Having had a massive critical and commercial success early in his career with “The King and the Clown” back in 2005 (which still ranks as one of the highest grossing Korean films of all time), Lee Joon Ik has always been regarded as a director of talent and quality, and so it came as both a surprise and a real shame when he apparently decided to retire from the industry after the relative under-performance of his 2011 outing “Battlefield Heroes”. Thankfully, he soon changed his mind and returns with “Hope” (also known as “Wish”), a painful drama following a couple whose lives are torn apart after their young daughter is sexually assaulted. The film marked a highly successful comeback for Lee, garnering a slew of wins and nominations at all the major Korean award ceremonies, including Best Film and Best Screenplay at the 34th Blue Dragon Film Awards.
Based on a real life case from 2008, the film stars Sol Kyung Gu (“Cold Eyes”) and Uhm Ji Won (“Foxy Festival”) as parents Dong Hoon and Mi Hee, who live a quiet and happy life in a small rural town. One day, their eight year old daughter So Won (Lee Re) is snatched by a drunken stranger on her way to school, who kidnaps, rapes and nearly kills her, leaving her for dead with horrific injuries. Her psychological scars are equally severe, and Dong Hoon and Mi Hee struggle to help her recover while pursuing justice, trying to make sense of their own anger and grief.
Surprisingly, “Hope” isn’t the film that might have been expected. Whereas there has of late been an increasingly number of Korean films dealing with child kidnapping and abuse, Lee Joon Ik’s approach here is to focus not on the thriller or more shocking exploitation elements of the case, but instead on the characters and the human cost of its devastating tragedy. Here too the film takes a different route, and though it covers some extremely tough and sensitive material, it deals mainly with healing and the long and arduous road back to happiness. Though the criminal case and the parents’ rage and desire for revenge does take up part of the narrative, Lee primarily follows the ways in which Dong Hoon in particular tries to bring the withdrawn So Won back to the world, and in which the community rallies round to help the parents. Even though the criminal is a monster, he never becomes a distasteful pantomime villain, and the film is all the more affecting and engaging for being grounded and humanistic, with an intelligent script that for the most part avoids emotional cheap shots or manipulation.
The film is also anchored by some superb lead performances, Sol Kyung Gu and Uhm Ji Won putting in great work and adding real depth to their roles as the tortured parents. Lee has proved many times that he’s a real craftsman when it comes to his characters, and both Dong Hoon and Mi Hee are well-written and substantial figures, neither of whom are typical tear-magnets, making a number of mistakes and unfortunate decisions as they try to cope with the unimaginable. This all makes the film very tough viewing at times, far more so than other recent dramas with similar themes, though it’s involving and challenging rather than simply bleak.
Despite the depressing source material, “Hope” really is quite an uplifting film, and Lee Joon Ik has done a great job of depicting the ways in which people can find the means to keep living and to find happiness in even the most dreadful of circumstances. A strong character rather than issue or crime based drama, though challenging and frequently grim, it’s a moving testament to the human spirit that shows Lee returning to top form.
Lee Joon-ik (director) / Jo Joong-hoon, Kim Ji-hye (screenplay)
CAST: Hae-suk Kim … Jeong-sook
Sang-ho Kim … Gwang-sik
Mi-ran Ra … Yeong Seok’s mother
Kyung-gu Sol … Dong-hoon
Ji-won Uhm … Mi-hee
Jin-Sung Yang … Do-kyung