Rotterdam Film Review: ‘Han Gong-ju’

Han Gong-ju Review

A stunningly misguided trauma-rape tale that piles on far too much yet reveals far too little.

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.

Rotterdam Film Review: 'Han Gong-ju'

Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (competing), January 26, 2014. (Also in Busan Film Festival — Korean Cinema Today; Marrakech Film Festival — competing; Palm Springs Film Festival — New Voices/New Visions; Berlin Film Festival — market.) Running time: 112 MIN.

Production

(South Korea) A Vill Lee Film Co. production. (International sales: Finecut, Seoul.) Produced by Lee Su-jin. Co-producer, Kim Jungh-wan.

Crew

Directed, written by Lee Su-jin. Camera (color, HD), Hong Jae-sik; editor, Choi Hyun-sook; music, Kim Tae-sung; production designer, Choi Hyo-sun; costume designer, Kim Eun-sook; sound (Dolby SRD), Seo Young-jun.

With

Chun Woo-hee, Jung In-sun, Kim So-young, Lee Young-lan, Kimchoi Yong-joon, Jo Dae-hee.

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  1. Hh says:

    This is a poorly made movie. I agree with the critic: It’s really, really trying too hard. I don’t know if i would call the girl ‘chirpy’, but rather naive, stupid snd certainly histrionic. Dongyun? Does someone like that exist? If so, he so deservedly dies. All along I did not shed one tears but just continued to ask myself, why would anyone do that or be like that? Did she knowingly drink that laced drink? Was she too retarded to know it was laced? Are parents seriously allowed to barge into a school like that? I reached the conclusion at the end of the movie, that this movie is poorly made, trying too hard, but most importantly, does not make sense. Interesting story, but poorly executed. Not a good movie at all.

  2. Frederick says:

    American critics are simply incapable of any complexity or subtlety – so now you begin to understand why Koreans are producing the most extraordinary movies of our times, and Americans aren’t. Beautiful film, not at all hard to follow or “empathize” with – what a promising filmmaker.

  3. Jean says:

    Stating that the jumps to the past become too difficult to understand and are ‘tedious’ over the course of the movie: you aren’t even fit to write a review on this movie. For anyone who found the movie difficult to understand because of the constant jumping, I mean… you’re probably used to really stupidly simple movie plots that are just entirely straightforward.

    The decision to script the movie in a past-present-past manner is entirely fitting for this movie’s content and plot. The point of it wasn’t to reveal her past a little bit at a time: it was quite obvious that it was a rape case from the very beginning; the point was to show how she consistently relives the trauma through her daily life, as indicated by the subtle scenes where the past flashback blends seamlessly into the present (for example, the click of the door, the hands over her eyes in the scene where they show her the website they made).

    Perhaps it’s also the language barrier, or the unfamiliarity with seeing so many Korean faces at once that made it incomprehensible to you, but as a Korean-American viewer who hardly calls herself a movie critic, it was very clear to me, and the past flashbacks were simply part of the story.

  4. Jail Weissman says:

    Jay Weissberg – misguided…..no totally a sorry excuse for a human being masquerading as a pomp film critique that has no credibility except maybe paid to churn out this kind of garbage review so it can fit your bosses content control of its message. With Martin Scorsese raving about the film in Maralecj film festival this sorry excuse for a film critic claim to know better and thinks he is of better authority to know better. Are you getting paid to ensure this does not causes an uproar for this film that even common viewers can see is a remarkable film based on a really true event.

  5. Lyra says:

    I hope the author of the piece knows that the movie is based on a true incident– the Miryang gang rape case– because there seems to be no acknowledgment of that in the review. And what the author believes are details that make everyone in the film seem callous or are just added in to “work the viewers’ tear ducts” are taken from real life. There are real life accounts of a 14-year-old middle-school girl gang raped over several months by at least 41 students. The callousness of the police, including the line about “ruining the reputation of the village”, making the victim confront and pick the perpetrators from a line-up, the reaction of the parents of the perpetrators and their hounding of the victims, right down to the alcoholic father of one of the victims making her sign the agreement exonerating some of the perpetrators for money, the perpetrators being left scot free or with a slap on the wrist by the courts, the public release of the identity of the victim– they’re all factually adapted.

    In that context, calling it an “untenable accumulation of ordeals” and “emotional game playing” is not only ironic, but almost downright offensive. Is it exaggerated in parts, does it heighten the “suspense” and play with the timeline, sure, it’s a movie, it’s a dramatic adaptation. But how is it possible for a movie to be emotionally exaggerating this premise? In what regards can a cinematic adaption of an incident like that be considered as deliberately playing its audience, when, if anything, it wouldn’t even cause its viewers anything close to the horror that the knowledge of the incident ideally should. What movie, and what depiction of characters or society could ever capture even a miniscule fraction of the “crushing weight of psychological damage” that the victim must have suffered and how every structure of society failed her. It is not the movie that’s “too” much– it can never be anything but too little in this regard– it’s that this is what is realistic, not an ideal, aesthetic set-up where someone reaches out eventually and elevates the situation, so it isn’t as horrific as real life has the potential to be.

  6. Rubel Hossain says:

    Agreed with the review. Good acting. Lousy editing. There was no need to jump back and forth in that manner. It would have been better to tell the story more linearly. Some elements were out of place too [I thought I was the only one who noticed the oddness of that hall scene].

  7. Sarah says:

    I hope the author of this piece places the film in context of Korea before making certain judgements. Korean parents are not American parents. There are numerous cases where, upon divorce, children are shifted into the care of foster homes or relatives so that parents can pursue new lives and new families. Children are seen as a liability in this case. Korean bullying is also a national concern. There were various incidents in the past few years where the classmates of students whose parents were rarely home would force their way into the student’s house and commit various atrocities, often driving the student to suicide. That boy was not desperate to fit in; he was terrified and an abuse victim. There simply was no way out. From the context of the film, the bullies were the children of influential families. Adults would turn a blind eye as to what was happening. Han Gong Ju wasn’t just a look at an incident of rape and the after effects on one girl. It was a look at the way the Korean system has devolved to favor those with “proper” positions in society and to victimize and ultimately silence all those falling through the cracks. The incident is treated like an unpleasant affair that no one wants to approach – not even the new friends that Gong Ju makes. There is no “too” anything. Ultimately, the characters of this film are unwilling to give up anything of themselves in order to help the victims. If anything, this might be the social consciousness that is portrayed throughout the film and is the reality of people everywhere. We watch films such as this and cry over the plight of Gong Ju, but find it comfortable to ignore the thousands that suffer abuse everyday.

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