Korean Films in Review: Han Gong-Ju

Director Lee Su-jin brings us his first independent feature debut: Han Gong-ju. We follow Gong-ju (Chun Woo-hee) who is, in theory, your typical teenager; she goes to school, has a part time job and she loves music above all. Well, Gong-ju would be your typical teenager had she not been involved in a horrific incident that continues to haunt her every step.

We follow Gong-ju after the “incident” has occurred, which is not fully exposed until around 3 quarters of the way into the film. We see short insights into her past that slowly deepen to reveal the horrors of the reality she must now face.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Gong-ju explains during the opening of the film. Yet she faces the blame and is shunned by her family, forced to move to a bigger town, transfer schools and live with her old teacher’s moody and unpredictable mother, whom she assists in her shop. Even with the persistence of a group of friends who believe in her vocal talents, Gong-ju struggles to embrace her new life as past events continue to invade.

Questions continue to build as we are only afforded small snippets of information in flashbacks. The haphazard style of narrative, however, is often more distracting than engaging, as the timing of flashbacks is sudden and steals away from some of the definitive moments facing Gong-ju’s present.

Han Gon-ju is foremost a tragedy. Yet, for Gong-ju, the real tragedy is not the fact she has had her innocence ripped away, but that she must somehow learn to live on in this new darker world. Gong-ju learns the harsh lesson we must all come to terms with when growing up: the world is very often unjust. Gong-ju learns this in the harshest way, at the roughest time in her life.

The film gives a raw portrayal of loneliness. Throughout the film all you wish is for Gong-ju to reach out, to make friends, to smile. Yet once events continue to unravel we (along with Gong-ju) must accept that she is alone. Chun Woo-hee gives a strong performance as Han Gong-ju, as she naturally radiates inner turmoil.

Despite its rather extreme issues such as rape and suicide, there is as sense of desperate honesty in Han Gong-ju that cuts to the core. Han Gong-ju is a beautifully crafted coming of age story that will continue to haunt you once you have ventured back out into the real world.

Han Gong-ju is not only an achievement for promising director Lee Su-Jin, but for independent Korean film as a whole; sparking a promising future for the field.

Han Gong-ju was one of the Korean films shown at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival alongside Snowpiercer and The Intruders.

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Erin McDermott