"I've done nothing wrong... If they're apologising, why am I being forced to run away?"
Having been subjected to terrible physical sexual abuse, Gong-ju (Chun Woo-hee) is shunted by to a new area, school authorities preferring to make her ‘disappear’ - in spite of her being entirely blameless - rather than deal with the issue at hand face-on. Moving in with the (somewhat unwilling) mother of the only teacher who looked sympathetically on her plight, Gong-ju begins life at her new school keeping herself to herself lest anyone begin to suspect what she has been through and why she is there.
However, despite Gong-ju’s best efforts to remain anonymous, on hearing her singing voice fellow schoolgirl Eun-hee (Jung In-sun) begins unceasing attempts to befriend her and convince her to join her acappella group.
Slowly, Gong-ju begins to open up to Eun-hee but the more she does the more inevitable Eun-hee’s discovery of her past becomes…
Whether you choose to focus solely on recent films or step back somewhat to look at often referenced subject matters appearing in Korean cinematic output over the years, the prevalence of narratives centred on the difficulties, trials and tribulations faced by school-aged youth is impossible to miss, to the extent that such stories form almost a sub-genre, in their own right. In fact, cinematic critiques of a myriad of school-based issues - the push towards competitiveness and the constant pressure to achieve, at any and all cost; bullying, victimisation and resultant revenge; sexual abuse; relationships deemed inappropriate; teenage pregnancy; and even suicide - have appeared in and formed the core of Korean films so frequently over the years to the present day that, to my mind, it’s no longer enough to simply critique the school system and the consequential attitudes of the young within narratives alone, regardless of how insightful any such commentary may be. Rather, Korean film-makers must now, I feel, make a conscious and concerted effort to step away from what many would say is far too regularly trodden ground; ultimately say something altogether more enveloping; and use any familiar school based elements as much as a means to do so as focusing on them in their own right.
'Han Gong-ju' begins at the culmination of a discussion between Gong-ju and school authorities in relation to the, as yet unspecified, incident that brought it about, with Gong-ju's position as a solitary figure facing a hoard (or a virtual wall) of stern faced adults making it appear to have been far more of a one-sided inquisition, in all but name. The opening dialogue consists of a single utterance from Gong-ju, definitively stating "I've done nothing wrong!", immediately followed by her bag being placed on the seat next to her (a clear and beautifully understated indication that she is being forced to 'disappear', as it were), and in one fell swoop director Lee Su-jin not only sets up what will become the main narrative thread - the question of what Gong-ju was subjected to and/or what she is being (wrongly) accused of - but also deftly accents the film's overarching theme, that is the almost instantaneous stepping away of individuals, institutions and indeed sections of society as a whole from situations seen as shocking or reprehensible - for fear of becoming tarnished themselves - and the virtual shunning of any person deemed to be involved regardless of whether, as is the case in Gong-ju's situation, that individual is entirely blameless.
No sooner than Gong-ju relocates to a new area and school than this idea is referenced further in the initial attitude of the older woman, Mrs Cho, with whom she is to live. The mother of the only teacher who looked at Gong-ju with sympathy - and took it upon himself to help her in her forced relocation - this ajumma straight away questions why Gong-ju has had to move to the area and hardly even taking the time to draw breath roughly places her hand on Gong-ju's stomach demanding to know if the young girl is pregnant, once again underlining the ease with which conclusions can be jumped to without any real thought given to what the truth of a situation might be or how it may have affected the person in question.
As such (and I stand by the following statement wholeheartedly), while both Gong-ju's back-story and 'present day' tale are firmly in a school-based setting and though the aforementioned elements of school bullying, sexual abuse, victimisation, teenage pregnancy and indeed suicide all feature (to a greater or lesser extent) as pivotal parts of the film's narrative, as far as I'm concerned 'Han Gong-ju' owes more to Korean dramas dissecting societal attitudes and detailing persecutions, uninformed assumptions and misperceptions (such as July Jung's recent 'A Girl at my Door', and the like) than to standard school-centric tales which, let's face it, of late have often been little more than thinly veiled revenge and retribution thrillers.
That fact in itself should hopefully go some way towards convincing even the sceptical that there is far more to 'Han Gong-ju' than its school-based setting might infer.
However, before leaving the discussion of Mrs Cho and her relationship with Gong-ju, it in itself raises the main thematic niggle I have with 'Han Gong-ju' and though I am aware the following is entirely my own assumption and perception I feel it bears being stated nonetheless:
As the two women from different generations begin living together it quickly becomes apparent that Mrs Cho is involved in an adulterous relationship with a married man, and in fact the bonding between this older woman and Gong-ju comes largely after Mrs Cho is physically accosted and beaten in the street by her lover's wife and associates. As such, I cannot help but feel that 'Han Gong-ju' in some way implies that the two women become almost kindred spirits in a way, both having been the victims of persecution, but if that is indeed the case I rather question the comparison. For, regardless of both being the victims of physical abuse by others, Gong-ju is entirely blameless while the Mrs Cho is not. She chose to get involved with an already married man in spite of being aware of the possible consequences of her actions, whereas Gong-ju had no choice whatsoever in having her innocence and carefree life stripped from her and has suffered since even though she is wholly blameless. In short (and again in my opinion, only) the placing of these two situations in close proximity does rather a disservice to both the character of Gong-ju and her poignant story.
Of course, it could also be asserted that the comparison/contrast of the two women's persecution underlines the hypocrisy so often found within the human spirit – Mrs Cho ultimately being willing to victimise even though she has been victimised herself.
A great deal of Han Gong-ju's strength as a film comes from the manner in which the present day story evolves in tandem with flashback scenes leading to the terrible abuse suffered by Gong-ju, combined with an utterly exemplary and perfectly understated performance from Chun Woo-hee as the titular character. So damaged by the abuse to which she was subjected and the lack of understanding from all those around her, Gong-ju is largely a closed book - a young girl who desperately needs a friend more than anything else but who is so shut off that she for a long time denies every friendly attempt made by Eun-hee and the like - and, as such, as much needs to be said without a word being uttered as is spoken with dialogue. Chun Woo-hee's face positively screams the pain her character feels in almost every frame and her portrayal single-handedly lifts proceedings to a level that would frankly be hard to surpass.
As a final note, the scenes leading to the culmination of Han Gong-ju's narrative make a final, perfect statement of the film's main theme. Gong-ju's friends, in shock, watch a video of Gong-ju's terrible abuse and on a nearside table a phone rings and rings, unanswered. Poignant, heartbreaking and indeed shocking, it is a scene that will stay with you long after the credits roll and leave you with thoughts about the unceasing nature of presumption and ingrained attitudes.
While centred on the victimisation and abuse of a schoolgirl and featuring a number of elements often seen in school-based narratives, to my mind 'Han Gong-ju' has far more in common with insightful dramas dissecting societal attitudes, persecutions, misperceptions and assumptions. Exemplary in realisation, there is a great deal more to 'Han Gong-ju' than its school-centric setting might infer.
'Han Gong-ju' will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK by Third Window Films on April 13 2015.
Special Features consist of Lee Su-jin's award-winning 20min short film 'Enemy's Apple'.
Further details can be found at: http://thirdwindowfilms.com/
'Han Gong-ju' (한공주) / 2013 / directed by Lee Su-jin