South Korean writer-director Lee Su-jin’s debut feature, Han Gong-ju, comes to the U.S. bearing a seal of approval from no less than Martin Scorsese, whose jury handed the film grand-prize honors at the 2013 Marrakech International Film Festival.
Chun Woo-hee stars as the title character, a high school student who, after a traumatic incident the film is slow to reveal, must transfer to another school mid-year. With no reliable sources of support to fall back on — her mother is absent, her painter father is a drunk — Gong-ju moves into the thin-walled home of a former teacher (Jo Dae-hee) and his grocer mother (Lee Young-ran). She gives herself a series of regular commitments — swimming lessons, convenience-store jobs, get-togethers with her new school’s a capella group — in an attempt to acclimate herself to her surroundings.
Although Gong-ju’s backstory isn’t difficult to surmise from a number of telltale signifiers, Lee does withhold the details of it for the majority of the film, which puts a tremendous amount of responsibility on his lead actress. While appealing on its own terms, Lee’s technique of shallow-focus subjectivity, a bobbing camera that often attaches itself to Gong-ju like a harness, following her every step, is also somewhat performance-reliant, and Chun responds strongly to the challenge.
More so than anything else, the actress’s soft, purr-like voice, neutral stare, and large, all-consuming eyes create the mysterious rhythm of the film. Though much of Han Gong-ju is an exercise in narrative and formal concealment, with Lee frequently shooting his protagonist through distancing barriers of glass, the cumulative impact of the delayed story revelations and Chun’s startling vulnerability is both an elegant gut-punch and a furious indictment of a society that treats its victims with inexcusable aggression and hostility.