South Korean cinema’s fortune seems to fluctuate like the wind. Around the middle of the last decade it was the Asian powerhouse with international hits such as The Host, A Tale of Two Sisters, Oldboy and Memories of Murder. However, independent films have historically fared much worse, with the films of Kim Ki-duk and Lee Chang-dong being the notable exceptions. Things seem to be improving of late, with the Breathless, Bedevilled and Jiseul making strong impressions at the box office. Lee Su-jin’s Han Gong-ju became one of the most successful independent films of all time, taking an impressive amount in a market dominated by commercial local and international releases.

A high school student, Han Gong-ju (Chun Woo-hee), who lost her friend following a horrific gang rape, has to move to a new neighbourhood to avoid scandal. She moves in with Ms. Lee (Lee Young-ran), the mother of a former teacher. After joining a new school, she struggles to make friends, eschewing any overtures of friendship. Eun-hee (Jung In-sun) is not easily deterred though, and her persistence pays off as Han Gong-ju begins to open up and enjoy life. However, she her past is never far behind her.

Han Gong-ju is a beautiful film, which is powerful and emotionally engaging. There’s a brilliant central performance from Chun Woo-hee who plays the role with great maturity and empathy. Korea has a reputation for melodrama, but there’s a new generation of talented directors who avoid such pitfalls. In her directorial debut, Lee Su-jin handles the subject matter carefully. Based loosely on the infamous Miryang gang rape case, she avoids sensationalism and emotional exploitation. At the same time, she allows the characters themselves to point fingers and contemplate responsibility. Han Gong-ju is a great film and one which deserves to be seen by many.

Han Gong-ju is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Third Window Films on April 13.