Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
“I didn’t do anything wrong.”
She is the one who should have been helped and protected from the very beginning, but she has been left in pain and confusion instead while being treated like a fugitive or pariah. Through its close, intimate observation of its damaged adolescent heroine, the South Korean film “Han Gong-ju” slowly reveals what is behind her quiet face, and it is utterly devastating to watch as we see more of the silent but harrowing pain that she cannot confide even to others who want to help her.
For a reason to be revealed gradually, Han Gong-ju (Cheon Woo-hee) is transferred to a school far from her former one. In the absence of her parents, she leaves her home and then comes to stay at a house belonging to her teacher’s mother. Ms. Lee (Lee Yeong-lan) is not very pleased about that, but she lets Gong-ju into her house anyway while not asking much about why Gong-ju happens to move to her house.
At her new school, Gong-ju does not seem interested in socializing with other students her age. Eun-hee (Jeong In-seon), one of her new classmates, openly offers her friendship to Gong-ju, but Gong-ju prefers to be left alone despite Eun-hee’s sincere approach. Usually shy and passive, she sometimes becomes hostile and defensive whenever her new friend and others attempt to come close to her, and we notice that she is often disturbed by several mundane things such as the clinking sound of a stapler or a questionnaire given to her at a woman’s clinic.
Why is she so withdrawn from others? Through the series of the flashback scenes are unfolded one by one, we gradually come to learn what happened to her—and how her life is irrevocably shattered as a consequence. The movie was partially inspired by a shocking real-life incident in South Korea which also indirectly inspired the plot of Lee Chang-dong’s “Poetry” (2010), and the incident and its unjust aftermath drew attention again when the movie was released in South Korean theaters in last year. As depicted in the film, the victim in real-life did not get much help or protection, and I heard that she is still suffering from the consequence while the people responsible for her continuing ordeal are still roaming around outside without any punishment for that.
“Han Gong-ju” could have been sensational or exploitative in the wrong hands, but it presents its heroine not as a mere object to be pitied but as a complex human character we come to understand and then deeply care about. As shown through flashbacks, Gong-ju was a lively teenage girl with her own hopes and dream, but her bright spirit was cruelly trampled by an unspeakable act of violence during a fateful night. Feeling hurt, confused, and embarrassed as before, she does not want to even think about it, and there are a number of scenes which may be emotionally grueling to watch, although they are handled effectively with restraint and tactfulness.
Getting more accustomed to her new environment day by day, Gong-ju tries to reach for a new start. She begins to learn how to swim. She becomes a little more open to Eun-hee, although there is still a gap between her and her new friends. She shows her considerable talent in music to Eun-hee and others, and Eun-hee is willing to promote Gong-ju, although that is the last thing Gong-ju wants. While initially looking like an unkind middle-age lady, Ms. Lee turns out to have a good heart inside her jaded appearance, and there is a brief but intimate moment which reveals how much she and Gong-ju have gotten close to each other.
However, the plot takes an eventual narrative turn later as it reveals more of how much Gong-ju has been mistreated by many uncaring people since that horrible incident. The cops handling the case were incompetent and inconsiderate while ignoring her devastated condition at the time. Both her father and mother are no help to her either when she is desperately in the need of support, and they break her heart even more while disregarding their daughter just because she has been an inconvenient truth in their life. Her mother does not want to get involved with Gong-ju anymore, and then her drunk father does a very unforgivable thing to his daughter, who does not have any idea on the implications for what her father asks her to do during their small private meeting.
First-time director Lee Su-jin, who also wrote the screenplay for his film, handles his story with care and confidence while steadily maintaining a calm but sensitive approach to story and characters. Although it is a bit confusing to us at first as we try to gather the details of Gong-ju’s circumstance, we never get lost in its emotional narrative, and Gong-ju comes to us as a fully-developed character with flesh and blood thanks to the subtle touches in Lee’s skillful storytelling.
Cheon Woo-hee, a young South Korean actress who gained notices through her good supporting turns in a number of South Korean films such as “Sunny” (2011) and “Elegant Lies” (2013), deserves all the praises for her excellent performance. Convincingly looking younger as an adolescent heroine, Cheon effortlessly conveys us the inner turmoil and confusion inside her damaged character, and she fully embodies her character’s sad, tragic aspects while never asking for pity or tear from us. Gong-ju is a victim indeed, but she is far more than that as a real character with heart and soul who deserves care and respect.
When I watched “Han Gong-ju” for the first time in last year, I felt lots of sympathy and concern toward Gong-ju while watching her plight. I also remember that a woman sitting next to me was crying as the movie was approaching its heart-wrenching finale in sad silence. What happens during its inevitable ending is unavoidable, but you may find yourself hanging on a very tiny possibility of miracle, even though that is simply impossible in its realistic background.
I am now reminded again that the late Roger Ebert once said a movie is a machine that generates empathy. “Han Gong-ju” does not merely look at its young ill-fated heroine, but it draws us into her broken psyche, crying for help while still wriggling in nearly unbearable guilt and pain. Letting us have some understanding of her difficult position through its intimate and thoughtful portrayal, the movie induces us to have immense empathy toward her, and that is why her confused reply to a minor supporting character during one scene will linger in your mind when the movie is over. "I didn't do anything wrong."
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.