In 2004, Korea was shocked by one of the country’s most horrific crimes of the 20th century, when three middle school and two high school girls were kidnapped from the city of Miryang and gang raped by more than 40 male pupils. This infuriating event, unfortunately, was only the beginning of the girls’ struggle as the police began to criticise them for being an ‘embarrassment’ to the city. Faced with this lack of empathy and support from the authorities, the victims and their families were left to seek justice on their own.
In 2013 Lee Su-jin, horrified by the case, decided to present the story of the teen gang rape on screen. The film, entitled Han Gong- ju, proved to be an intriguing debut feature film, which was screened at this year’s London Korean Film Festival. The film premiered at the 2013 Busan International Film Festival where it won both the Movie Collage Award and the Citizen Reviewers’ Award, and it was also selected for the Marrakech International Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Deauville Asian Film Festival.
The film focuses on the story of Han Gong- ju, played impeccably by Chun Woo- hee (Mother, Sunny), a teenage girl who is pressurized to transfer to a new city and school following the devastating loss of her friend to suicide after she was raped by two men. For most of the film, though, we know little about the scandal that has forced Gong-ju to move to a remote new college. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she tells belligerent officials before being lodged with the mother (Lee Young-lan) of a former teacher. Her own mother has rejected her, her father is a contemptible drunk, and her carefree classmates don’t understand her coarse nature and flashes of temper. She keeps to herself, and gets annoyed at anyone who tries to befriend her as she slowly begins to resume her life. Despite this, she is comforted by her classmate Eun- hee (Jung In- sun) and the two become close friends, who have fun mingling with other female students until the horrific event ensues. Lee Su- jin slowly, and brilliantly, masks the truth behind Han Gong- ju’s character and cleverly uses flashbacks to reveal her past at the same time. It is not a bed of roses, on the contrary, it is unsettling and harrowing.
Han Gong- ju is splendidly filmed, and features some beautiful camerawork. It maintains its focus on the protagonist, allowing the audience to dive deeper into the world that surrounds her. Chun Woo- hee portrays Gong- ju perfectly, and has a strong impact on the audience with her gripping performance. She doesn’t overact, and instead gradually gives a wonderful and emotional performance. Woo- hee’s delicate and devastating characterization of Gong- ju is the film’s greatest asset. Even though Woo- hee dominates the big screen, she is provided with strong support from Jung In- sun (Gyeongju), whose character’s stubbornness and willingness to become Gong- ju’s friend was wonderfully written into the storyline.
Nonetheless, even with the film’s strength’s, its narrative is not original. There have been several Korean films which examine the delicate topic of a sexual abuse, such as Poetry (2010) by Lee Chang- dong and Don’ Cry Mommy (2012) by Kim Yong- han. Moreover, although Han Gong- ju doesn’t openly state that it was inspired by the Miryang case, the connection between the film and the incident are indisputable.
I found little pleasure when watching the film as a result of the subject matter, but I do think Han Gong- ju was a superb piece of film-making which deserves every single award it, and its director, have been given.
Written by Maggie Gogler
All photos © CGV Movie Collage