After transferring to a new school, a teenage girl (Chun Woo-Hee ) finds her troubled past exposed when she innocently signs up for a singing club.
BUSAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: As one of the English copy editors of the Busan Film Festival catalogue, I was disturbed by the fact that nearly every film synopsis I was sent to proof-read revealed the film’s ending. In an effort to protect the public, I often cut such information but it meant that I knew the outcome of roughly 30 percent of the movies showing in Busan this year. Fortunately, Korean drama Han Gong-ju was not one of the films to come across my editing desk. As a result, I was completely unprepared for this tale of a troubled Korean schoolgirl that turned out to be the most emotionally devastating film since Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock rocked my world in 2010.
The film begins with the title character (played by Chun Woo-hee, one of the background alumni of the superb 2010 hit Sunny) being suddenly transferred out of her school and into the care of one of her teachers. Urgency and secrecy being of the essence, he stashes Gong-ju at his mother’s house for 'one week". The teacher’s mother (Lee Young-ran) isn’t thrilled with the inconvenience of babysitting a teenage girl and strongly suspects that the girl has been 'knocked up". Furthermore, the fifty-something woman wants to ensure that nothing interferes with her new romantic relationship with a local police chief.
While the teacher’s mother is distrustful, as far as the audience is concerned, Gong-ju remains an enigma. A series of fleeting flashbacks gives the audience little information. During a police interview, the girl merely says that music is 'like a religion" to her and that she 'doesn’t think she did anything wrong".
As to what has actually transpired, the director keeps viewers guessing as he asks them to absorb Gong-ju’s current circumstances. Peeks into Gong-ju’s past remain oblique as the 'brief’ visit with the teacher’s mother stretches into several weeks and the teenager settles into her new school. Though classmates know nothing of the new student’s background, Gong-ju nevertheless gathers the attention of the school’s a cappella club when group leader (Jung In-sung, the grown-up little girl from the end of Memories of Murder) hears unselfconsciously Gong-ju sing to herself with the voice of an angel and wants the newcomer to join their choir.
As the newcomers probe Gong-ju for information, the narrative occasionally slips back into the past to focus on a female friend, Hwa-ok (Kim so-young), and a boy named Doon-yoon. Gong-ju had worked in the convenience store run by Doon-yoon’s father and as the boy is being bullied into stealing from his own father’s store, the protagonist is caught in the double-bind of not wanting to aggravate the boy’s predicament and not wanting to get blamed for missing stock stolen.
The film manoeuvres around its central secret, but is never coy. One hour into this film, its emotional centre remains elusive, but as hints and information fragments accumulate, each sliver of truth proves to be more devastating than its predecessor. By the film’s end, members of the Busan Film Festival audience – including this reviewer – were openly weeping. While, thankfully, the experiences of the central character are outside most people’s experience, the film offers a snapshot of that psychological space where an individual can be stranded between the creative impulse that often finds its genesis in trauma – hence the healing power of art – and the binding shame (often externally induced by guilty parties or wider society) that inhibits the creative act or any other mode of expression. While the details of Gong-ju’s issues are particular, the anxiety she feels around being creative, and therefore visible and vulnerable, is common enough to strike a collective nerve. It’s a mark of many successful artists (and exhibitionists) that they live shamelessly (i.e. without shame) and so are able to freely create or perform because they have a psychological schism that prevents them from feeling the pain of the shameful experiences that may have compelled them to create in the first place.
Wherever the impetus came from for debut writer/director Vill Lee (aka Lee Su-jin) to create this traumatic tale, his execution is dextrous, even crafty. Surprisingly, this is not only Lee’s debut film, but in fact the writer/director is scheduled to return to university to finish his film degree.
Chun Woo-hee is superb in the title role. As Gong-ju, Chun catches every nuance of panic and pain that a teenage girl stripped of all standard forms of emotional and psychological support would experience. From the film’s supporting cast, particularly impressive is the performance of Lee Young-ran as the unwilling landlady who finds herself the custodian of this teenager. Lee manages to seamlessly steer her character from someone who gradually accepts and understands her.
The film’s only identifiable flaw is that its title – the central character’s name – will be a puzzling turn-off to international sales. With Gong-ju’s meaning of princess and the name of Han meaning one (presumably as in one of many), the title has a dark irony in Korean that will be lost on Western audiences. (Korean film buffs will also note that the name is identical to that of Moon So-ri’s disabled woman in Lee Chang-dong’s landmark Oasis.) The film may collect an English-language title when it inevitably picks up a sales agent (at the moment the director is handling everything himself), but here’s hoping that they don’t decide on something too self-explanatory like The Great Train Robbery or too generic like The Accused.
Korean cinema continues from strength to strength. As revered upper echelons of Korean movie royalty like Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho move into bloated and increasingly pointless fare such as Stoker and Snowpiercer, it is exciting and reassuring that Korean cinema is still producing emerging directors who deserve attention and that this next generation haven’t forgotten that there are important stories to tell.