A young girl, So-won (Lee Re) is walking to school one day, but instead of being accompanied by her friend as usual, she is on her own. Even though the school is a short distance from her home, she is abducted by a remorseless paedophile and rapist Choi Jong sool (Gang Seong-hae) who brutally assaults her and leaves her for dead. Found, So-won is taken to hospital where she undergoes emergency surgery to try and repair the damage done to her during the merciless attack. As a result So-won is left with major physical and psychological scars and the film charts the slow and painful process of healing of not only So-won but her parents and the wider community. Can Hope/hope persist despite trauma?
Hope is Director LEE’s 9th feature, and a welcome return to cinema for a director who not long ago was contemplating leaving the industry partly as a result of the failure of his engaging 2011 film, Battlefield Heroes, which I personally enjoyed. Hope is Director LEE at his best, dealing deftly with difficult issues in a quiet but heart rendering manner. I met Director LEE in 2012, and he was one of the nicest people, and funniest, that I have ever met. Yet, watching Hope is a devastating experience, seemingly at odds with the Director’s sunny personality. However, the social critique in Hope is a common theme in his films, as is the finely tuned understanding of relationships, particularly here in relation to the family.
While typically such a film would deal with the search and capture and then suitable punishment by the law or outside the law by family members, Hope is more concerned with So-won’s battle back to health, overcoming both her physical and psychological traumas. Signs of the attack are etched through the scars on her face and the ileostomy that she has to wear as in order to live, the surgeons are forced to remove her colon and divert waste into a bag that is attached to a stoma (the small bowel brought out through the stomach). So-won’s devastated parents, Dong-hoon (Sol Kyung-gu) and Mi-hee (Uhm Ji-won), grapple to come to terms with their daughter’s injury and their guilt over her attack. Her father, Dong-hoon struggles to eke out a meagre living at the metalworking factory where he works, while her mother Mi-hee who runs their small grocery store, aptly enough named after their daughter, ‘Wish’s Variety’, is coming to terms with being pregnant with their second child. As working parents, Mi-hee and Dong-hoon are constantly struggling to have enough time together as a family with Dong-hoon so tired at the end of his working day that he leaves the parenting to the equally tired Mi-hee. On the day of the attack, Dong-hoon is called into work early while Mi-hee is opening up the shop, meaning that So-won ends up walking to school on her own. The attack itself is left to the viewer’s imagination; instead shots of the broken and bloody body of So-won in the aftermath of the attack communicate the horrific nature of the assault just as the shots of a broken kite and a rolling bottle of alcohol before the attack signal the horrific nature of what is to come.
Based upon a shocking true event in which a young girl was brutally assaulted and her attacker sentenced to a derisory 12 years by the Court, Director LEE’s film was criticised by some in South Korea for shining a spotlight on the unpalatable existence of child assault and stranger abuse, and in addition for subjecting the family of the original attack to increased media attention. Statistics reported by Bae Hyung-jung in an article originally published in The Korean Herald (03/03/2010), are stark: of ‘5,948 suspects who were investigated on charges of sexual abuse from January 2007 to July of this year, 2501 … were not prosecuted, according to Justice Ministry data. Even among those who were prosecuted, only 0.4 percent were handed down a life sentence and more than 42 percent were fined and 30.5 percent received a suspended term, according to the Health Ministry data.’ It needs to be noted that in the UK, while those who do get convicted get substantially longer sentences there is a history of the non-prosecution and high level cover up of sexual abusers, as highlighted by the Jimmy Saville case. And then there is the all too frequent rape of young girls in India about which little is done. These two current examples (and there are many more sadly)demonstrate that Hope’s message has a much wider application than just related to incidents in South Korea and the particular horrific assault on which the film is loosely based. And in addition to contemporary human rights issues, Hope is one of the few films to represent disability in a direct manner, without being melodramatic in the process. Although in the US alone over 100,000 people a year have surgery for a permanent or temporary ostomy, it remains a taboo topic and relegated to representation in film as the object of revulsion or ridicule. It is refreshing therefore to see how So-won and her parents learn to deal with So-won’s ‘new normal’ (a term widely used in the ostomy community): the embarrassment of the bag leaking while she is in hospital, the rustling of the bag against the skin (and Dong-joon’s ingenious solution to it), her desire to be treated normally and her gradual coming to terms with such a radical change in her bodily integrity.
Together with this refreshing approach to disability and highlighting human rights abuses (and it needs to be noted that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by those known to the child: either other family members or people in authority that they have contact with), Director LEE displays his usual sensitivity and understanding of relationships and how relationships can be broken and then reformed, perhaps encapsulated most fully by the relationship between So-won and Dong-hoon which is pivotal to the emotional resonance of the film. Terrified by men after her attack, So-won retreats into herself and refuses to allow her father to help her. In order to bridge this gap, Dong-hoon dresses up as one of her favourite TV characters, Kokomong, visiting her in hospital and then accompanying her to and from school. While this allows for much needed moments of light relief, I found the relationship between the two to be authentic touching a reality that many directors never get close to. Indeed, it is the subtle and moving performances by Lee Re, Sol Kyung-gu and Uhm Ji-won that together with Director LEE’s subtle and nuanced filmmaking make Hope such an extraordinary cinematic tour-de-force. It is no surprise that the film won the award for the best film at Dragon Film Awards, or that all three of the main actors were recognised for their performances in 2013.
In conclusion, if you are looking for a film about retribution and punishment, then this isn’t the right film, however if you are looking for a film about recovery, redemption and hope, then here it is. Tackling a difficult subject with a great deal of sensitively, this is one of Director LEE’s finest films to date.
- The only other film that I remember dealing with an ostomy is the French Canadian revenge thriller, 7 Days (Daniel Grou, Canada: 2010) and here it is meted out as punishment to the rapist and murderer of a couple’s young daughter. [I do really recommend 7 Days; I found it an extremely powerful piece of cinema, but it is very much the opposite approach to that taken by Director LEE in Hope].
- I had a temporary ileostomy when I was much younger and think this is why Hope particularly resonated with me.
- The Korean title, So-won, I have been told translates as ‘Wish’ but was changed into Hope for UK and US release as Hope is a girl’s name in English. I have used ‘Hope’ here for the title of the film, but need to put a caveat that actually ‘Wish’ has a much more subtle meeting in Korean ‘To a non-native speaker, maybe less so. Nuance. Wish feels more unattainable? phonetics? wish is softer on the lips and to the ear…wistful, fleeting, sad.’ (thanks to Jin Hee Cho for these words of wisdom).