Martin Scorsese really liked this one.
Han Gong-ju is talking to someone about thinking up a tune in her mind, incorporating all of the sounds around her, to forget loneliness or sadness. It is like religion. It helps, though not in reality. Who is she talking to? Well, it is not any of the dozen or so adults who are with her now, staring at her. To them, she only says that she didn’t do anything wrong.
Gong-ju is at home, though it may not be home for much longer. She is trying to pack as much as she can from her room. Her teacher, Mr. Lee, is helping her pack. He tells her to focus on her clothes and her father will send the rest. Does her father know where she is going? Probably not. Well, she is going to Incheon.
After arranging for a mid-year school transfer, Mr. Lee takes Gong-ju to lunch. He tells her that she can stay at his mother’s house until the board finds her a place to live. He acknowledges that she did nothing wrong, but it is up to the court to decide. In the meantime, it is better for things to be settled quietly, particularly without the press knowing. He hands her a cellphone, telling her to take only calls from him or her father. Actually, not her father. He tells her that things will go back to normal soon as long as she is not foolish…like Hwa-ok.
Looks like Mr. Lee did not run this plan by his mother. She tells him to put Gong-ju in a motel. Anyways, what did she do? Get knocked up? He insists that she is a good kid. Plus, she did say that she needed help around the house.
I guess that the Mr. Lee convinced his mother to let Gong-ju stay for a week. His old room is stuffed with smelly things, but I guess that it will have to do. Gong-ju asks if there is a pool nearby. He doesn’t quite answer that.
Mr. Lee introduces Gong-ju to his mother, Ms. Jo. Or Ms. Lee. I will call her Ms. Jo. Without even saying hello, his mother touches Gong-ju’s belly and asks if she is knocked up. Mr. Lee takes his mother away while she insists that this is just for one week.
Gong-ju uses the toilet and imagines another girl saying “shhhh” over the sounds of her peeing. Erm…I am not screenshotting that.
Gong-ju tries to avoid Mr. Lee and his mother as the two argue about her wish to marry a police chief who is already married. She quietly rushes back to her temporary room, which is so smelly that she has to put a towel over her face. She takes out a phone and attempts to call someone, only to hear that the number is not in service. Betrayed.
Gong-ju arrives at her new school and introduces herself to her new classmates. They clap…rather unenthusiastically.
Gong-ju goes to the hospital and fills out a form. She asks the receptionist if she would be allowed to swim if she has wounds. The receptionist says probably not, but the doctor would say for sure. Gong-ju asks if the doctor is a man and the receptionist tells her that there are female doctors.
Well, looks like Gong-ju’s request for a female doctor did not reach whomever matched her with a doctor…to examine her infection…down there…starting barely thirty seconds after he arrives. He says that he will put something in for the infection and tells her to use condoms. Well, I guess that acting callously robotic and condescendingly incurious towards one’s patient is not as bad as the alternative.
Gong-ju goes to an internet café in hopes of tracking down the phone number that did not work. She gets no results. Also, the boys nearby her make her anxious. Especially those who are probably playing some sort of Grand Theft Auto-type game or something and gleefully cheering over killing sexualized video game women. After a bit more searching, Gong-ju manages to find an address to what could be what she wants.
Gong-ju goes to a house, but no one is there. It could be that no one has been there for a while, but the important thing is that the person whom she wants to see is not there.
Gong-ju goes to Ms. Jo’s market. Ms. Jo has stepped away from the counter, most likely calling her son to complain about having to house Gong-ju for longer than the agreed-upon week. Gong-ju helps bag groceries for the customer, who asks if she is the owner’s daughter. Ms. Jo returns, telling Gong-ju to move over. The customer calls Gong-ju a nice kid for helping out her mother. Mrs. Lee laughs. It is only after the customer leaves and Gong-ju helps Ms. Jo remove her vest that she thanks Gong-ju. She then asks Gong-ju how old she looks. Late forties? Last year, she was told early forties. No matter. She offers Gong-ju something to eat.
