""45.3% of actresses in Korea have been told to serve at a drinks party...
while 60.2% have been asked to give sexual favours to powerful media, or social, figures."
- Survey on the Violation of Rights of Women in the Entertainment Industry (National Human Rights Commission in Korea) -
"This story is still ongoing..."
Following the suicide of aspiring actress Jeong Ji-hee (Min Ji-hyeon), allegations emerge that she was systematically raped and sexually abused by her agent, a film director and a prominent media CEO. All three are arrested in the midst of an utter media frenzy and are duly brought to trial; high-powered and highly paid male defence lawyers facing off against first-time female prosecutor Mi-hyeon (Lee Seung-yeon).
Instantly, prosecutor Mi-hyeon appears totally out of her depth - lacking necessary evidence and finding witnesses unwilling to testify - but as she desperately tries to pull her case together help comes to her aid in the form of independent media broadcaster Jang-ho (Ma Dong-seok) who takes it upon himself to find actress Ji-hee's diary, alleged to contain detailed information on her abuse and abusers.
The question is, whether Jang-ho will be able to uncover the diary in time for its irrefutable evidence to influence the trial and, even if he does, will the guilty ultimately be made to pay fully for their crimes, in spite of their power and influence?...
Before I get into a full-on dissection of Norigae, in its own right, I feel mention must be made of the near plethora of films appearing in recent years that take issue with the ongoing manner in which Korean law deals with sex crimes and its tendency to give perpetrators of often violent sexual acts against innocent victims little more than a slap on the wrist in the name of 'justice'; all too regularly citing the human rights of the guilty above those of the violated, in the process. In fact, so prevalent, ongoing and sadly unchanging has this increasingly incendiary issue become, that it would almost be more of a surprise if Korean directors didn't feel the need to centre narratives around it and though some might say the sheer number of cinematic examples adds up to overkill, in this case perhaps more than any other I would wholeheartedly disagree.
Cinema, even more than serving the purpose of being entertainment for entertainment's sake, to my mind stands as a platform - both vital and powerful - to resolutely point to social ills, call for change where change is desperately needed and raise awareness of injustices, both in general terms and specific instances, among the general populous. In fact, for proof of that very power one only has to look at the changes to Korean law brought into effect in the wake of 'The Crucible' (2011) detailing the terrible real-life abuse suffered by children at the Gwangju Inhwa boarding school for the deaf.
As such, I truly believe that films of this ilk fit within the concept of 'too much is never enough'; each being a worthy statement regardless of whether its commentary is utterly exemplary in realisation (for example: the aforementioned 'The Crucible'/aka 'Silenced'; and 'Hope'/aka 'Wish') or succeeds only partially ('Azooma'; 'Don't Cry, Mommy').
Of the many recent examples of Korean films taking issue with the law's handling of sex crimes and questioning whether the far from harsh sentences all too regularly given to the guilty can even be called justice, those with narratives based on real-life cases have - from my perspective, at least - largely and perhaps unsurprisingly resonated to the greatest extent; succeeding as all the more poignant, heartbreaking and ultimately shocking indictments of laws in urgent need of reform than those films choosing to tell wholly fictional tales... and that (hopefully, neatly enough) brings me full circle back to 'Norigae':
At the very beginning of 'Norigae', Korean lettering on a wholly black screen states "The following story is fictional. It doesn't depict any person, place, organisation or event" but while that disclaimer is indeed correct it's obviously placed to specifically sidestep any possible legal wrangling from individuals or organisations. For, 'Norigae' was obviously inspired by the true life story of the suicide of actress Jang Ja-yeon in 2009; considered to be as a result of depression brought on by her being forced to sexually 'service' up to 31 prominent entertainment media figures.
The names and institutions in 'Norigae' may be fabricated, the instances of sexual abuse created in the scriptwriting process, but from the outset any knowledge whatsoever of the true circumstances surrounding Jang Ja-yeon's tragic death cannot fail to make this fictional tale feel frighteningly real.
'Norigae' (which translates both as a chest or waist trinket/ornament/clothing adornment forming part of female Korean traditional dress - originating in the Joseon or Silla era - and, alternatively in more recent times, referring to a sex toy) begins its story as the court case gets underway; initially flashing back to the utter media frenzy surrounding the claims of sexual abuse of character Ji-hee in the wake of her suicide and the resultant arrest of the alleged perpetrators.
While the first court case segment, peppered with Jang-ho's media broadcasts on the case and his efforts to uncover irrefutable evidence as to what Ji-hee suffered, and by whom, certainly allows and even facilitates the gradual introduction of each of the main characters of the prosecution and defence, to my mind it does feel just a little overlong in terms of the running time taken until the flashbacks to Ji-hee (pre-suicide) begin to supplement and add context to the trial. However, I fully admit that this is only a minor personal niggle and once Ji-hee's personal story starts to unfold in earnest the deliberately measured (almost incremental) means by which her plight is slowly unveiled in tandem to the proceeding trial works superbly well to keep viewers gripped on tenterhooks as the tension gradually builds to an almost palpable level.
The inclusion of a subplot of sorts (though it does eventually direct relate to the main plot) detailing Jang-ho's search for Ji-hee's diary - said to contain the names of all those guilty of abusing her and providing a 'blow-by-blow' account of specific instances - adds somewhat of a mystery element to proceedings, not only bringing a time-sensitive excitement to the court centred aspects (preventing the film from ever treading water) but also allowing the referencing of a noteworthy theme relating to a number of characters: That is, the fact that all those close to Ji-hee or from whom she asked for help feel personally responsible for her death as a result of not being there for her when she needed them most; all except the truly guilty whose abusive actions really did directly lead to her decision to take her own life. Whether inadvertent failure to help those in need warrants such feelings of guilt and responsibility isn't for me to say, but it is another of a number of worthy questions raised by 'Norigae'.
While the aforementioned gradual detailing of the horrendous treatment suffered by Ji-hee is (increasingly) shocking enough, when her full story finally comes to light - cinematically realised exactly as it needs to be by director Choi Seung-ho - it will likely stir your anger at the same time as breaking your heart:
On two separate occasions during interactions between Ji-hee and media mogul Hyeon Seong-bong (Ki Joo-bong), Ji-hee repeatedly states "My name is Jeong Ji-hee... My name is Jeong Ji-hee... I'll be a good actress"; her obvious desperation for this man - whom she sees as someone who could create or utterly destroy her career - to remember her as an actress and more than just a female body to take pleasure from being both difficult and painful to watch. The final instance of her repeatedly saying her name sees her with tears streaming down her face (actress Min Ji-hyeon giving a superbly emotive performance) as she holds her hands up, wrists together, knowing she's about to be bound with restraints and viciously sexually abused - the only faint hope she has is that her acquiescence will somehow make him think of her as a person and help her find the acting career she so desperately desires.
I almost guarantee you that these and the ensuing scenes will make you question if such impermissible, artocious acts could really be allowed to happen in supposedly cultured circles... Sad thing is, reality has shown they already have been.
On watching 'Norigae' for the first time, I have to admit to questioning whether I fully believed the depictions of the guilty parties. I found them rather one dimensional and lacking in depth; caricatures of evil instead of fully fleshed-out characters. However, in hindsight my opinion changed somewhat and I came to feel that any individuals willing, and able, to commit heinous acts such as these have their self-serving desires as their singular focus above all else - and no thoughts of moral right or wrong; regardless of the pain and suffering caused. As such, not only do their inner personas indeed largely have but one dimension, it could also be said that they do lack the very depth - the humanity, the empathy - that make us fully rounded human beings at our core.
As a final note in this long... long... review, considering the fairly well known outcomes of trials of those found guilty of sexual crimes in Korea over the years, the culmination and conclusion of 'Norigae' will likely come as no surprise, but again as this and the already mentioned numerous recent examples of Korean sex-crime-trial films are ultimately questioning the law 's repeated handing out of sentences that are less than just, to say the least, it (and they) really couldn't end any other way.
I for one sincerely hope that won't always be the case and that films like 'Norigae' (and indeed Lee Joon-ik's 'Hope') eventually succeed in playing their part in bringing the changes to the law they so passionately demand.
Cast: Ma Dong-seok, Lee Seung-yeon, Min Ji-hyeon, Ki Joo-bong, Lee Do-ah
Directed by: Choi Seung-ho
In the wake of true-life tales of the sexual coercion and abuse of celebrity figures in Korea, 'Norigae’ was always virtually guaranteed to be both controversial and shocking; especially as its fictional story is clearly inspired by reality. However, though disquieting and unsettling many aspects of the narrative indeed are, to my mind ‘Norigae’ successfully, and carefully, speaks of the intolerable suffering of its main female character without ever stepping into inappropriate salaciousness. A film that not only tells a story that desperately needed to be told - in the process calling for legal reform where change is urgently needed - but one that also points an accusing finger at the free reign often afforded to the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable. Ultimately, 'Norigae' both needs to be seen and, even more, discussed.
As a final note, you can read the recent Hangul Celluloid interview with Norigae's director, CHOI Seung-ho, by clicking here.