Undercurrents of grievances gives way to full blown devastation in Lee Su-jin's bold, if slightly heavy handed, feature debut, Han Gong-ju. Han Gong-ju, the teenager (Chun Woo-hee) the film surrounds, is first made known to the audience through a series of velvety extreme closeups; her wide, sad eyes lending an immediate intimacy to this grueling character study. As she sits in a police station in the opening scene, evidently distressed as a number of boys line up for questioning beside her (a lack of distance between victim and perpetrator that proves important), a searching, leading piano score shows that melancholy is going to play a large role in the film that follows. Quite how much positivity will also be present is a surprise, welcome if somewhat tonally disorientating.
Lee Su-jin's film switches back and forth frequently, both in time and in tone. Using a flashback structure to dripfeed ever more morbid information about his central event (an act of sexual assault that, without intruding on the film's technique of gradual elaboration, is both incredibly severe and wholly depicative of the discussion the director wants to engage with) Lee Su-jin moves from the sacharine to the utterly horrific, often in the space of a single scene. In the best instance of this, Lee Su-jin sees present version Han Gong-ju playing the most hair-raisingly beautiful song on acoustic guitar ("that kind of voice only comes from deep pain" says a classmate, putting things a little literally) before cutting jarringly back to the past, to lay on the suffering with similar intensity.
In his mystery film structure, Han Gong-ju is seen being moved home and school because of an unexplained event that, though "not her fault," she still seems somehow implictly guilty for. Throughout the course of Su-jin's gradual reveal narrative, he paints a broad, if pertinent, picture of a society where oppressive structures (sexual, political and economic) inform the treatment of his central protoganist, generally for the worse. As if her central, graphic wronging were not enough, the part she played in its occurence is brought frequently into question. Further, her mother proves absent and her father neglectful, and the teacher who first safeguards her after the assault buckles in the face of pressure and relinquishes his support. Lee Su-jin lays it all on a bit heavily, but for a male director does well to tap into this milieu of constant oppression so insightfully.
What complicates matters for Han Gong-ju is that amongst this climate of hurt and persecution there is a glimmer of light. At her new school, she meets classmate Eun-hee (Jung In-sun) who selflessly devotes herself to trying to connect with Gong-ju, who remains understandably barbed and reclusive. Eun-hee throws tenderness and encouragement in the direction of Han Gong-ju, despite receiving only hostility (the most reliable protection) in return. As Eun-hee tries against constant resistance to integrate Gong-ju into her 'cool girl' clique, there is the suggestion (unrealised) that this attachment from Eun is romantic. Both audience and on screen character can recognise in Gong-ju a very severe trauma behind her standoffishness, and Eun-hee attempts to offer Gong-ju a sense of place and belonging lost, an unspoken solidarity against invisible enemies. In one touching scene, Eun-hee momentarily breaks Han Gong-ju's protective shell and they apply makeup together, laugh and play. During a scene imultaneously tender and uncomfortable, Han Gong-ju regains a transition rite between childhood and womanhood that was stolen in her assault.
In a slightly trite and undeveloped subplot, Han Gong-ju is entered, without her permission, into a talent contest which sees her recieving interest from a music label. Her classmates film her without her knowing as she plays that aching song that arises repeatedly in the film as an emotional trigger. Though serving mainly as light reflief, it does give Su-jin a plot vehicle to offer some positivity to contrast with the horrific central story. If he had pursued only the morbid line, this already very tough film would risk slipping into miserablism. Su-jin does well to recognise the duality in these situations, that a degree of recovery is possible after even the greatest devastation.
Less effective is the other subplot / recovery device he introduces. As well as singing, Gong-ju takes to swimming, which besides being mainly a plot contrivance to introduce the relationship between Gong-ju and Eun-hee, is something of a cliche for the symbolism it evokes. Submerging herself in the cool indifference of the school pool, Gong-ju can lose herself in the water and drown out the memories and feelings that oppress her psychologically.
These feelings are fantastically well externalised by a performance from 26 year old Chun Woo-hee (playing 14) that makes a lot out of little. Playing a reclusive, guarded character, there is not a lot to work with in terms of script. She expresses levels of pain and disappointment through nuanced facial turns and indicative bodily gestures. If Su-jin's direction is often overstated, pushing his dramatics too hard and turning emotional dials too frequently, Woo-hee's performance is anything but.
Despite being an obvious victim, Han Gong-ju is met with considerable hostility and resistance from a society with warped, corrupted attitudes towards sexuality, violence and the conflation of the two. In Lee Su-jin's dark vision of contemporary Korea, an aura of sexually motivated maliciousness invades all aspects of society. Represented most explicitly in the hordes of boys in the internet cafe who shout about murdering "the big breasted woman" in their video game, this mood of pervasive sexism courses through throughout the film's dark, but not unrealistic, universe. Rape culture is a very pertinent, sensitive issue currently and though the film's central moment (based on a real life incident), is distressingly graphic, if the toxicity of the situation Su-jin portrays is accurate, then such a direct, forceful mode of address may be required. Flawed and frequently overwrought as may be expected of a feature debut, the material in Han Gong-ju is handled heavily, but not without thought or good intent.