Han Gong-ju (한공주) 2013
High school girl, Han Gong-ju, is your regular all-Korean teen who finds herself involved in a scandalous incident. Uncared for by her parents, Han Gong-ju’s teachers arrange for another school to take her in as a safe haven. At her new school Han Gong-ju keeps her head down and makes little attempt to make friends. But as much as she can help it, she does make a new friend who learns Han Gong-ju has an incredible voice. To boast her friend’s confidence she builds a fansite to showcase Han Gong-ju’s talents but the secret of why she has been moved to this school is discovered putting her at risk ~ LKFF website
We were very lucky to be able to watch Han Gong Ju last year at the Busan International Film Festival. It was one of the busiest screenings, the locals’ favourite and even won the BIFF 2013 Citizen Reviewers’ Award as well as the CGV Movie Collage Awards.
We are going to avoid giving away too much in this review which you’ll thank us for in the end because the twists and revelations of this film are intense and smartly done. We really advise you not to read too much into the plot as you watch the film, it’s a mystery, you’re not suppose to know, that’s where the “fun” is. And who wants to go into a film knowing that Bruce Willis was a ghost all along? (Calm down, Sixth Sense came out in 1999 folks.)
Don’t judge us but we went into the cinema thinking ooooh, maybe it’s something like Glee and Pitch Perfect. But we were very wrong. In our defence, it was our very first BIFF and this was the vague plot summary we went by: (the trigger word was a capella)
After transferring to a new school Gong-ju becomes friends with Eun-hee, who convinces her to join an a cappella group. When news gets out of Gong-ju’s new hobby, a group of former classmates’ parents cause a stir, unveiling Gong-ju’s troubled past.
We’re first greeted by Han Gong Ju, the protagonist of the film. Her character is shrouded in mystery as she arrives at her teacher’s mother’s home, who is a fabulous ahjumma might we add. Han Gong Ju is a quiet, reserved but seemingly normal and considerate girl, what could have possibly happened? What is this scandalous incident?
The plot starts off quite generic, new girl comes into town, starts school, reluctantly makes a fun and cheerful friend who makes her come out of her shell, cue fun high-school girls video montage. But then disaster strikes and everything gets unfolded. But Han Gong Ju’s secret is so much bigger than a teen film.
The film flits between past and present but the past scenes aren’t always informative. It teases you and makes your brain work overdrive trying to figure out Han Gong Ju’s secret yet in a way prepares you as you see the two contrasting sides of Han Gong Ju before (independent, outgoing, friendly and confident), and after the incident (shy, reserved, guarded, determined).
Han Gong Ju is discovered and her past comes rushing in, shattering her new life. The pace of the film speeds up as you run away with her. Actress Chun Woo-hee is very charismatic, even as the distant and cold Han Gong Ju. As the audience, we come to really care for her and when Han Gong Ju is in trouble, we panic with her. Then, just as you’re busy worrying over her, the horrible truth of her secret smacks you in the face unashamedly. By this point in the film it’s probably obvious to many what the “secret” is, in a way we figured it out during the film but couldn’t accept it until we were forced to. As you watch the film, you almost pray that it’s not going to be it. You dread it, like the killer in a horror film and after a few false plateaus, you think you’re safe, it’s not going to happen. But it does and the reality is so much worse than expected.
Luckily we don’t personally identify with Han Gong Ju, and we hope none of you do, but it’s a film that really draws you in. You feel like you’re right there with Han Gong Ju, even when you really, really, really don’t want to be. From spending the beginning of the film moving at a frustratingly slow pace and wanting to know more, you’re suddenly regretting it and not wanting to see more. This film is hard hitting, gritty and a little too real, the complete opposite of sugar coated Hollywood. In fact it felt like having salt rubbed into an open wound.
Obviously we are not going to give it away but we just wanted to say this film can get a little graphic. We’re young(ish) ladies and we felt very uncomfortable, even the heartless one who loves the gory films. You don’t see everything, but you see a little more than you want and sometimes it’s what you don’t see that’s the most powerful and terrifying.
After all this we hope we haven’t put you off the film because this is one film you definitely have to watch, but maybe only once. After the BIFF, this is the one film we’re telling everyone about. The film is powerful and sticks with you for a long time. It was such an emotional roller-coaster and really well made, at first you may get annoyed with the teasing but it’s all part of the story telling; to build this emotional bond between you and Han Gong Ju, so you can feel her pain and angst. This is the début feature film by Lee Su-jin and Han Gong Ju demonstrates his knack for creating strong connections with audiences; we ourselves have never felt so emotionally involved in a film. Lee Su Jin is definitely a director/screenwriter to look out for.
When we left the cinema we were stunned and silent; that feeling where you just didn’t know what to do with your life. The film really traumatised and upset us at first. But after a lot of discussion we realised that the ending was particularly clever and more positive than we first thought. So if you come out of the film in need of a hug, come to us and we’ll slowly talk you through it, and help you regain confidence in life.
We hope we didn’t spoil anything for you but left you feeling like this is a film you need to watch. After we watched it last year we just knew it had to come to the LKFF at some point. It’s was shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year and distributor Third Windows films have already snapped it up! After watching Han Gong Ju, we would love to hear what you guys think of the film as a whole and what your thoughts are on the ending. And if you need more convincing:
Director Martin Scorsese said, “”Han Gong-ju” is outstanding in Mise-en scene, image, sound, editing and performance. I have a lot to learn from this movie and I can’t wait to see Lee Su-jin’s next film” – HanCinema
A little fun fact, at the BIFF, a lot of the actresses and actors would come and have a little Q&A after the screening of their films. Actress Chun Woo-hee who played Han Gong Ju treated the whole audience to some banana milk which was really sweet of her (when all we really wanted was to just give her a hug and tell her everything is going to be ok).