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Monday, September 1, 2014

KOFFIA 2014 Review: HOPE Is An Obvious Yet Successful Tearjerker

By Hieu Chau

It wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say that Korean film has some affinity for children. Whether it’s a crowd-pleasing comedy like Miracle in Cell No. 7 or something a bit darker like Silenced, there really isn’t much of a shortage when it comes to stories about children in Korean cinema. Hope, last year’s recipient for Best Film at the Blue Dragon Awards (beating out films including Snowpiercer, New World, The Berlin File and The Face Reader), is one other such film with a story that’s motivated by children.

Echoing recent titles including Han Gong-ju and A Girl At My Door, Hope’s story of abuse isn’t quite as intense (though its subject matter is certainly no laughing matter) and given the convenient name of its titular character, the film does show a lot more optimism for its characters. Even if the film isn’t exactly subtle in its optimism, it’s still nice for a change to see a film that both acknowledges the weight of its very serious content while also giving a positive outlook to those effected by Hope’s circumstances – especially to the most vulnerable of them all; the children.

After being told by her mother to take an alternative route to school on a rainy day, young Hope encounters a man who takes her aside, sexually assaults her and leaves her for dead. The traumatic encounter scars Hope for life both physically and emotionally: trust issues begin to arise, the young girl stops talking altogether and is also left with an internal disfigurement.

Where other films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) or Secret Sunshine (2007) use its child kidnappings or child abuse as a plot device to motivate their adult characters into action, Hope shines the light on its victim and, for all intents and purposes, is the sole focus of the film. Though the film’s adult actors including Sol Kyung-gu and Uhm Ji-won, who play Hope’s parents, get top billing in the film, the adults take a back seat to child acting prodigy, Lee Re.

Certainly not an easy performance to pull off, the child actress’ ability to evoke a heartfelt and endearing presence to an audience is a very solid effort that will no doubt move an audience to tears (it certainly worked on me!). The enthusiasm which she brings to the role is part of what makes Hope work as an optimistic piece about a child surviving sexual assault.

Having said this, there’s no denying that the film is made with the intention of wanting people to feel emotionally invested in Hope’s story of survival. Filmmaker Lee Joon-ik does little to try and surprise his audience and, when compared to the haunting and far more nuanced Han Gong-ju, is extremely obvious in his attempts to manipulate them into welling up those emotions. Because of this, at times Hope can feel more like your average Korean television drama – its editing early on and predominately piano-driven score (itself crammed into it as many tearjerking scenes as possible) suggests as much.

An example of this can be seen in the final courtroom sequence which sees Hope’s attacker brought in for trial. Not only is this whole scene unnaturally inserted into the film, breaking up the film’s momentum a fair bit at that point, it also breaks down in the usual courtroom hysterics one comes to expect with a film like this. Despite this, the film still means well and at the end of it all is something that’s a little easier to digest than the myriad of harrowing yet worthwhile affairs that are out there.

Hope might not be a challenging film but what it lacks in subtlety and nuance it more than makes up for in its performances and overall message. Perhaps the most shocking part of Hope’s story is that it is unfortunately based on a true story which makes the film’s message a bit more important. Despite all the awfulness in the world, there are good people who do extraordinary things to look after the well being of children and that’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Korean Reviews, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (Korean Standard Time).

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