EIFF Review: Han Gong-ju

Rating (out of 5)
Show info
Dir: Lee Su-jin
Chun Woo-hee, Jung In-sun, Kim So-young, Lee Young-Ian
Running time

Never has a shot of an abandoned suitcase been so gut wrenching. This is a truly outstanding and beautiful piece of work but I’m reticent to say masterpiece because the word is thrown around like confetti these days but this comes very close. Perhaps in spite of my few reservations it actually is. The style and subject matter wont be everyones cup of tea and its a tad overlong, perhaps dropping the ball once or twice but that's it. That’s all and how many films can you say that about these days?

Han Gong-ju is pretty, likeable, a bit awkward and withdrawn - your average high school teen. We meet her as she’s transferred to a new school and home with a reluctant surrogate family for being involved in some initially undisclosed incident. My assumption was that she’d been involved in some daft teenage nonsense - perhaps graffiti, vandalism, a theft, a prank gone wrong. Whatever it is the relevant authorities have taken a dim view of it.

These assumptions couldn't be further from the truth and like a mystery jigsaw puzzle assembling, the whole picture, when it comes, is devastating. The devil’s in the detail and as events unfold increasing numbers of seemingly trivial observations later reveal themselves to be of profound significance. Why does she want to learn to swim just one length of a pool? Why doesn't she like her picture being taken? Why does she push her friends away when they’re just being nice?

Problems at home? Her parents are absent and seemingly disinterested. So her home life is troubled, thats why she’s so awkward right? And then as the pieces fit together we re-analyse the parents and slowly start to realise everything we’ve seen with them too is something else entirely.

Han Gong-ju has another secret but one that isn't so dark - a beautiful singing voice. She keeps it buttoned up but inevitably it leaks out and her mini gaggle of clumsy new friends start to nurture and encourage her to develop it. And so the bulk of the story is spent either at school as she slowly learns to trust new people or in the company of a new family who at first seem just as disinterested and unsuitable as her real parents. Once again appearances are deceptive.

Everything about this is exceptionally well crafted. The entire cast deliver terrific naturalistic performances & its beautifully directed with for the most part delicate understatement. Its also the structure that really makes this work with the editing nicely juxtaposing past and present moments that reflect or echo each other and the viewer has the task of trying to work out what it all means. How nice for once not to have it all spelt out with a big thick black marker pen.

After the credits have rolled it will linger in your consciousness for some time as the mind continues to connect the dots. Powerful and affecting stuff.

Cineworld 27th June 8.45pm and Cineworld 29th June 1.10pm