Han Gong-ju (한공주) is undoubtedly the best Korean film of 2013. Bold, unflinching, insightful and powerful, director Lee Su-jin (이수진) has crafted an exceptional film about serious social issues that exist within contemporary Korea. What makes the film such an exemplary piece of cinema is the manner in which such issues are conveyed. Through the experiences of traumatised teenage protagonist Gong-ju, her world opens to reveal a broad array of socio-cultural problems ranging from absentee parents to corrupt institutions, from high school bullying to mid-life crises, as she simultaneously attempts to reconcile with her own tragic past. Employing an impassioned sense of social injustice in conjunction with a skillfully balanced narrative structure, director Lee Su-jin evokes the spirit of a raw Lee Chang-dong which is mighty praise indeed.
For reasons unknown, high school student Gong-ju is sent to a new school far from her hometown. The extremely quiet yet polite student is constantly treated as a burden by teachers, parents, as well as her new carer – her teacher’s lonely single mother. As Gong-ju attempts to rebuild her life in new surroundings by learning to swim and taking on a part-time job, new friends emerge and discover her beautifully melancholy singing ability. Yet in revealing her talent, Gong-ju’s horrifying past catches up to her with disastrous results.
Han Gong-ju is a rare gem and a stunning debut feature from director Lee, whose previous shorts Papa (2004) and Enemy’s Apple (2007) were both award recipients. The social issues that are explored throughout the film are not new in neither mainstream nor independent Korean cinema, but nonetheless are incredibly powerful and emotive due to the strength of the central protagonist alongside a gripping flashback structure. As the heart of the film, Gong-ju is a very complex character; melancholy yet passionate, distant yet likable, her tragic story is one of shocking trauma and inspirational strength. Indeed, it is Gong-ju’s courage that forces confrontation with further injustices – including a runaway mother and corrupt authority figures – that serve to make her an increasingly endearing and admirable young woman. Director Lee wisely employs editing to accentuate audience empathy, gradually revealing tidbits of information into Gong-ju’s elusive past until neither she, nor the audience, can hide from the truth any longer. In doing so director Lee not only conveys his skill as a storyteller, but also potently exposes the contentious role of parents in crime and punishment.
As Gong-ju, actress Cheon Woo-hee (천우희) gives an incredible performance. The role itself is subtle and nuanced, and she delivers wonderfully. Simultaneously innocent yet worldly-wise, Cheon Woo-hee conveys the agony of the troubled teenager mixed with a sense of hope and inner-strength that is staggering to behold. In lesser hands Gong-ju would be either cold and unlikable or overly pitiable, yet Cheon balances both realms effortlessly.
Undoubtedly the best Korean film of 2013, Han Gong-ju is a rare gem of independent cinema. Director Lee Su-jin has crafted an extraordinary tale of a girl struggling to reconcile with a traumatic past, who courageously confronts further social injustices in her attempt to do so. Beautifully performed by Cheon Woo-hee, the actress balances the inner strength and turmoil of the character to produce one of the most emotive and powerful cinematic experiences of the year. Bold, insightful and heart-wrenching, Han Gong-ju is the must-see film of the year.