The Korean New Wave was defined by three directors, Kim Jee-Woon, Park Chan-Wook, and Bong Joon-Ho. With the three being courted to foreign climes the international stature of this national wave of cinema has atrophied. Korean cinema isn’t the cool new thing it used to be. As sad as that it is, it has taken the pressure off the hunt for big new names allowing them to rise naturally and without pressure. The oft-referenced Bleak Night is such a champion of this creative freedom. Serendipitously, there is another new champion that just so happens to be about High Schools and a directorial début, only this time it’s from the other side of the fence with teenage girls. That film is Han Gong Gong-Ju, which has impressed and stunned people the world over, paid testament with the Third Window release sporting a quote from Martin Scorsese.
Chun Woo-Hee is Han Gong-Ju, a teenage high school girl who is moved to pastures new, away from everybody she ever knew. That’s all that can really be said, Lee Su-Jin has crafted a labyrinthine mystery that has to experienced with absolutely no knowledge beforehand. The devil of Han Gong-Ju is in the detail. The structural narrative unfolds with scant regard for linearity, one scene will unfold in the present with the next opting to dive into the history of the character, even then its narrative will unsheathe itself of that formula leaving you, the viewer, lost in the haze of where a scene fits in that timeline.
Director/Writer Lee Su-Jin isn’t composing this way as a means to confuse or shock the audience into submission, that is just a happy coincidence. Instead, the composition shows a supreme talent and confidence at work. To muddle the linearity, the writer/director is presenting the viewer with information to unpack at their own will. As a mystery, there can be no accusations of hand-holding. Not only is that one of the key accomplishments, the tonal work also stands out. The quiet of his characters and world establishes a relatable normality of suburban life and the difficulties of fitting in at a new School. The only clue that something has happened are the scenes set at a police station and Gong-Ju being moved to a new home and school. Everything else is left for you to unpack.
In the tranquillity, there are small moments of beauty and tenderness through the medium of music. Diegetic music utilizes the acme of the K-pop aesthetic as Chun Woo-Hee strums the guitar and sings beautifully throughout. As one of her classmates remarks, you cannot sing like that unless you have some darkness in your past. That is as close as the film gets to mixing the light and dark halves. Moving on to that darker half, when the shocking revelation is eventually revealed it is well within the boundaries of realism. Many films have plumbed such issues across countless genre before, the potency doesn’t come from what happens but the way it happens. Han Gong-Ju or her classmates don’t do a thing wrong, it’s the world that surrounds them. Take classmate Eun-Hee (adorably played by Jung In-Sun), she only wants the best for her new friend, even when Gong-Ju wants nothing to do with her. She wants to welcome this new friend, but that is a luxury she cannot afford because of what happened to her. All we know is that to the titular lead, adults are the enemy.
The subtexts that the film delves into are yet more proof that release from the Korean New Wave is providing new young talent with the greatest of platforms. Lee Su-Jin satirises the sense of privilege inherent in the Korean middle classes and the illicit relations that the record industry would love to forget. An intelligent film in which the camera has been used to perfection to evoke the loss of innocence in the anonymous milieu of the suburbs. Even with the rarefied reception, the film received prior to release, socks were well and truly knocked off. A superbly affecting, confidently pieced together début that shows the world that Korean cinema is just as intelligent, smartly directed and vital as it was in the safe hands of its big names.
HAN GONG-JU is out now on Third Window Films DVD/BLU-RAY. Also reviewed on Cinema Eclectica Episode 12