Many films that have been ‘based upon a true story’ have to traverse a line between the audience knowing the conclusion or the narrative leading into it, through some dramatic establishment of the premise and telling of the tale. Han Gong-ju is based upon real events but its construction and overall execution results in a film that rejects grandiose cinematics and heavy melodrama. This is refined storytelling at its best.
So why should Han Gong-ju, the first feature film from Lee Su-Jin, top your ‘must see’ list? The story portrayed is undoubtedly shocking but the film is constructed in such a way that the horror is implemented with very great care; the use of structure and composition combined with compelling performances results in an utterly convincing drama. It is based upon a true story that (rightly) shocked South Korea but wasn’t widely reported outside of its home country. This is a modern teenage drama which takes you to some terrifying places but it never does so in an exploitative manner. The horrific events depicted in the film never manifest themselves overtly; it is the characterisation that becomes central to understanding the emotional and social trials and tribulations of its titular character. Those unfamiliar with events should perhaps be advised to restrain from exploring the story behind this film until after viewing, because this is a drama that is confrontational in an emotive but humanitarian manner that is rarely seen in contemporary cinema. Don’t believe us? Martin Scorsese has declared this film to be, ‘outstanding in mise-en scene, image, sound,editing and performance.’
Life is tough for teenager Han Gong-ju (Chun Woo Hee who won Best Actress at the Blue Dragon Film Awards) as she has to deal with starting a new life. Her family has broken apart and she’s now attending a different school far away from her home town, lodging with the mother of her former teacher. Her new classmates are friendly and try to integrate her into school life, but she clearly wants – or rather needs – to keep her distance. As she sings her own songs alone in the music room her skills are noted by her peers and they believe that she could make it as a singer-songwriter. But she aggressively shuns them when they take video footage of her performance without her permission. She is clearly trying very hard to start anew but is advised not to maintain contact with anyone from her former life, not even her father. What could possibly have happened to her?
Many films are of their time and Han Gong-ju’s narrative links with a generation for whom mobile phones and internet interconnectivity are part of life, elements which – these days – can exacerbate the normal issues that teenagers often face, such as peer pressure and bullying. However events in this story go far beyond normal teen concerns. Han Gong-ju’s is a tragic tale but one that reveals itself slowly. It does not signpost its flashbacks, it is up to the viewer to understand Han’s current situation and the events leading up to it. Brilliantly constructed, it is deliberately low key in its instigation, and the powerful performances as the characters’ situations are revealed draws the viewer into its world and reveals its horrifying story in a manner that is so subtle as to be compelling. A teen tragedy which offers a possible hope for the future but is marred by a hideous past which cannot be undone and seemingly cannot be resolved, makes for an incredibly moving story. As a character drama that reveals its sorry tale with finesse, Han Gong-ju is essential viewing.
Han Gong-ju broke Korea’s opening day box office records for independent films and won awards at the 43rd International Film Festival Rotterdam, and the Grand Prix at the Marrakech International Film Festival amongst others. Extra included on the disc include the short film that helped get Han Gong-ju financed.