Novice features helmer Lee Su-jin, also scripting and producing, delivers a stunningly misguided trauma-rape tale of overweening ambition and overextended premise. “Han Gong-ju” is the name of the film’s protagonist, a high-school girl with no adult support network to lean upon, who’s nursing a shock of unspeakable severity. Lee’s plot piles on far too much, and the maddeningly elliptical shifts between past and present are so intrusive that many exasperated viewers won’t care that the helmer has a strong hand with actors. Major (some will say misguided) awards at Marrakech and Rotterdam will likely extend its fest life.
Even given South Korean cinema’s penchant for outre elements, “Han Gong-ju” goes beyond the bounds, not because its subject is the victim of a horrific gang rape, but because of the untenable accumulation of ordeals designed to work viewers’ tear ducts. Watching the pic with an audience taken in by the emotional game playing will likely affect individual responses, though once separated from the horrendous premise, the film’s jones for trapping a young woman under the crushing weight of psychological damage becomes ridiculous.
Part of the problem lies in the incessant, frustrating alternations between present and past (a script decision rather than an editing one), each transition providing only a modicum of information before the film jumps back again. Seventeen-year-old Gong-ju (Chun Woo-hee) is transferred mid-semester from her school to another one in Incheon. It appears she has no parents — more about that later — so she’s brought to her new school by former teacher Lee Nan-do (Jo Dae-hee), who temporarily places her with his prickly mother, Mrs. Cho (Lee Young-lan).
More or less shut down, Gong-ju is wary of making new acquaintances among her peers. Perky fellow student Lee Eun-hee (Jung In-sun) attempts to befriend the mysterious girl and get her to join the school’s a cappella group after overhearing her sing alone, but Gong-ju is mistrustful of anything that might make her stand out. She tracks down her mother, a cold-hearted woman whose new husband doesn’t even know she has a kid, and her alcoholic father gets in touch, but neither has an interest in their daughter unless there’s a monetary incentive for being kind.
Gong-ju’s story finally takes shape via flashbacks. Her friend Kim Dong-yun (Kimchoi Yong-joon) is so eager to be part of a cool group of boys that he allows them to humiliate and beat him mercilessly: The poor kid is never seen without major bruises on his face (are his parents blind?). One night at a party, Gong-ju tries to defend her friend, and in response is gang-raped by 43 students sharing a gorilla mask.
For some time, the pic holds interest while constantly frustrating curiosity with the way it parses out information, but soon after the midway point the game becomes tedious, and attention slackens considerably even as Gong-ju’s ordeal becomes clear. Everyone here is too something: Eun-hee is too chirpy, Mrs. Cho too frosty, Dong-yun too bullied, Gong-ju’s parents too craven. Some of that could have been forgiven had the helmer chosen a less tortured method of constructing – or shredding – his narrative, but as it stands, every time there’s a buildup of sympathy, it’s knocked down by yet another shift in time.
The pity is that Lee has a sure way with actors, and the pic is full of fine performances — not just by Chun, trying hard to reveal a complex figure beneath the trauma, but notably Lee Young-lan as Mrs. Cho, a woman coated in multiple layers of self-protection that are occasionally become softened by a semi-hidden humanity. Perhaps next time Lee Su-jin should stick to directing, and let others write his scripts.
Visuals are problem-free, and certain elements, like the way Lee captures summer heat, succeed in constructing atmosphere. The tone takes an odd shift in scenes with Eun-hee, expecially when a teen musicvid vibe comes to the fore in a montage of friends running down a school hallway.