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[HanCinema's Film Review] "Han Gong-ju"

2014/06/20

When title character Gong-ju (played by Chun Woo-hee) says that the troubling past incident she's trying to escape from wasn't her fault, the young student really means it. Even by the most asinine interpretation of events, Gong-ju did everything correctly. She tried to keep the situation from escalating, she tried to get help when her efforts failed, and she didn't engage in any illegal activity. It just wasn't good enough. About the only thing she could have done to evade what happened was to not make or hold on to any friends ever.

That's a pretty terrible moral lesson, but it's the one Gong-ju learned. It's not like there were other options available. So the young woman goes to a new school and makes a deliberate effort to avoid making friends, directly and indirectly sabotaging the efforts of her classmates to the contrary when necessary. I got a really bad sinking feeling during these outbursts of antisocial behavior- that as rude as Gong-ju is being, her attitude is probably the appropriate one.

This is accentuated by the flashbacks, which just keep getting worse and worse. When we hit the actual incident of the crime I thought, oh good, that means no more flashbacks. I was wrong. After that particularly awful scene, there's not really anything violent. But then that's not why Gong-ju is such an emotional rut. It's not the physical incident that bothers her so much as the blasé attitude everyone had up until that point and afterward. If you thought the cops were bad, wait until you see the ones so indifferent they won't even blame her.

Gong-ju spells it out right at the beginning, with the singing. The process kind of makes her feel better, but not really. That's what watching "Han Gong-ju" is like. I guess it's better to acknowledge the spectre of rape culture than to pretend like it doesn't exist, but that doesn't make Gong-ju's difficulties any better. She just lives life blankly and cynically, hoping that the situation will die down at some point, even though it probably won't. If nothing else director Lee Su-jin certainly captures the moroseness that defines Gong-ju's character.

Even the happier more cheerful moments are stained some by cynicism. Gong-ju has learned that there's no such thing as justice, so she pointedly makes sure to enlist powerful bullies as her allies. They're not so bad, once she gets to know them. Well, yeah they are, and Gong-ju knows this, but, well, that's life. She just wants to get along without being harassed and apparently on top of everything else this was just too much to ask of the world.

There's a very bittersweet humor in all this. Not really enough to make you want to laugh. It's still worth a smile, though. Take the swimming lessons. They're the only extracurricular activity Gong-ju is interested in and it's not explained until right at the end why she's so determined to know how to swim. The answer is an appropriate one- it truly spells out the young woman's conflict as a person whose harsh encounters with life have made her sort of simultaneously emotionally dead yet also farsighted enough to know that some difficulties in life are pretty inevitable.

Review by William Schwartz

"Han Gong-ju" is directed by Lee Su-jin and features Chun Woo-hee

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