Saturday, July 26, 2014

Han Gong-Ju--Su-jin Lee (2013)

Woo-hee Chun gives a stunning performance as the titular character in Han Gong-Ju (2013)
Steubenville, OH is now a place synonymous with the rape culture that permeates the U.S.  Victim blaming, slut-shaming, defending our young men because "boys will be boys," Elliot Rodgers--all of these instances of misogyny are intertwined with the use of technology to document it all.  Yet, rape culture and sexual violence against girls (and women) is a global problem, and South Korean filmmakers are tackling these issues in moving and powerful ways.  I first encountered this powerful vision upon seeing Poetry (2010).  Here an elderly woman tries to understand her own grandson's involvement in a gang rape.  She attempts to find beauty in a world riddled with casual misogyny and gendered violence--all while she struggles with the onset of Alzheimer's disease.  This film is simply breathtaking.

Su-Jin Lee's Han Gong-Ju, based on the 2004 Miryang gang rape case, frames its story through its victim's eyes, as she is exiled to another town and enrolled in a new school while her rapists go to trial back home.  Gong-Ju's experience of the events that happened that day unfolds gradually, in flashback, as she attempts to tentatively build a new life in a new place.  Unfortunately, in a culture that blames and ostracizes its victims of sexual violence, she has nowhere to turn and largely no one to trust.  One young girl attempts to befriend her, and she does her best to push her away, only grudgingly accepting her kindness.  This "toughness" is so clearly a facade for this desperately lonely teen, and it's heartbreaking to watch Gong-Ju's tentative smiles and fearful glances.  Like any wounded kid, she covers her vulnerability with false bravado.

Gong-Ju's musical talents attract (wanted and unwanted) attention
Like Poetry, Han Gong-Ju finds a delicate beauty in the arts, primarily through Gong-ju's soft voice and gentle guitar playing.  One of the subplots of the film involves her very real talent, and the way she must keep her voice hidden in order to avoid the scandal from which she has fled.  Yet her past comes to find her, and her secrets are discovered by the press (likewise, a filmed copy of the assault is leaked to the internet, further exacerbating her shame and victimization).

The film is undeniably an indictment of the culture surrounding these brutal acts, and sensitively explores Gong-Ju's delicate psyche while not overwhelmingly sensationalizing or exploiting the events that have triggered her exile.  Still, the casual misogyny, coupled with the macho posturing and bullying that intersects with rape culture, are represented with a queasy realism.  One doesn't get the full picture until the film's final moments, but by that time we are fully committed to Gong-Ju's character, and can only wish that she finds some semblance of peace.  Han Gong-Ju is both harrowing and highly recommended.