Han Gong-ju

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Well the previous post didn’t seem to get any response, so I have decided just to review the three movies in turn.  We will start with a film that I have been putting off as I pretty much knew what it was about, and it is rather distressing stuff.  But, it’s an award winning film, and therefore I feel obligated to see if it is worth all the praise.  Now at the centre of this one is something that is slowly revealed as the movie unfolds, and it’s hard to talk about it without spoiling.  In fact, I am going to say right now, I am going to tell all, so don’t read this if you don’t like that sort of thing.

The titular “Han Gong-ju” (Chun Woo-hee) is a schoolgirl harbouring a dark secret.  We meet her saying farewell to her family, and being taken away by a teacher to a new school in a new town.  The Teacher finds her lodgings with his mother (Lee Yeong-ran), and the withdrawn Gong-ju starts to slowly build a life for herself.  She takes up swimming lessons, and slowly forms a bond with her landlady.  She also meets a group of girls led by the effervescent Eun-hee (Jeong In-Seon) who have an acapella group and are bowled over by Gong-ju’s singing ability.  Sadly, this isn’t “Pitch Perfect”, as the secret she has been hiding from eventually catches up with her, leading Gong-ju to make a fateful choice.

“Han Gong-ju” is a remarkable film, but one that is difficult to watch.  This isn’t just because of the subject matter, but because of a somewhat languid pace, along with director Lee Su-jin’s choice to mix time periods up.  We move back and forth through Gon-ju’s life, but with few clues as to when it has happened.  This makes the film difficult to get hooked on until you are in the meat of the tale.  The mystery of her exile takes time to be fully uncovered, but it is worth the journey.

This is well filmed, but not glossy.  It feels truly an independent production, not glossy like most Korean films.  This is important, it feels raw and real

Chun Woo-hee was 26 when playing this 17 year old, but she is quite brilliant.  Understated and withdrawn for the most part, she still manages to show the more feisty version of her self from the past, and a genuine feeling of pain even when she starts to connect with her new life. This does have the effect of making everyone else appear exaggerated (Jeong In-Seon is especially perky), and along with the foray into singing means that the film does get a little unbalanced at times.  But if it was totally dark, the film would be unbearable I guess.

It’s fairly clear what has happened to her quite early on, there are hints dropped, and even then, the full magnitude of what she has gone through still shocks when it is revealed.  And here is the spoiler… Gong-ju wasn’t just raped, she was gang raped.  And as per usual in these films, the Korean judicial system does not come out smelling of roses.  She is the one who has been exiled, she is forced to shoulder the guilt alone.  Those with money and influence seem to have the power.  The film manages to balance showing and telling.  It doesn’t leave anything to the imagination, but at the same time doesn’t become exploitative or explicit.  The act of rape is about power, not sex, and the film understands this.

The shocking thing is.. this isn’t complete fiction.  The story takes influence from a real life case in Miryang.  Even more shocking, the facts of that case are even worse.

The ending is one open to interpretation.  One could take it as a sad tragedy.  Or as an attempt to escape to something new.  It does add a reason to her desire to learn to swim, so I am taking it as she has decided to leave her old life behind and start again as someone else.

I really enjoyed “Han Gong-ju”.  But it is a painful watch, and would be wrong of me to say I loved it.  It is however, Highly Recommended.  But not something for a date night.

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