Loosely based upon a shocking real-life case that took place back in 2004, indie drama Han Gong-ju became one of the most talked about Korean films of 2014, screening at around a dozen international film festivals as well as enjoying an unprecedented domestic release on over 200 screens, with admissions in excess of 220,000, making it one of the most widely seen and successful Korean independent productions of all time. Ironically though, this is a film that perhaps works more the less you know about it. So, for those looking for a short, spoiler-free verdict: Han Gong-ju is an absorbing, character-driven film that handles its thorny subject matter with sensitivity and fragmented grace. And although its execution is slow-burning and limited in certain respects, it is definitely worth checking out. Here’s the longer version…
Han Gong-ju follows the titular heroine, Gong-ju (a breakout performance by Chun Woo-hee), a victim of a sexually violent incident on which the film is heavily built upon, and which I shan’t go into in any further detail. She is transferred to a new school and is put up in the home of her former teacher’s mother (Lee Yeong-ran), and even does some shifts at her reluctant host’s convenience store. At school, however, Gong-ju keeps herself as isolated as possible. But after a fellow student, Eun-hee (Jeong In-seon), overhears Gong-ju singing while showering in the swimming pool changing area, she tries to coax the withdrawn girl into joining her a cappella group. But as Gong-ju lowers her defences, her traumatic past begins to catch up with her.
Not only does the past catch up with Gong-ju, it also catches up with the viewer. Writer-director Lee Su-jin chooses not to reveal the specifics of the incident right off the bat, opting to drip-feed information by shrewdly shuffling scenes from the past with scenes from the present. It is only in the film’s final scenes that we get to fully comprehend what has happened to her. It’s an interesting approach that has the potential to be either highly rewarding or highly frustrating for the viewer. On balance it’s the former that triumphs. However, there is a regrettable dash of the latter: although the film’s structure is fascinating to see unfold, with its intertwining timelines and subtle incidences of boundary-blurring hallucinations as the presence of another victim (Kim So-young) impresses herself on Gong-ju’s psyche, it does present certain limitations. For instance, a scene where the parents of some of those who were also involved with the incident start to hound Gong-ju with legal documents raises some interesting questions about the culture of victim shaming (something which sadly seems to be becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s media landscape), and also hints at just how complex the still ongoing case actually is. However, the film’s time shuffling means that these wider elements are left relatively unexplored.
Last seen on Korean television screens in the daft comedy series Vampire Idol (2011-2012), Chun Woo-hee performs admirably in a role that requires her to be almost constantly estranged from those around her. Again, Lee’s choice in story structure means we rarely see more than varying shades of glum, save for one rather radiant moment when Gong-ju picks up an acoustic guitar and loses herself in song. It’s the other performances, particularly those by Lee Yeong-ran and Jeong In-seon as surrogate mother figure and self-appointed best friend respectively, that create an environment within which Chun can excel with such an introverted character. They are supporting actors in every sense.
In a way, Han Gong-ju functions as a quietly sensitive inversion of Kim Ki-duk’s more scandalous Moebius (2013) – another recent Korean film that focuses on the aftermath of a sexual incident. Lee Su-jin’s work is certainly the more palatable and nuanced of the two, carefully underplaying the lurking nastiness of Gong-ju’s ordeal without trivialising it – a scene where the sound from an online video that captured part of the incident can be heard (but not seen) on a laptop is one of the film’s most devastating moments. Making his feature debut (his previous short film, Enemy’s Apple (2007), is available as a special feature on the Third Window Films DVD and Blu-ray release), Lee demonstrates an astonishing sense of craft, complemented by unobtrusive but sensuous camerawork. The film’s style comes across as methodical, yet somehow casual, and exerts a commendable level of authorial control that, while perhaps not fully mastered in this instance, shows a great deal of potential. Han Gong-ju is a welcome reminder of the power of suggestion.
Watch the trailer: