HAN GONG-JU (2013)
Harrowing and empathy-inducing retelling of an infamous real-life sex crime in Korea, powerfully illustrating victim mistreatment and blame culture
Han Gong-ju faced a similar challenge to Lee Joon-ik's superb Hope, also released in 2013, by taking a sensitive real-life case from Korea and presenting it in a fashion that does not suggest exploitation for the purposes of cinematic entertainment.
We tread an even darker path than Hope here though. Unlike Hope, this is not a tale of finding a new life after a horrific event, it is instead about the longer-term damage such events do to victims.
Han Gong-ju is based on the Miryang middle school girls rape incident in 2014 where at least 41 male high school students gang raped several middle school and high school girls over the course of 11 months.
The film is a difficult watch, as it intends to be. You want to reach into the screen, either to comfortable our lead character in her woes, or perhaps vent your rage at the perpetrators or those who seek to protect them.
Our central character is Gong Ju, played brilliantly by Chun Woo hee, who provides a restrained though deeply emotionally involved portrayal of a victim of an horrific sex crime trying to piece her life back together.
The central event of the film remains hidden at first, revealed through a series of flashback as part of a jigsaw narrative structure, but starts with Gong Ju transferring to a new school in a different town.
Cautious and shy, Gong Ju meets the friendly Eun Hee (Jung In Sung), who shows an interest in the new girl and asks her to join the school’s cappella group after hearing Gong Ju’s voice in the swimming pool showers.
Slowly Gong Ju opens up to Eun Hee and her friendship group, especially when Gong Ju’s musical talents are exposed and the girls set about making her a star.
While Gong Ju attempts to establish her new life, her old one continues to return, either through her drunken father or the ongoing court case around the incident, with the parents of the accused keen to protect their sons from punishment.
As an exhibition in affinity and compassion, it is impossible not to feel Gong Ju’s pain as a viewer. As justice for sex crime victims continues to remain an international issue, the film evokes a powerful fury at the systems we currently find in place, not just in Korea either.
While Gong Ju’s world teeters on the brink, we see her trying to prove that none of the blame is hers. There are also several scenes where Gong Ju’s needs are relegated by the focus of others on their own fortunes.
In one scene in particular, her previous school teacher Lee Nan do (Jo Dae Hee), who is assisting in Gong Ju’s transition to a new school, casually mentions that the attackers have been found guilty, then quickly moves onto complaining about his mother’s new boyfriend. For such victims, their world has come crashing down, but for some around them it keeps spinning as they occupy themselves with minor frustrations.
A truly powerful piece of filmmaking, Han Gong-ju does what great films do – holds a mirror to the injustices of the real world and makes us feel the fury and pain of its victims.