STOP10 Jul 2017: 'Han' by Jonathan Choo

The concept of ‘Han’ referenced in the film’s title is a uniquely South Korean notion. It is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese word , which means hate; To the Koreans, it refers to a lingering sense of un-avenged wrongdoing or unresolved trauma that may psychosomatically trigger physical sensations of nausea or discomfort. Its origins are possibly historical, theorized by some scholars to have emerged as a hangover from South Korea’s experience under Japanese occupation.

This film from writer-director Jonathan Choo grapples exactly with the weighty theme of justice and penance. It sees veteran TV actor Zhu Houren playing father to a damned son, whom in a fit of panic, flees the crime scene after a hit-and-run. Zhu’s character embarks on a pilgrimage to Korea to seek out the deceased girl’s Father, seeking forgiveness, parent to parent. The film poses pertinent questions on atonement and absolution; when is an apology enough to explain away a life and does it matter if it’s the sinner’s messenger that comes knocking?

Bathed primarily in warm auburn tones and set in autumn, the film is awash with the sense of renewal and possibility that accompanies fall season. The two fathers share a drink and together occupy a space of collective grief; guilt and loss sharing libations and communion. An air of tragic acceptance and inevitability permeates their exchange; it is cordial, friendly even, with a sense that the fatal interaction that befell both their children served as a sort of morbid bonding experience.

The warmth of scenes in Korea seem even starker when contrasted with the sterile blue of the prison scenes with the son. Their conversation starts perfunctorily, both men prodding at surfaces, dipping their toes into the water. Their exchange pivots and shifts and its tenor suddenly confessional, revealing the depth of the son’s anguish and remorse. The icy palette is more an expression of his inner penitence than any external bids for vengeance.

Under Choo’s assured direction, the film is wonderfully restrained and understated. It sidesteps melodrama and feels lived in instead. Choo’s camera is still and his takes extended, transporting us into the same room as his grieving characters. Unfancy yet intimate close-ups allow us a glimpse into their bare vulnerabilities. The film shines when the camera sits and observes, allowing Zhu’s performance to breathe. The veteran delivers an embattled performance, biting and gritting; the drop of his eyes conveying an ocean of attrition.

Han by Jonathan Choo is a wonderfully even-handed exploration of sorrow, punishment and absolution. It offers neither outright vindication nor absolute damnation, occupying instead the space between the two, offering in place of those extremes, an ode to empathy.      


The film won the DBS Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Production Design Awards at the National Youth Film Awards 2016. 

It will be screened as part of the screenings of last year’s winners. You can watch it on 1 July 2017 from 7 – 9pm at *SCAPE Gallery Level 5. 

Find out more about the screenings and other talks and workshops which form part of the coming NYFA weekend here.

Written by Koh Zhi Hao

For the full list of July 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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