Now On Blu-ray: Third Window Films Does HAN GONG-JU Right

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Now On Blu-ray: Third Window Films Does HAN GONG-JU Right
Lee Su-jin's Han Gong-ju was a surprise critical hit when it premiered at the Busan International Film Festival back in 2013. In the intervening time, the film has managed to make the festival circuit and gather an impressive load of awards both at home and abroad.

It's taken one of our favorite boutique home video labels, Third Window Films in the UK, however, to make it available to audiences outside of Asia when no one else has shown much interest. The film is definitely deserving of more attention, and let's hope that this disc helps that dream come true.

Hang Gong-ju is a teenage girl who has been displaced due to the pressure on her following a mysterious scandal in her hometown. She leaves to live with the mother of one of her teachers and hope to start a new life, free from the notoriety that made it impossible for her to live at home. When an a capella group at her new school stumbles upon her singing and playing guitar, they recruit her into their circle, though not without a bit of struggle. Han Gong-ju will do anything to remain anonymous, but her group feels that her talent needs to be shared. When the group attempts to cheer her up, things go horribly wrong and Han Gong-ju is forced to deal with her past head on.

If I'm a big vague with the details of Han Gong-ju, it's entirely intentional. The film itself unfolds in pieces, and while the viewer understands that Han Gong-ju's past must be horribly traumatizing, it isn't until the final reel or so that we get a full view of the life she's lived and the burden she carries. Director Lee's non-linear story telling is effective and but at times deliberately hazy. Often this works against a film, and in lesser hands it might have been a plodding mess, but Lee Su-jin knows exactly when to inject those moments as if to jolt the audience from their complacency when things seem to be moving along just fine.

The film works on a number of levels. The drama of the film, and the narrative style serve to mirror the nature of trauma and do so quite well. Trauma never truly leaves, sometimes it just goes quiet, like the memories in Han Gong-ju's head. Lee's film serves as not only an indictment of the oppressive South Korean society that could create this kind of victim blaming mentality, but also as an indictment of the society that doesn't appear to value therapy or any kind of recuperation when these events play out. 

Hang Gong-ju is shunned to deal with her trauma alone, and what's more, she's expected to keep it to herself so as not to become a pariah in a whole new place. This crushing pressure, combined with a dysfunctional family who can cope with their emotions no better than their daughter, make for a toxic lie that Han Gong-ju has to perpetuate, lest she lose all semblance of a normal life (or at least the outward appearances thereof).

The way in which Lee Su-jin edits the film to mimic the pattern of recurring and revisiting trauma is astonishing in its simplicity and effectiveness. It not only tells the story, it forces the audience to live the story in the same way the protagonist does. This seems like the hubris of a young director trying to throw everything possible at the screen, but Lee Su-jin manages to make it feel natural. The trauma recurs when you're not expecting it, with the slightest provocation, she and we are back in the moment that brought us to this point. It's brave filmmaking that deserves a second look.

When our man in South Korea, Pierce Conran, saw the film, he had this to say:
Lee's surprising and overwhelming debut was for me the biggest surprise at Busan this year and I hope that many will have the opportunity to see it. In any case, a great new talent has been found in Lee Su-jin and I can only imagine what he might have in store for us next.
Let's hope that Lee's next film comes out fast, because I can't wait to see what he can really do.


The Disc:

Third Window Films hasn't missed a beat yet with me, and their Blu-ray release of Han Gong-ju is no exception. The film looks and sounds exceptional. No mistakes, no problems that I could see. Simple, and to the point.

There is one primary extra on the disc, though, Lee Su-jin's first short film, Enemy's Apple. This short, which runs about 20 minutes, manages to be funny, intense, sad, desperate, and exhausting all at the same time. Two men, a police officer and a protestor, are locked in a struggle away from their respective groups. What follows is a violent, amusing, and entertaining pas de deux of billowing blood, breaking bones, and blowing chunks, though not in the way you're probably thinking. There isn't a lot of thematic material to connect Enemy's Apple with Han Gong-ju, but it's definitely easy to see some talent on display.

Overall I give this film a strong recommendation. It's hard not to when the film speaks so strongly for itself.

Han Gong-Ju is available on UK Blu-ray and is locked to Region B. North American viewers will need special hardware to view the disc.


Pierce Conran contributed to this story.

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KoreaLee Su-jinThird Window FilmsSu-jin LeeWoo-hee ChunIn-seon JeongSo-Young KimYeong-ran LeeDrama

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