Back home, Ms. Jo asks whether Gong-ju has any special talents, or whether her father is the mayor. No? Then why are they investing in her so much? Apparently, “they” are offering Ms. Jo just enough to feed and house Gong-ju if she keeps her around longer. She once again asks if Gong-ju is sure she did nothing bad. Gong-ju is sure. Ms. Jo says that she is a woman of faith and is choosing to trust Gong-ju.
The teacher is asking for the difference between fact and truth and, despite saying it is a lower-grade question, gets nothing except for a snarky comment from someone named Min-suh. So, she answers it for them. Facts are identifiable objective results and things that actually took place while truth…what is truth?
Han Gong-ju is in the police station. The detective is going through her call history and reading out names. All her friends? She has said nothing and continues to say nothing.
As Gong-ju sees a line of teenage boys being escorted down the hall, another detective tells her that the right to remain silent is for heinous criminals. So, did she commit a crime? He demands that she tell them the truth. She starts tearing up as she looks at the boys and asks to be let go.
The second detective sighs. Two young b*tches embarrassing the town, he says and walks off. The first detective reminds Gong-ju that someone died. Her tears as she looks at the boys seems to imply that she knows.
Gong-ju is working alone at a convenience store when a boy comes in. Oh, it’s Dong-yoon, son of the owner. It looks like he has been hit in the face. He asks for his father and Gong-ju says that he will be back later Dong-yoon takes a bunch of items, treats Gong-ju’s protestations as mere annoyance, and storms out without paying. At least the next boy pays for cigarettes…wasn’t she supposed to check ID or something? Anyways, she looks outside and it looks like there is a group of boys pushing Dong-yoon around Perhaps that is just buddies roughhousing a little. Perhaps.
Gong-ju is napping on a chair in the school hallway. She was supposed to be holding that chair over her head as punishment for something, but I guess that she figured that no one was watching. But then her friend calls out to her and she gets into position. Her teacher, not seeing the other girl, figures that Gong-ju was talking in her sleep, and tells her to hold the chair up higher. Is that the girl whom she had been imagining while in Mrs. Lee’s bathroom? Is she the Hwa-ok whom Mr. Lee was talking about?
Gong-ju and Hwa-ok up later. Apparently, Hwa-ok is going out with Dong-yoon. And that is hardly the first time that he got beat up. She says that she has to meet whoever beat him up and either get rid of them or befriend them. She then asks when Gong-ju’s father is coming home. Gong-ju doesn’t know and doesn’t care. Hwa-ok says that he paints for months to feed his daughter. Gong-ju counters that he works to afford alcohol. In any case, Hwa-ok wants to come over…with Dong-yoon. Gong-ju doesn’t want Dong-yoon over.
End of flashback
Gong-ju is walking down the school halls when she hears a group of girls practicing a song. One of them notices her.
Gong-ju starts swimming lessons. It is going…about as well as one could expect when starting swimming lessons. The teacher, kind of condescendingly, reminds her that she has to breathe or else she will die. Uh huh. Great lesson.
Gong-ju tries to go into the market, but finds that it is locked. And inside is Ms. Jo…dancing with the police chief?
Gong-ju is showering after swimming lessons. Thinking that she is alone, she sings the song that the girls in the singing group were practicing. By coincidence, the girl who had noticed her returned to the showers to get her swimsuit and approaches her later as she is drying her hair. Her name is Eun-hee and they are in the same class. Gong-ju tries to ignore her, but Eun-hee plays the audio recording that she made of Gong-ju singing in the shower. She says that Gong-ju has a great singing voice and can join her a cappella group. Gong-ju tells her to back off and threatens to sue her unless she erases the audio. She is about to leave, but then she asks Eun-hee if she has internet on her phone.
Whatever the answer is, I guess that it is enough to get Gong-ju to reconsider pushing Eun-hee away, as the two take a bus together. Where are they going? To a betrayer.
