One of the drawbacks of being a working critic is that the volume of film viewing this necessitates, trying to keep up with new releases, festival and retrospective screenings and such, can tend to flatten out your emotional responses to films. At a certain point, you've seen endless permutations of the ways filmmakers try to get you to feel something while watching: shock, sadness, anger, laughter, eroticism, the whole gamut of human emotion. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don't. And even when it does work, you can sometimes be aware of the manipulative methods used to elicit certain emotional reactions, which can often leave one feeling conned, believing that these emotions weren't truly earned by the film.
But every now and then - and this is a relatively rare thing - a film comes along and just completely throws you for a loop, absolutely sucker punches you, jolting you out of your jaded stupor and hardened cynicism, pummeling you with volcanic emotional force.
Hope, the latest and greatest film to date from Korean filmmaker Lee Joon-ik (The King and the Clown, Radio Star, Blades of Blood), is one of those films. Every tear it elicits - and trust me, there will be many, if you are the least bit human - is all the more potent for being absolutely earned. Lee and his screenwriters Kim Ji-hye and Jo Jung-hun have taken as their source material an incredibly horrific true-life case, and they tell their tale completely straight, with none of the emotionally manipulative melodrama tricks that Korean films are often guilty of subjecting us to. Beyond the unspeakably evil act that the film pivots around, there is a story of struggle, pain, resilience, and yes, hope. It's an experience that will shake you to your very core, and one which you won't easily forget.
Hope begins innocuously enough, almost to the point of being prosaic, with its portrait of a very average, ordinary family living in a small town. Dad Dong-hoon (Sol Kyung-gu) works at a local metalworking factory, while mom Mi-hee (Uhm Ji-won) runs a small grocery store, called "Hope's Variety," named after their eight year-old daughter So-won (Lee Re), whose name means "hope." Both parents are harried and overworked, and feeling much financial strain, especially Dong-hoon, who lives in constant fear of not being able to provide for his family. Mi-hee is acutely aware of their precarious financial situation as well, to the point of hesitating for a very long time in telling her husband that she's pregnant with their second child, loath to burden him with the fact that there'll soon be another mouth to feed.
For these reasons, Dong-hoon and Mi-hee have very little time to spend with and care for their young daughter. However, Hope isn't very much bothered by this. She is a cheerful, fiercely intelligent girl, who often comes across as a lot smarter than the adults surrounding her. Hope is quite self-sufficient, and very used to often being on her own. She is content to spend much of her time playing and watching television, singing along with her favorite show featuring her beloved children's-program character Kokomong.
And then, into this relatively happy existence comes the tragic and incredibly monstrous act that befalls Hope. One day while going to school, Hope is accosted by a drunken man (Gang Seong-hae) who asks to borrow her umbrella. Hope follows him to a construction site, where she ends up being beaten and brutally raped, to the point of near death, by this man. Thankfully, the film refuses to show us this inhuman act while it is occurring; the attack is represented by the synecdochic image of Hope's blood-covered hand reaching for her phone to call for help.
Although Hope's rape and assault is left off screen, the aftermath of this crime is depicted in intensely heartrending detail, and it's at this point that the floodgates of tears and sadness for what has happened to Hope and her family comes rushing forth. Hope's distraught parents now must cope not only with the physical consequences of the attack - she was so brutally violated that she requires a colostomy bag to replace her destroyed anus and colon - but with the legal process required to identify the perpetrator and bring him to justice. Hope is compelled to recall the attack from her hospital bed and pick out her attacker from a series of pictures for videotaped testimony. Some of the film's most heartbreaking scenes occur here, as she struggles to speak out, and still continues to display an intelligence and thoughtfulness well beyond her years, expressing her wish that "the bad man" be caught so that he can't do this to anyone else.
Hope's physical wounds begin to heal, but the psychological scars prove to take quite a bit more time. What has happened to her, beyond the devastating impact on Hope herself, threatens to tear apart her entire family. For a long time after the attack, Hope refuses to speak to anyone, expressing herself through drawing and writing. Dong-hoon comes to feel most forcefully how his daughter's rape has changed their relationship. In the hospital, Hope has an accident with her colostomy bag, and when Dong-hoon reaches out to try to help her, Hope recoils immediately from his touch, and starts to cry. It has become clear at that point that Hope has now become fearful of all adult men, including her own father. Dong-hoon is now compelled to hide from Hope's sight, a situation that completely tears him apart inside. He feels he can only approach her while in the guise of the Kokomong character; he appears to her often in a borrowed costume that he wears in an attempt to cheer her up.
What distinguishes Hope from other recent films about similar subject matter, most notably Silenced, is its concentration on the process of healing and recovery from this trauma. Hope gets a lot of help here from Hong Jeong-sook (Kim Hae-sook), a counselor from the Sunflower Center, a facility which specializes in helping children recover from sexual abuse (and is in fact a real-life place). Jeong-sook's own daughter was a victim of sexual assault who eventually committed suicide; Jeong-sook's own subsequent suicide attempt has permanently confined her to a wheelchair. The scenes which detail how the counselor helps Hope through her fear and pain are some of the most compelling and realistic-feeling of the film.
I cannot overestimate how incredibly heart-wrenching much of the film is. For my part, from the time Hope is raped right up until the conclusion, I found myself crying nearly nonstop. I realize it's not considered cool by some to admit to being affected this way, but I would be doing a disservice to myself and to you, the reader, if I wasn't completely honest about my reaction to this film. And again, Lee Joon-ik and his collaborators achieve this feeling without resorting to heavy-handed manipulation or affected enhancements; this is one of the most direct and unsentimental renderings of potentially swampy melodramatic material that I have ever seen.
Hope gains a considerable amount of its power from its performances, which are uniformly excellent, from the principal characters down to the smallest roles. Lee Joon-ik has proven himself in the past to be a particularly fine director of actors, and Hope is one of his best demonstrations of his skill at this. But a few of these turns should be singled out in particular. Uhm Ji-won is great as the mother, compellingly conveying her character's guilt at failing to protect her daughter, and Sol Kyung-gu delivers one of his finest performances here; your heart breaks as he desperately tries to reconnect with Hope after she rejects his presence.
But as the title indicates, this film absolutely belongs to Hope, this wonderful character, a smart and cheerful girl who's had a horrific thing happen to her, but displays an unending resilience, and who eventually finds her way back to happiness and peace. Lee Re, seven years old at the time of filming, delivers one of the most brilliant and memorable breakout performances in recent years. She has a natural, unaffected quality which connects with the viewer in a powerfully palpable way, making her character's journey one of the most emotionally compelling to watch in recent years.
Hope screens on July 8, 6pm at the Walter Reade Theater. Actor Sol Kyung-gu, recipient of this year's New York Asian Film Festival Star Asia Award, will attend the screening. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center's website, or NYAFF's website.