Looking over the Fantasia Film Festival guide, one quote in the “Han Gong-ju” section is conspicuous. Martin Scorsese calls the film “outstanding,” noting its “mise-en-scene, image, sound, and performance.” Last December, in his capacity as Jury President of the Marrakech Film Festival, presiding over a group including Marion Cotillard, Fatih Akin, and Park Chan-wook among others, Scorsese awarded Su-jin Lee’s debut feature film the top prize, and has been championing it ever since. When arguably the biggest cinema geek of all time (no offense to Quentin Tarantino) backs a movie with such praise, one tends to pay attention. But we find ourselves in the peculiar position where we disagree with one of the greatest living filmmakers regarding just how outstanding this film really is.
“Han Gong-ju” opens with a girl’s voiceover stating how she hears music in every sound. The voice belongs to Han Gong-ju (Woo-hee Chun), a student transferring to a new high school in a new neighborhood to stay with her former teacher’s mother Ms. Lee (Young-lan Lee). As the adults around her fret in the opening scene, all she can think of is how she didn’t do anything wrong. Ms. Lee doesn’t want anything to do with Gong-ju at first: In one of the film’s lighter moments, she places her hand on Gong-ju’s belly in lieu of a handshake, and asks her if she’s been knocked up. The truth behind the young girl’s transfer is much more harrowing, and the majority of “Han Gong-ju” grips the audience in a chokehold of suspense. Gong-ju’s anxious reactions to a broken ceiling fan and the sounds of a staple gun, to name a few seemingly mundane examples, foreshadow the true reason for her relocation.
The film’s portentous atmosphere revolves around a girl in the precarious first stages of adolescence. Gong-ju is apprehensive at the prospect of making friends in her new school, and is humiliated when a classmate, her biggest admirer, secretly records her singing in the showers. Ms. Lee warms up to her quickly and lets her stay in the house, but Gong-ju’s real mother wants nothing to do with her. Gong-ju begrudgingly joins a singing group, but when her new friend sends a recording to an agency, she freaks out when it goes online. All of the precious facets essential to her development (friendship, ambition, parenting) are compromised by a dark truth. To have all of the above on the balance beam in a first time feature bespeaks great ambition, and Su-jin Lee wavers, stumbles, and ultimately loses that balance before we get a chance to fully invest our emotions in Han Gong-ju’s misfortunes.
Criticizing this movie is tough in light of the harrowing plot and Woo-hee Chun’s revelatory performance. But Scorsese’s praise notwithstanding, the presentation of Gong-ju’s past and present realities are so fundamentally flawed that the film never quite rings true. The fact that it’s so full of potential makes it all the more regrettable. The nature of truth and honor in the eyes of a cynical, male-dominated society are towering themes that never come to fruition due to overcompensation in style, tone and genre. These are the nails which seal the coffin; Su-jin Lee’s screenplay and direction, as well as Hyo-sun Choi’s editing, are often so inconsistent and impatient that they distract from all of the picture’s positive qualities. Slow motion shaky cameras, scenes of a humiliated Ms. Lee squeezed in between Gong-ju’s flashbacks and her present troubles, swimming lessons to hammer in more metaphors; these are just a few examples of how overtly eager and busy Lee’s film is. Meanwhile, Scorsese’s four points on the movie’s outstanding aspects hold true.
Woo-hee’s performance is nothing short of extraordinary; fierce, gentle, brave, and vulnerable all at once. Young-lan Lee’s invests Ms. Lee with color and insight, but she’s sadly not given nearly enough attention as the character warrants. Image and sound fluidly convey the mystery at the heart of the film, and alongside Woo-hee’s lead performance, they remain the highlight of “Han Gong-ju.” How the puzzle pieces fit in the third act leave a satisfying feeling, alongside some of the most brutal cinema you’ll see this year. Yet the gnawing sense of failed potential is inescapable. Similar to its title character, “Han Gong-ju” is beautiful, brave and ambitious but ultimately too damaged to blossom into greatness. [C+]