At the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Tiger Award is awarded to the 3 best debut films. There are 15 nominees, from which 3 are Asian films. In this year’s competition, director Lee Seo-Jin’s debut film, Han Gong-Ju was among the 3 winners; and what a debute film it is. Powerful, moving and disturbing at points, Lee introduces the audience to Gong-Ju, a high school student who gets transfered to a new school and starts living in the house of her teacher’s mother. We follow her trying to get used to her new life, but her past is not easy to escape from.
Atmospherically filmed, the film has beautiful camerawork and follows its characters at close range, pulling the audience deeper in the world surrounding Gong-Ju. While the plot is told with some time leaps here and there, the story unfolds slowly and intensely, getting to know, and understand, the young girl’s feelings better and better. Chun Woo-Hee portrays the main character perfectly and leaves a gripping impression. She is the beating heart of the film in the midst of supporting actors that also bring forth well-done performances.
In a film that deals with a dark or heavy topic, the audience, just like the main character herself, sometimes needs time to catch its breath. Here, music plays a key role in the film as it is something that Gong-ju uses to calm herself. A female A cappella choir is featured in the film, and the songs they sing are light and cheerful, which works surprisingly well with the heavy story the film brings. It allows for a well needed breath of fresh air every now and then.
I heard some people mention that the plot isn’t that original and that it has been done before. This might be so in some ways, but I always think it is more important to look at how it is done because originality is getting harder to find these days. Lee brings this story in such a fashion that it leaves an impression and the powerful performances, atmosphere and music successfully deliver it to the viewer. It is a very strong debut film for a director, and I’m certainly looking forward to Lee’s future projects.