Well, Gong-ju is going. When they get to the stop, Gong-ju says that she can go alone. She makes her way to a shop and looks at the woman working there. The woman sees her…comes outside, and pulls her away to the alley.
The woman has questions. How did Gong-ju find her? Did Gong-ju’s jerk of a father send her here? Gong-ju says that she transferred here, and is staying at her former teacher’s house. Oh, this is Gong-ju’s mother. Gong-ju is about to tell her something, when her mother interrupts her to say that she is unable to help her. Things are bad for her too. She tells Gong-ju not to come to her. She does give Gong-ju her new number, but says to call only if urgent. Gong-ju’s mother then goes off to meet with her new husband. When he asks who she was talking with, she says no one.
Gong-ju notices that Eun-hee had been spying on her, and confronts her. Did she record that as well? Eun-hee says that she just wanted to make sure that Gong-ju did not get lost. Gong-ju walks off, making sure to bump into Eun-hee’s shoulder.
Gong-ju is walking down the street alone. Or not alone. Her friend from the previous school is with her, talking about having nightmares of being a vampire. But she is still a vampire when she wakes up. She insists that it is not her fault that she is a vampire. Gong-ju turns around and walks away from her. The girl asks what she did.
Gong-ju returns to her mother’s store after closing and starts knocking things to the floor, completely ignoring her mother’s new husband. She stops only when her mother shows up. She runs up to her mother’s husband and bites his lip. Then she runs off.
Gong-ju is back in the pool. She is doing better than before, but still has problems. Eun-hee is there…still in her regular school uniform. She tells Gong-ju to relax and puts down a little drink for her. And then she runs off. Well, I am not sure if you are supposed to go to the pool in your school uniform, but I am sure that you are not supposed to run. Gong-ju takes the drink and sees a note. Eun-hee had written that she was sorry.
Having showered, dried, and dressed, Gong-ju goes to the locker to get her stuff. The phone rings. The man on the other end asks if this is Gong-ju’s number. She remains silent. He says that he is Dong-yoon’s father, and he wants to talk. Gong-ju doesn’t end the call, but puts the phone into her locker and closes the door.
Gong-ju is at home with Hwa-ok and Dong-yoon. Hwa-ok just closed a cupboard door on Gong-ju’s finger. As Gon-ju gets the First Aid kit, Hwa-ok asks her to put some ointment on Dong-yoon’s face. Gong-ju doesn’t want to, but Hwa-ok’s hands are full of whatever she is cooking. Dong-yoon, who has been holding Gong-ju’s guitar, says that he doesn’t need it, but Hwa-ok insists. So, she does it. Dong-yoon asks if she is good at the guitar. Gong-ju shakes her head. Hwa-ok tells Dong-yoon that Gong-ju works like hell at his father’s store so that she can buy a piano. She also composes songs, but her lyrics sound like prayers. Dong-yoon apologizes for before, and asks her to sing a song for him sometime. Perhaps uncomfortable at what had already been a reluctantly intimate exchange, Gong-ju then walks out of her own apartment before eating dinner.
Gong-ju goes to the music room. No one is in there. She goes in and picks up a guitar. She starts playing and singing. Is a song that she wrote? A cover? Something that she is just making up on the fly? In any case, she is in the moment, in her own world. That is, until she hears a phone ring. Eun-hee and the other girls from the a cappella group had been listening outside. The girl with the phone walks away to talk to her mother, but the four others start clapping. With enthusiasm. They were quite impressed.
This movie is another difficult watch, primarily for its subject matter. While I stopped my synopsis before the movie reveals exactly why Han Gong-ju had to transfer schools, you can sort of guess. I feel like this movie kind of works both if you go into it knowing what happened and if you go into it not knowing. I will say that this movie was very loosely based on something that happened about a decade earlier, something that South Korean audience would probably have known about. That knowledge is probably what got it over 200,000 admissions, a lot for an independent Korean film.
