“Han Gong-ju” – 2014 New York Asian Film Festival Review

“Han Gong-ju” is both the title and the protagonist of first-time feature filmmaker Lee Su-jin’s fine, and finely observed, film, which recently received its New York premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival. It has deservedly won a slew of awards since its world premiere at last year’s Busan International Film Festival, including one of Rotterdam’s Tiger Awards. “Han Gong-ju” boasts wonderful visual textures and a beautifully impressive lead performance by Chun Woo-hee as the titular character at the center, a performance rendered even more impressive by the fact that she was 26 years old at the time of filming playing a high-school girl.

“Han Gong-ju” was inspired by a fairly horrific true-life case that occurred in South Korea in 2004, and consequently the film itself deals with very difficult subject matter. It very sensitively depicts the ways in which a young woman struggles to cope with an extremely traumatic experience in the face of parental neglect and an often cruel and hostile larger society. Even though other reviews have rather casually revealed the exact nature of what happened to Han Gong-ju in this film, I have decided not to do so here, because I really feel it robs the film of much of its emotional impact if you know too much about the story going in. “Han Gong-ju” very gradually reveals the details of its protagonist’s past trauma, and how it comes to determine her actions and how she relates to other people. The film has at its center a very enigmatic and mysterious young woman, where the layers of mystery are slowly peeled away as the film progresses. However, unlike what many other people in the film have done to her, the narrative surrounding her refuses to violate her private emotional space, and allows for enigma and ambiguity to color how we see her. This allows the film the advantage of making it possible for us to care about what happens to her and deeply empathize with her, but at the same time not allowing the proceedings to devolve into melodramatic and emotionally manipulative mush, which would happen in much less assured and careful hands than Lee Su-jin demonstrates here.

We are first introduced to Han Gong-ju as she sits in front of a number of teachers and school officials, and learns that she is about to be transferred out of her high school and to another one in Incheon, fairly far away from her hometown. The reasons for this are not stated in this scene by any of the characters, and she seems to be on trial even though, as she says, “I didn’t do anything wrong,” in a tone that seems to plead for understanding and sympathy which unfortunately proves to be not forthcoming. She also talks of how singing has helped her soothe her soul, but again, these words seem to fall on the resolutely deaf ears of authority.

In Incheon, Gong-ju now must acclimate herself to a new school and new living environment. A teacher from her old school has sent her to live with his mother, Mrs. Lee (Lee Young-ran), who initially is reluctant to have Gong-ju live with her and is initially quite prickly toward her new houseguest. However, when Gong-ju demonstrates her usefulness by helping out at the grocery store Mrs. Lee owns, she begins to warm toward Gong-ju and begins to understand that the young girl has had something terrible happen to her, even though she never speaks of it. Mrs. Lee turns out to have an interesting story herself, having an affair with a married local police chief who continually promises to get a divorce so they can live together. This situation culminates in a scene that somewhat parallels what has happened to Gong-ju, albeit with far less devastating impact.

Gong-ju tries as best she can to start her life on a fresh page, often retreating into singing and playing the guitar as an attempt to heal herself. However, the very recent wounds of the past, both physical and psychological, continue to intrude on her. And this is where the film’s very evocative narrative structure comes in. Flashes of the past alternate frequently with the present scenes; this is how the details of what happened to Gong-ju come to gradually reveal themselves, culminating in a scene with finally lays bare the source of Gong-ju’s trauma, and one which hits the viewer with devastating dramatic force. At the same time, the film’s structure allows space for humor and a rather joyful musical montage that occurs about midway through. This lends a very delicately gossamer and ethereal quality to a scenario that is very much in a solidly social-realist mode.

Gong-ju tries to keep to herself and not socialize too much with others, since her previous experiences have made it very difficult for her to trust other people. However, one girl, Eun-hee (Jung In-sun), makes an extra effort to get close to Gong-ju and gain her friendship. After overhearing Gong-ju sing to herself, Eun-hee approaches Gong-ju and tries to convince her to join a musical club with her friends. Gong-ju, though very wary, allows herself to be drawn into this group, and it provides some distraction from her pain, at least for a time. However, the past once again rears its ugly head, and there is conflict between Gong-ju and Eun-hee and her friends when they make a performance video clip of Gong-ju without her knowledge and send it to a talent agency, which expresses interest in meeting her. When Gong-ju angrily confronts Eun-hee about what she considers a violation of her privacy, Eun-hee protests that they were only trying to help her. At one point Eun-hee screams at Gong-ju, in frustration, “Why do you have to be so complicated?”

We know why Gong-ju has to be so complicated, even if Eun-hee doesn’t. And the reasons for Gong-ju’s complicated nature eventually proves to speak volumes about how Korea’s still essentially patriarchal society has very negative impact for women. Women unfortunately bear the burden of blame and shame for violent actions which have been perpetrated upon them, and “Han Gong-ju” powerfully depicts the outrageous and often inhuman ways in which this operates. A startling and quite angering scene near the conclusion involves a large number of adult parents from Gong-ju’s old school barging into her classroom, berating her and blaming her for the trouble that has come to their young sons, and demanding that she do something to ease this. There are also other examples of the lack of sympathy afforded to Gong-ju and disrespect to her as a victim of violence. In one scene at a doctor’s office, where she is being treated for a vaginal infection, Gong-ju specifically asks to be examined by a female doctor. However, a male doctor shows up, with no explanation or apology given for failing to honor her request.

“Han Gong-ju” is an intensely emotional piece of work, marking a great debut from Lee Su-jin, directing his first feature after having made several short films. His authorial sure hand and impressive command of film language is on generous display here. Chun Woo-hee limns a very memorable character; as talented as the filmmakers surrounding her are – a shoutout is warranted here to Hong Jae-sik’s warmly evocative cinematography – the film rises and falls on its central performance. Any sort of weakness in this department, and the whole thing crumbles like a house of cards. However, Chun absolutely meets the challenge of this very difficult role, making this character who remains enigmatic to the very end quite a compelling one. Chun conveys this beautifully even without dialog; the scenes where she is warily regarding her surroundings, and where the deep pain that lies behind her sometimes impassive visage can still be seen in her melancholy gaze, are often quite emotionally riveting. And yet, she is never portrayed as a mere victim; Gong-ju can be one tough cookie. She has to be, what with essentially being abandoned by her parents, and having to deal with the violation which has happened to her, as well as the failure of institutional structures to protect her and provide for her well-being. There are a few instances where we see Gong-ju fight back forcefully against those who hurt her and try to keep her down. (“Gongju,” incidentally, is the Korean word for “princess”; I feel this can’t be accidental.) The conclusion of the film, which has been misread by some as tragic, is instead a very moving expression of Gong-ju’s resilience. She is determined to keep living despite everything, and to keep her head above water, as the sounds of her friends cheering for her echo in her head.

“Han Gong-ju” is now playing at the Museum of Modern Art through July 7, as part of their on-going “ContemporAsian” series. For more information, visit the museum’s website.