Release Date: April 17th, 2015 (KOR)
UK Release Date: April 13th, 2015
UK Distributor: Third Window Films
Running Time: 112 mins.
Director: Lee Sujin
Writer: Lee Sujin (Screenplay),
Starring: Chun Woo-Hee, Jung In-Sun, Kim So-Young, Lee Young-Ran,
Han Gong-Ju is the name of the main character. She is the beautiful girl with the tear-filled eyes staring out at us rather challengingly from the film poster and DVD case. It is a startling and intriguing look loaded with mystery and fright. Why is she crying? It makes you wonder and want to find out about why she is so upset, naturally, and the film takes advantage of this to tell a story of a girl recovering from a horrific incident and striving to survive in a society that constantly threatens her and lets her down because of her gender and lack of money.
We don’t find out any of this straight away. We don’t find out the incident that is the cause of her upset. The film plays a smart game by not telling us for the longest time. Instead it introduces us to the girl herself, taking time to display the fragile character and using a non-linear story full of flashbacks, visions and allusions to past actions to reveal pieces of the puzzle and make us investigate the girl at the centre of the story. This makes the revelation of the mystery behind her tears even more harrowing, her pain even more raw.
When we first meet the titular Han Gong-Ju (Chun Woo-Hee) we see her being told by an unsympathetic array of teachers that she will be heading to another school in the distant city of Incheon. She meekly tries to defend herself stating, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” The teachers pass her a school bag and she is soon transferred out.
It’s a long train ride to Incheon where she will be staying at the house of her teacher’s mother Ms. Lee (Lee Young-Ran), a no-nonsense shopkeeper who is convinced something suspicious is going on. She asks her son, “Why is she exiled? Is she knocked up?” He is not forthcoming about the circumstances. Instead he sets up Gong-Ju with a new school and a new mobile phone which makes her totally unreachable for those from her old life. He also warns her not to take calls from her father.
Why has she been forced to move? Why the isolation? Her teacher mentions courts and how things will go back to normal if she just keeps her head down, “Things aren’t black and white between people… I know you didn’t do anything wrong,” he announces before deserting her with his mother and going back to his job and his life. And this is what Han Gong-Ju does. She keeps her distance from her fellow pupils reacting with hostility whenever one of them tries to spark up a conversation and threatening anyone who takes a photograph of her. She becomes quiet. Her face becomes passive, a closed book which she does not allow anyone to read and she sinks into obscurity in the classroom, hanging back after class to make sure everyone else has gone and she can be left alone when she leaves. What about her parents? They are effectively absent and despite Gong-Ju’s best attempts at communication with them it leads to hurt especially when she places so much trust in them. She has been effectively abandoned and has nobody to turn to and with every detail we wonder why again and again.
Gong-Ju’s backstory is alluded to but not revealed, the script being as cryptic as the main character, protecting her secret for much of the film as we watch her integrate herself into her new environment.
Gong-Ju battles painful alienation and some unspoken event and perseveres in going to her new school and getting to know her teacher’s mother. Ms. Lee is a fascinating character who mirrors Gong-Ju and offers the young girl an insight into what it’s like to be a woman with a libido thanks to her adulterous affair with a local police chief that is a rather flagrant and scandalous breach of conservative moral society that is in Korea and brings on the ire of local housewives. The old lady’s hard-headed attitude is a cover for loneliness which she lets Gong-Ju into and the girl reciprocates a little finding solace in being with another person who society shames.
There is also Gong-Ju’s schoolmate Eun-Hee (Jung In-Sun) who offers so much warmth and a real teen girl friendship as she takes an interest in the new girl and slowly draws her into their high school choir. Between make-up session and Eun-Hee’s group of friends who admire Gong-Ju;s beautiful singing voice, our title character gradually opens up to new friendships and connections to others and it is great to see especially when we have watched an hour of her feeling isolated. Eun-Hee battles past Gong-Ju’s tough front to offer her a sense of normality that she has been starved of and even ignites some aspirations to be a singer which give Gong-Ju something to hope for.
All of this sounds nice but the film has so many notes of bitterness and bleakness because writer/director Lee Sujin ensures his script has an undercurrent of uncertainty over Gong-Ju. Although the film is shot in a fairly naturalistic way with nods to teen frothy drama during girly make-up sessions and music videos there are also many moments when Gong-Ju says something or the mood is ruined through unkindness from family, new-found friends and strangers. These undermine the tone and bring back the idea that Gong-Ju is terribly alone and something bad has happened. Darkness hovers over everything and yet Gong-Ju perseveres. We root for this girl. She can overcome whatever troubles her, right? What is the mystery?
Lee Sujin is smart enough to ensure that clues as to what sent Gong-Ju to Incheon are ever present so that while her overall behaviour can be mistaken by characters (and the most unobservant audience members) for teenage anxieties the more we watch Gong-Ju the more we doubt ourselves and so we become even more invested in the mystery surrounding the girl he has crafted. The clues are odd at first such as the way she flinches at the sound and sight of a stapler, the scene where she flees an internet café in terror when trying to research something and certain requests and behaviour at a clinic but it quickly make sense and a pattern emerges which clues the audience into why Gong-Ju acts the way she does (especially if one has watched enough Korean films).
And then there are those flashbacks that crowbar their way into scenes. The longer the film goes on the more they appear and the longer they get. At first they show a happy and outgoing girl, a loyal friend and decent person, one far-removed from the girl we first met. The more they go on the more menacing they get and the more they contextualise Gong-Ju’s odd behaviour in the present. The director’s intent with the structure of the film, the way he sucks viewers in and builds up interest and expectations is fully revealed in a harrowing sequences and the resultant fallout which fully colours Gong-Ju’s actions and reveals why she acts the way she does. We care about Gong-Ju at this point and the reasons for her exile and abandonment do truly shock. Worse is to come when we see just how alone she is and just how much of an injustice has been done to her and how people react when the secret is outed. Here, a troubling display of societal reactions heaps on the tragedy and potent social criticism emerges in the film to shame not Gong-Ju but those who abandon her.
I have gone on long enough about the film and to write any more would be to spoil what comes next. The film works because it is one that involves the audience by posing a mystery, carefully observing its characters and revealing a criticism of society and the way it treats people. The script and the way that the film is so artfully directed achieves to a remarkable degree and this shows that Lee Sujin is a talent to watch. A lot of credit goes to lead actress Chun Woo-Hee who gives an excellent performance as Gong-Ju. She plays her character carefully as a controlled girl hiding a complex mess of emotions, reaching out to others for help. Is help forthcoming? Will Gong-Ju tough it out? That’s for the viewer to discover.