Hot on the heels of A Girl at My Door, we’re confronted with another impressive debut film from a Korean director which once again deals with a series of important, if unpleasant, and often overlooked social phenomena. It’s difficult to review Han Gong-ju without revealing the mysterious events at its centre, yet much of the film’s impact is bound up with the slow drip of the structural dissection of its raw and painful wounds. Based on a real life case from 2004, Hang Gong-ju is a harrowing tale of victim shaming, social injustice and ingrained systems of corruption which will shock even the most cynical Korean cinema fan.
At the beginning of the film, Hang Gong-ju is being a little less than sensitively dealt with by her school teacher who hands her a new mobile phone and instructs her not to call anyone she knows, not even her father, and only to accept calls from his own phone. She’ll be transferring to a new school and staying with her teacher’s mother until other suitable accommodation can be arranged. We don’t know why any of this is happening but the teacher seems put out and less than willing to help Gong-ju - almost as if he finds her existence a little embarrassing. At her new school she keeps herself to herself, making sure to remain distant from her fellow pupils. However, a group of singers finds out that Gong-ju has musical talents and becomes intent on adding her to their group. Though fearful and unwilling, Gong-ju gradually becomes closer to them. The reason for her aloofness leads back to the very reason she’s been exiled from her hometown and is a secret Gong-ju is terrified will eventually be revealed. Following a possibly well-meaning (or maybe a little less so) action by her new group of friends, the true reasons for her being forced into hiding are thrown into the light and Gong-ju once again becomes the centre of a storm composed of a complex system of societal repercussions.
Without giving too much away, nothing that happens to Han Gong-ju is her fault yet she’s the one sent away from her home, from her friends and family, and forced to feel ashamed for having undergone a terrifying ordeal. She’s just a normal teenage girl, but there’s no one to stand with her or for her - she is left totally alone in the home of a stranger with no one to talk to or be comforted by. Those that are responsible, the guilty parties, who were able to act in such a morally repugnant way thanks to their connections, social standing and the arrogance the combination of those things afforded them seem to have largely escaped the shame and ignominy which has continued to dog Gong-ju who is still subject to physical manifestations of their actions - let alone the mental scarring. Not only that, Gong-ju is also pursued by the families of those that have caused her harm who seem to want her to change her statement of events in favour of their children. The father of one whom she had been close to even wants her to sign a petition to say that his child was “forced” into these heinous acts. Perhaps in a sense he was, though it’s hard to see how any rational person could ever see that as a mitigating factor in the events which did actually take place.
It’s not only Gong-ju who’s found herself at the mercy of rigid social codes. Her hard-nosed and originally reluctant landlady-cum-responsible-adult Mrs. Lee has also had her fair share of disapproval from the local housewives thanks to her relationship with the town’s police chief. Her middle aged romance also causes a degree of resentment from her horrified son who doesn’t seem to care very much about his mother’s actual feelings or those of Gong-ju, whom he deposited at his mother’s house like an inconvenient suitcase in the hope of making a good impression with his boss. Although originally put out by the sudden arrival of a teenage house guest who may even be some sort of delinquent, Mrs. Lee comes to a grudging admiration for this obviously damaged girl and is close to being her only real supporter (though perhaps only up to a point). Gong-ju’s growing closeness with Mrs. Lee is even more valuable as her relationship with her own mother was fractured even before the events that have befallen her and leave her unable even to count on her mother’s love and support during such a difficult time.
Told with remarkable assurance by Lee Su-jin who opts for a complex, non-linear structure, Han Gong-ju is frankly more harrowing than any horror film as the demons which plague the central character (and actually, many of the other women in the film) are all too real - manmade by a rigidly conformist, conservative society riddled with corruption and all too quick to point the finger of blame at those incorrectly positioned within its complex network of social hierarchies no matter what the facts of the matter may be. Shocking, even if sadly somewhat unsurprising, Han Gong-ju dares to shine a bright light on this dark corner of human suffering, and by telling the sad story of this one lonely, victimised girl who nevertheless tries to live her life in spite of her difficult circumstances, it may help others finally wake-up to the kind of injustices we allow to take place in the world which we, daily, create.