-Yi) who has a vested interest in the case revealed later in the film. Despite her credentials and feisty attitude, Kang’s male colleagues look down on her while male criminals refuse to take her seriously. But Park’s treatment of her has tainted Ji-Eun’s view of the police, putting a further emotional strain on Kang.

And it needs to be pointed out that it isn’t just men who mistreat the women as there are some complicit females too, namely the rotund factory floor manager who provides her boss with his drugs and aids him in grooming his next potential conquest. It might be cynical to suggest the token bad woman is an unattractive slattern reaping her revenge on the beautiful people but aesthetically she does fulfil this favoured trope.

Ji-Eun’s eventual descent down the slippery slope of despair into calculated vengeance is something of an exponential journey, initially born of self-defence and later a matter of circumstance before becoming her carefully planned modus operandi. A clever visual motif serves as reminder of Ji-Eun’s first victim, as if he is haunting her from the afterlife that sails closely toward black comedy territory for the only time in this film.

Perhaps typically, whenever Ji-Eun eventually confronts her attackers, they don’t seem to recall who she is, as stinging an insult to her as the violation itself, before begging for mercy like the cowards they are. Yet, Ji-Eun is never unmoved whenever she scores another hit, the raw emotion of the moment is as painful to her as the night she was attacked; it is only her sharpshooting discipline that enables her to fulfil her task.

For a debut effort Ahn Yong-Hoon’s direction is assured and bold, employing classic noir tricks to create atmosphere in lieu of a musical soundtrack, whilst building tension through innovative angles and framing. The first act is a bit choppy with the various subplots being set up through random appearances that distort the timeline but once it settles down, there is no turning back.

However it has to be said, Ahn’s biggest achievement is the powerful performances he coaxes from his three female leads. Yoon So-Yi has a few layers to strip off her character of Det. Kang before becoming the emotional lynchpin of the final act, while Yim Seo-joo captures the frailty and dependent nature of human punch bag Won Kyung.

But this film belongs to Shin Hyun-Bin, whose essaying of the tragic and traumatised Ji-Eun is an astounding example of immersive acting. From nuanced delineation of a distraught mind to the minutiae of her body language, Shin delivers a tour de force performance of aching precision and intensity.

The Lost Choices isn’t a film about delivering solutions or empowering women; it shows us where society is going wrong and warns us of the worst that can happen if we don’t revise our attitudes.

An unflinchingly hard-hitting and vital piece of cinema.