While I am not totally familiar with happened beyond what I read, it seems that the movie takes enough liberties for it to not be based on that true story, but with too many deliberate parallels to ignore. It is not even the first movie to have that incident as a reference point. If one says that the cruddy cops and the cruddier parents were over the top, well, they have real-life counterparts. Apparently, the writer-director-producer Lee Su-jin did not do any specific research into the case, preferring to keep the real-life as a motif. It may be, though, that he had absorbed so much information through sheer cultural osmosis that many true-to-life details slipped into the movie.
I cannot say whether the real-life people involved appreciate these movies existing or whether the movies had any positive effect on their lives. Maybe not. Is it appropriate for this movie to exist in the first place? Cherry-picking a painful reality for a piece of entertainment? Risking re-traumatizing the victims through re-publicization, while ignoring who they are? Again, I cannot say. And I cannot argue against those who say no.
If we separate the movie from its real-life…erm…inspiration, it does stand on its own, at least on its own terms. It is about a teenage girl trying to exist in the aftermath of…something. Something that has driven her out of her community. Something that she is not supposed to talk about. Something that she cannot bare to talk about. Something that has broken her, something that has made her closed off, scared of trusting others who may want to help, scared to open up to others who are curious, scared to reach out to those who may reach back. Because she has been betrayed too many times before. She is not a wilting flower, but she is not a fiery heroine either. She is a girl out on her own, trying to cope with being forced into being invisible by a system that would rather crush her into nothingness than to protect her, let alone let her flourish.
Han Gong-ju (or One Princess) may not be a perfect angel; one of the flashbacks show her being punished for an unspecified transgression, though it is unclear whether she was guilty that time either. But neither is she a problem child deserving of neglect or predation. She is a regular girl in less-than ideal circumstance. And the first thing that we learn is that she loves music. We hear this in the voice-over, which starts in darkness, over twenty seconds before the first shot. This is, the one of the very few voiceovers in the movie, as we don’t really have Gong-ju explaining what happened. It is as if the voiceover tried to be reassuring that things would be okay as the image of all of those adults appear, only to be silenced. And with that, she is closed off to everyone, including the audience.
Of course, being closed off does not mean that Gong-ju is a blank slate. Played excellently by Chun Woo-hee, Gong-ju provides hints to what happened in her behavior, little ticks and reactions that happened too quickly for me to mention, actions that she takes to avoid looking like a burden towards those whose generosity is not guaranteed. The steps that she takes in preparation for the end of that generosity. Her anger that is mostly quiet, but not always quiet. And, since almost the entire movie centers around her, we witness a lot of this. We are also privy to the things that she does when she is alone, and the very few things that she says when talking to herself. There are a few scenes of her (maybe?) imagining her friend Hwa-ok. And then, of course, there are the flashbacks.
The flashbacks come at seemingly odd places and are not quite in chronological order. For first time writer-director-producer Lee Su-jin, this is a bit of a risky decision. Withholding the information and doling it out in an idiosyncratic matter can be frustrating for those who want to find out what happened or are concerned with the momentum of the narrative. It is, however, a deliberate choice. And while there are certain things that the movie focuses on that may not make sense upon first viewing, none of this is meant to be treated as a mystery. I feel like the movie wanted to ease the audience into the backstory while also warning us that it will get heavy. We see what Gong-ju was like before what happened. And as for what happened, we see just enough to see how bad it was, and barely much more than that. We don’t need to see the rest. This is meant to a film depicting the struggle to cope with trauma in a society that doesn’t care, not a lurid polemic about the source of that trauma.
One could argue that Gong-ju has been trying to avoid thinking of what happened for the most part, and so the flashbacks come only when she cannot help but think of those moments. It is not that she does not want to tell others what happened, but she is too scared to let people in. But, as we the audience are already in and almost never not with her, she can tell us, even show us. And only as much as she wants to show, no more. Only when she wants to, not earlier. Then again, perhaps one could argue that the movie following her around, observing her in private moments, and peering into her mind is itself a violation of her personhood. In any case, we have the facts of what happened by the end of the movie. And what about the truth?
