Han Gong-ju (2013)

Directed by
All the more potent for being understated
Reviewed by Simon on 2021-09-22

A pretty young girl named Han Gong-ju is transferred to a new school far from her home, for reasons which are not initially explained - all we know is her assertion that "I did nothing wrong". One of her teachers takes her to stay with his mother and we follow Gong-ju as she tries to fit in at her new school, gets a part time job and learns to swim. Gradually we learn about her past, and why she seems so frightened.

HAN GONG-JU covers fairly familiar ground, though probably more so from Japanese cinema - think All About Lily Chou-Chou for instance. It creates its own identity by maintaining a singular focus on its central character and treating her as a young girl with a life rather than defining her by her trauma. Only gradually does it reveal how much she herself is defined by it though, with carefully measured flashbacks that reveal how it affects every aspect of the way she interacts with the world now.

The approach succeeds in making Han Gong-ju feel like a person who we know, and thereby compels us to share her pain. The film offers some sweet moments, glimmers of hope that she might be able to escape the past, but for every moment of relief or pleasure she experiences there is one of cruelty or disappointment lurking in wait.

The film has something to say about class and entrenched privilege in Korean society, and the corruption and incompetence of the Korean justice system - possibly finding a kindred spirit in Bong Joon-Ho as a result, though it is entirely devoid of his black humour. I don't recall the film actually mentioning this but it is inspired by real events, which is depressing.

Given that she is almost always on screen the film rests squarely on the shoulders of Chun Woo-Hee, who rewards us with a very controlled and mature performance, rich with emotions but restrained in their expression. Her character is multifaceted, never wholly one thing, never simple. It seems impossible that she was a decade older than the character she plays at the time of its release, she certainly doesn't look it, but perhaps it explains some of the maturity she brings to the part.

HAN GONG-JU is an impressive debut for writer & director Lee Su-jin and won a few awards, but apparently didn't find much traction with audiences, which is a shame as it's definitely worth a watch.