She is the one who should be helped and protected, but she is left in pain and confusion instead, and she does not even know how to deal with her gloomy situation while not wholly understanding it in her helpless position. Through its close, intimate observation of its ill-fated heroine, South Korean film “Han Gong-ju” slowly lets us get to know about what is behind her detached face, and it is really devastating to watch at times as we are watching her silent suffering. While there are some glimmers of hope around the story, this is ultimately a sad, harrowing drama about a girl trying to cope alone with what happened to her, and it shakes us hard with her deep emotional pain as we sympathize with her.
For some vague reason not explained enough in the beginning, Han Gong-ju(Cheon Woo-hee) is transferred to the other high school through the help from a teacher of her former high school. She has parents, but neither of them can take care of her at present, so the teacher takes Gong-ju to his mother’s house. Ms. Lee(Lee Yeong-lan) is not so pleased about letting a stranger into her house, but she agrees to provide a shelter for Gong-ju, who stays in an old room which once belonged to the teacher.
She goes to her new school, and she soon gets a friend even though she is not much interested in socializing with others. Eun-hee(Jeong In-seon), one of her new classmates, openly offers her friendship to Gong-ju, and they get a little closer to each other even though Gong-ju does not tell much about herself to Eun-hee and other classmates. When they happen to find on one day that Gong-ju has a natural talent in music, they manage to make her join their music activity, but Gong-ju still maintains her guarded attitude, which certainly confounds and frustrates Eun-hee and others every time.
As the series of the flashback scenes are unfolded one by one along the main plot, we gradually learn what happened to Gong-ju before being transferred to her new school. I will not describe her secret in details for not spoiling your experience, but I can say that the director/writer Lee Su-jin did an admirable job of avoiding sensationalism which is usually associated with the subject of his story. There are a couple of scenes which may be emotionally grueling to watch for some of you, but they are handled with commendable restraint and tactfulness, and we can clearly sense what is going on even though we do not see a lot on the screen during these gut-wrenching moments.
While we know more about Gong-ju, we naturally feel pity to her, but Lee Su-jin’s screenplay presents her not as a mere object to be pitied but as a vivid character we come to deeply care about. As revealed through the flashbacks scenes, she was a lively teenager girl with hope and dream, but her bright spirit was cruelly trampled by an unspeakable act during that fateful night, and she has been feeling hurt, confused, and embarrassed about it. She has no one to talk with about it, and she does not want to even think about it.
Getting a little accustomed to her new environment day by day, Gong-ju tries to move forward at least. She begins to learn swimming probably because it makes her feel a little better. There is still a considerable gap between her and Eun-hee, but Gong-ju becomes a little more opened to Eun-hee and other classmates as getting along with them. Ms. Lee initially looks like an ungenerous middle-aged lady when Gong-ju spends her first day at Ms. Lee’s house, but she turns out to have a good heart inside her jaded appearance. While not asking anything about Gong-ju’s situation, Ms. Lee begins to care about her, and there is a small brief moment in the bathroom which reveals how much they have gotten close to each other although they do not directly show it.
However, as some of you have already feared, things get pretty bad for Gong-ju later in the story, and we cannot help but feel angry about the ordeal she does not deserve at all from the very beginning. The cops handling the case were incompetent and inconsiderate while ignoring how much devastated she was at that time, and her father or her mother was no great help to her either when she was desperately in the need of help and support – and they later break her heart again while disregarding her pain.
And there are a truly despicable bunch of people whom you should see for yourself. Although they only appear in the opening scene and the other important scene later in the film, they surely make a striking impression on us through their blatant ignorance of what happened to Gong-ju, and we witness how heartless ordinary people can be in the name of family. I guess they may have their own pain resulted by that incident, but they let themselves be oblivious to the far bigger pain of a girl who needs to be consoled and supported after enduring a horrible experience, and that makes them as monstrous as the perpetrators. The movie is loosely inspired by a real-life incident which shocked the South Korean society and ignited following discussions several years ago, and it is chilling to think that some of the perpetrators managed to get away with their crime and have lived freely while the victim is still suffering from the injustice even at this point.
Lee Su-jin, who made a directorial debut with this film, handles his story with care and confidence while steadily maintaining his low-key approach to story and characters. Although it is a little confusing to us at first, we never get lost in its emotional narrative thanks to his skillful handling of images and sounds, and he also draws good performances from his cast. Cheon Woo-hee, a young South Korean actress who previously appeared in “Sunny”(2011) and “Elegant Lies”(2013), deserves praises for her beautifully nuanced performance which is crucial in making Gong-ju into a three-dimensional character at the center of the story; even when she is silent, she effortlessly conveys us the thoughts and emotions churning inside her character, and her performance is always believable and engaging while never reaching for our attention.
Cheon is supported well by her co-performers. While Jeong In-seon is amiable as a kind girl trying to accept a friend she cannot understand well, Kim So-yeong plays Gong-ju’s close friend in the flashback scenes, and Lee Young-lan is colorful as a woman who is kinder to Gong-ju than most of other adults in the movie despite her flaws and limits. The movie is not entirely without humor, and there is an awkward scene where her son and Gong-ju have a dinner with Ms. Lee and her boyfriend at a Chinese restaurant; while her son feels rather embarrassed about it, she does not feel any shame about pursuing her desire, and this active lady surely knows how to handle her man.
Since it was shown at the Busan International Film Festival in last year, the movie has been continuously praised and admired by many people who watched it. It has recently garnered top prizes at several international film festivals, and it also received good reactions from such prominent figures as Martin Scorsese(“I have a lot to learn from this movie and I can’t wait to see Lee Su-jin’s next film”) and Marion Cortillard(“So much detail and the actress was amazing.”).
Thanks to the increased public interest by word of mouth, the movie luckily gets a wider theatrical release than expected in South Korea, so I and other audiences got an opportunity to watch it at the local movie theater on its release date. As horrified by what she went through, I felt lots of sympathy and concern toward Gong-ju even when she was withdrawn into her tormented mind, and I noticed that a woman sitting next to me was crying as the movie approaching to its inevitable point.
“Han Gong-ju” is a small but powerful work which is also one of the best South Korean films of this year. The movie induces us to have immense empathy toward its heroine through its sensitive and thoughtful portrayal of her emotional scars she wants to hide, and its haunting finale makes us think about how unfairly she is treated by the harsh society which stigmatizes her rather than protecting her. Her confused reply to a minor supporting character during one scene is still lingering on my mind: “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Sidenote: As my acquaintance Pierce Conran pointed out in his review, the full name of the heroine means “one princess” when it is phonetically translated in Korean. What a sadly ironic title it is.