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Han Gong-ju
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by Jay Seaver

"A great movie about a terrible situation."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It is almost never difficult to figure out where "Han Gong-ju" is heading, and that's okay. It may, in fact, be part of the point. Surprise is not the only way a movie can punch the audience in the gut, and between the excellent performance of Chun Woo-hee as the title character and the precision filmmaking by writer/director Lee Su-jin, this is one of the most quietly devastating teen-focused movies you'll see.

It starts off on an uncomfortable place, with Gong-ju's former teacher Nan-do (Min Kyung-jin) calling in a favor to get her enrolled at a new school and begging his mother (Lee Young-ran) to let the teenager stay at her place, at least temporarily. After that, the girl tries to keep her head down, taking swimming lessons and helping out in Mrs. Cho's shop, although one of her classmates, Eun-hee (Jung In-sun), is eager to befriend her after hearing her practice in the music room. Every once in a while, there's a glimpse of her old life and friends like roommate Hwa-ok (Kim So-young) or Dong-yoon (KimChoi Yong-joon), the cute son of the boss at her part-time job, but they are very much not a part of her present.

Director Lee does an extraordinary job of doling out information on just what happened to the title character to make her change schools at exactly the rate to keep the audience half wondering and half dreading having its suspicions confirmed. Even while saving that for the last act, the movie is well-able to examine the fallout as this girl who is getting the rawest of deals tries to just get by. Holding the specific reasons for rage back allows Lee to do something impressive, giving the viewer a close look at just how society undercuts and fails girls and women in Gong-ju's situation generally while not allowing something big to overshadow who she is specifically.

And Gong-ju is pretty great. She's a heroine that the audience can get behind for her persistence even if she does have her own crippling doubts, and it's kind of amazing how individual she feels even as she's very deliberately making choices to not leave the center path. There's not a moment where Chun Woo-hee is not just right, a perfect combination of a kid still somehow determined to plow through despite her unearned shame and crippling rejection. She's different but the same in the flashback scenes, and fantastic when both threads get to their most crushing points. I don't believe there are more than a handful of scenes that Chun is not in, and she never falters.

There is room for the rest of the cast to make an impression, even as they drift in and (in most cases) out of Gong-ju's life. Lee Young-ran is the second-biggest constant in the film as reluctant mother-figure Mrs. Cho, and while the character isn't quite Gong-ju plus thirty-odd years of people living down to expectations, the actress certainly captures how a woman's bad reputation can be an embittering thing. Kim So-young gives Hwa-ok an untested, but no less genuine, friendliness.

Director Lee puts what could be small things together with impressive care, generally without the seams showing much if at all. She doesn't do much to change the look of the film between present and flashback scenes, but it's always clear when the audience is. Much of the time is spent on small things well-observed, presented, like Gong-ju herself, in a way that often gets the audience down but also give some how. Ms. Lee sweats a lot of details that the viewer may not initially see, and the passing is perfect, a slow enough crime that it's not immediately obvious just how much the bottom can fall out, but even that's an exceptional acceleration, leading to moments which will make the audience gasp, whether expected or not.

That continues right up to the film's final shoot, powerful in and of itself but even more so once you consider a seemingly extraneous plot thread, on second thought, might have been much more than filling time or metaphor. It's still that, but even that bit of self-reference describes what makes this movie great: It's excellent drama based upon angering reality, though neither one of those things upstages the other.

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originally posted: 08/16/14 12:41:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Su-jin Lee

Written by
  Su-jin Lee

  Woo-hee Chun
  Jung In-sun
  So-young Kim
  Young-lan Lee

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