The first non-voiceover line is Han Gong-ju reacting to…something, probably someone telling her that she has to leave town. We don’t hear what has been said to her, but quietly insists that she didn’t do anything wrong. No one argues, but Mr. Lee puts a bag next to her, basically ignoring her protestations. Later on, he acknowledges that she is correct; she didn’t do anything wrong. But, so what? She is at the center of a scandal, one made worse by her friend Hwa-ok. She cannot say anything to anyone for legal reasons, and also because it is embarrassing, not just to her but to…the others. Mr. Lee is about as nice as he is obligated to be, but no more. He needs to keep her quiet about what happened, not even informing his mother. And that talk of the board finding Gong-ju a place to live? Someone dropped the ball there…or Mr. Lee was just lying. Ms. Jo automatically suspects that Gong-ju is guilty of something, despite her son’s insistence that she is innocent. After all, why would an innocent girl be dropped on her doorstep like this? Surely a good girl would not get herself into whatever trouble Gong-ju got into.
The truth is that society does not care about Gong-ju beyond her being a problem. Other kids worse than her have their parents looking out for them. Not her. Her father is a neglectful dirtbag and her mother has completely abandoned her. Without their protection and nurturing, she is left vulnerable to other adults who either want her gone or want to take from her. No one thinks about her feelings or her safety beyond their professional obligations or getting what they want from her. Something small like her request for a female doctor gets overruled without explanation. The internet café employees don’t tell those misogynistic boys to shut up. The truth is the facts are subservient to the judge’s decision and the various forms that people want Gong-ju to sign.
So, we learn the facts of what happened, and what has happened since, but what happens next? Those frustrated with the flashbacks interrupting the flow of the narrative may be even more frustrated by the ambiguous ending. It is one that is extremely open ended in terms of various story threads, plunging the movie back into uncertainty. And the final frames call back something said earlier, something automatically considered an obvious fact, and overtly pushing against it. What is the truth of that? Well, I have seen conflicting takes on it, some of them really passionate in their certainty. And Lee Su-jin gave an answer in at least one interview. I, however, would rather wallow in the uncertainty, the muddling of the fact and truth. The real-life story is still incomplete, and one where the facts did not add up to justice. This? This is a fictional movie; a movie without a sequel. The truth is unknowable. The truth is whatever we will it to be.
This movie is not necessarily perfect. The music subplot may be necessary for pushing the story where it goes, but it does threaten to go into YA-wish fulfillment territory. Eun-hee’s chipper attitude may have been meant to contrast with Gong-ju’s wish to be invisible, but it can seem a little overbearing, especially since it is not established why she would want to befriend Gong-ju aside from her singing talent which goes back to the music subplot. Is there something more? Perhaps something romantic? It is unclear. The stuff with the forms is not really properly explained, so it is hard to understand what is going on with that, though it could be because Gong-ju is not told and we are not really meant to know more than what she knows. There is, perhaps, an attempt to compare or contrast Gong-ju’s backstory with Ms. Jo’s affair with a married cop, and I am not exactly sure where the movie comes down on it. These are, to me, small issues, and maybe not even faults. Just more things deliberately made ambiguous.
While I know that other writer-directors would have put the character and the audience through the wringer, this movie tries to be as gentle and as sympathetic as it can regarding very difficult subject matter. That said, it is still a highly disturbing film to watch, not just about what happened, but what happened after. But this is not simply showing what happens to a girl, but how she tries to live in the aftermath, and continue exist in a world that would rather she not have. It tries to be in her corner, to have her back, to be there for her, since no one else seems to be. One may argue that this movie should not exist in the first place, and maybe one is right. But it does exist, and it is really good. Do I recommend it? If you take issue with the movie’s subject matter or its approach to the subject matter, then maybe not. If you think that you can take it, then I definitely do.
WTF ASIA 232: Ishqiya (India: 2010, approx. 115 minutes)
WTF ASIA 233: Hello, Love, Goodbye (The Philippines: 2019, approx. 117 minutes)