15:00 - 25th April 2015, by Calum Waddell

Han Gong-ju

This debut feature from director-to-watch Su-jin Lee is surprisingly slow-moving and delicate given its harrowing subject matter (which we will try not to spoil too much). The plot focuses on the titular character – a schoolgirl (played by the excellent Chun Woo-hee) who is forced, against her will, into changing her academic institution. The film begins ominously, with the notably distraught pupil being told about her forthcoming educational relocation, which will see her based in the Korean city of Incheon, in stern and unsympathetic terms. It is to Woo-hee’s credit that her subtle expressions and mannerisms anticipate the story ahead and her character’s daily struggle to maintain her feeling of self-worth in the ‘adult’ world around her.
Exactly why Gong-ju is being shifted from her small town to a nearby metropolis is only teased at for the bulk of Lee’s film, leading to a conclusion that is every bit as solemn as one might expect. With Gong-ju no longer staying with her parents, and instead taken in by a rather astringent lady who runs a nearby grocery outlet, we see this young, quiet personality slowly become more settled with her fresh surroundings and dealings. The relationship between teenager and guardian softens a little as the running time continues – and Gong-ju even becomes quietly sympathetic towards the lady’s own relationship woes, as she is dating a married man who is full of empty promises. However, the most alluring moments during the first half of this sombre and frequently melancholy effort come between the pupil and a student called Eunhee, who attempts to make her new colleague open up a little. Gong-ju is a fabulous singer, but unwilling to be captured on camera and publicised as such despite her new acquaintance’s best attempts to urge her otherwise.

An initial hint at the horrors which Gong-ju is hiding comes from a painful-to-watch visit to the school gynaecologist. The teenager discovers that she has a genital infection and is told, matter-of-factly, to practise safe sex in the future by the rather cold-hearted doctor who examines her. Her embittered and humiliated silence during this scene proves to be retrospectively heartbreaking – and, once again, performances all round are absolutely pitch-perfect. Adding to this downbeat atmosphere is consistently serene cinematography and a slightly repetitive, but nonetheless affecting, soundtrack. The surroundings of Gong-ju are played out as thrill-less and lacking in inspiration – with only the character’s attempts to learn how to swim indicating any semblance of aspiration or possible escapism. Outside this watery ambition (which eventually comes full circle), viewers should be aware that this is a consistently maudlin motion picture that rarely breaks its tone of depressing disempowerment.

As mentioned, actress Chun Woo-hee – who had a small part in Mother (2009) – gives the role of Gong-ju her all. Portraying a frequently silently insular teenager, the performer is actually 26 years of age, although one would be hard pressed to recognise that there is a decade missing between the thespian and her onscreen persona. Whilst the supporting characters assist in guiding the narrative causality towards an inevitably unpleasant conclusion, Woo-hee’s presence is required during almost every second of screen time. Consequently, Han Gong-ju provides a spectacular demonstration of its young star’s ability to captivate her audience. Even if the final feature is likely to be a little bit too understated for some viewers, it is difficult to argue that Woo-hee hits a single bum note during this tour de force of a presentation.

With this said, the biggest problem with Han Gong-ju is, ironically, also its biggest asset: the decision to keep the movie rooted on its main teenager. Indeed, the lack of any sort of tonal shift makes this ambitious directorial debut all the more difficult to embrace. Dealing with a subject matter as harrowing as (slight spoiler ahead) gang rape, and institutionalised sexism and misogyny, was never going to be cheerful – but because Lee’s pacing is so sluggish, and the unravelling of the story’s secrets so discreet, patience is desperately required. Perhaps the filmmaker wanted the spectator to feel as beaten down and uninspired as his fictional female, but a leisurely lead-in to the final reel of Han Gong-ju – and the untangling of the events that led to its tormented teen’s state of affairs – makes this understated outing feel far longer than it actually is.

With this said, there is little doubting that Third Window have shown a degree of bravery in releasing this austerely budgeted character study into the UK market. Reportedly, Han Gong-ju initially struggled with a theatrical stint in its native South Korea – and only after a succession of acclaimed film festival screenings was it pushed into wide distribution in its home country. It is easy to see why this situation occurred: this is not an obvious commercial undertaking, and may well represent one of the most unlikely titles of the Seoul New Wave to make it across to these shores. As a result, it will be interesting to see what sort of audience and reception this frequently minimalist drama inspires. Undoubtedly, though, if one wants to see one of the years most accomplished performances, this needs to be near the top of any home video shopping list.

A phenomenal and touching performance from lead actress Chun Woo-hee makes this slow-moving movie a must-see.
SCORE: 3/5
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