Han Gong-ju: Rotterdam Review

Han Gong-ju Still H
Vill Lee Film Co.
An impressive debut driven by a timeline-blurring narrative and nuanced performances.

Korean director Lee Su-jin's first feature tells the story of a schoolgirl attempting to put her traumatic past aside in new surroundings.

Boasting a remarkably understated performance from his lead actor – a 26-year-old playing a confused teenager, no less – and a story striving hard to transform horrifying trauma into brightly-lit salvation, 36-year-old Korean director Lee Su-jin has delivered a feature-length debut brimming with so much optimism that its feel-good factor isn't dampened by a disturbingly tragic ending.

A multiple award-winner on the festival circuit -- two prizes at home in Busan were soon followed by best-film honors bestowed by a Martin Scorsese-headed jury at Marrakech in December and at Rotterdam last week -- Han Gong-ju is poised for a sustained international run, with the film having also made its North American bow last month at Palm Springs. Its slightly off-kilter, timeline-fuzzing take on a conventional narrative is perhaps accessible enough to secure limited commercial releases beyond South Korea, where the film, curiously, has yet to lock a release date yet.

PHOTOS: Korea Box Office 2013: Top 10 Movies

But the film is certain to do well in its domestic market, given Lee's nuanced handling of the potentially exploitative subject matter. Han Gong-ju also comes as the latest in a line of recent films (such as Lee Chang-dong's Poetry and Hwang Dong-hyuk's Silenced) that challenges how less well-off under-aged sexual-assault victims are consistently failed by South Korea's flawed judicial system, where moneyed culprits can legally buy their way out of even the most water-tight convictions.

Han Gong-ju opens with a very telling scene about this shocking status quo, when the titular schoolgirl (Chun Woo-hee, Sunny), who is living and studying in a small town, is seated in front of her teachers while she is told of the decision to relocate her to another school in the faraway city of Incheon. As the staff's unsympathetic eyes burn into her as if she's confronting the Inquisition, Gong-ju can only quietly defend herself by talking about how singing has saved her soul and asking whether she has done anything wrong. Soon she is seen trekking her way to her imposed exile in a long journey marked by the rumbling of trains and the wheels of her suitcase.

STORY: Marrakech Fest: South Korea's 'Han Gong-Ju' Takes Top Prize

While Lee carefully postpones the revelation of the nature of his protagonist's ordeal, the truth couldn't be more thinly-veiled. Trying to settle into her life, Gong-ju visits a gynecologist for a serious infection of her private parts and shudders when asked to divulge her sexual experience while filling in a form for swimming classes; an early flashback sees her trembling with fear at a police station, pleading to be allowed home, while a long line of handcuffed teenage boys are brought in for questioning -- the same delinquents, it can easily be assumed, who are seen endlessly bullying a boy who is at once her best friend's boyfriend and the son of the owner of the convenience store she works in as a part-timer.

By deferring the inevitable reveal-all, Lee is able to construct a tale of rejuvenation for Gong-ju, as she acclimatizes to her new surroundings; as the straight-talking grocer (Lee Young-ran) who took her in slowly becomes a warm, maternal mentor, and what initially appears to be her new school's Mean Girls-like clique -- led by the well-off Eun-hee (Jung In-sun) -- turn out to become friends who encourage her to further develop her musical talents. But soon the past catches up on Gong-ju in more than just flashbacks -- the glimpses grow increasingly ominous and illustrate the girl's horrendous suffering – and the girl is left with no choice but to seek her way out, a devastating denouement which the director somehow transforms into an act of liberation.

The final moment is in sync with the positivity that underlines Lee's narrative, what with his emphasis of an individual's silent, steel-willed determination to reclaim one's bearings and then re-engage with the present. This internal struggle is vividly brought to the fore by Chun, who manages to steer clear of clichéd melodrama by connecting Gong-ju's measured re-engagement with the people and things of her new life.

It's a nuanced turn rivalled by that of Lee Young-ran, whose character's travails serve as a middle-aged mirror of Gong-ju's youthful tribulations. Just as the schoolgirl confronts challenges against her victimhood with a dignified (and perhaps painful) silence, the grocer puts up with attacks (both metaphorically and physically) against her as she engages in a relationship with a police officer whose promises of eventual marriage seem to be going nowhere. These performances provide the necessary human (and humane) elements to what is a very humanist piece.

Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Hivos Tiger Awards Competition)

Production Company: Vill Lee Film Co.

Director: Lee Su-jin

Cast: Chun Woo-hee, Jung In-sun, Kim So-young, Lee Young-ran

Producer: Kim Jung-hwan

Screenwriter: Lee Su-jin

Director of Photography: Hong Jae-sik

Editor: Choi Hyun-sook

Production Designer: Choi Hyo-sun

Music: Kim Tae-sung

International Sales: FineCut

In Korean

No rating, 112 minutes