Writer and director: Lee Ji-eun
The Hill of Secrets, screened at this year’s Korean Film Festival in London, marks Lee Ji-eun’s directorial debut. It’s an exceptional film with a charmless screenplay by Lee Ji-eun herself and an outstanding central performance by Moon Seung-a as 12-year-old Myung-eun.
Myung-eun is understandably eager to please, but she is crushed by her troubled family who are still violent and angry. We hear every crack and slurp as they wordlessly attack their shared meals. It’s the kind of attention to sound that brings to mind Jane Campion films. Myung-eun’s mother doesn’t like being the breadwinner, working her fingers to the bone in their family’s dried fish stall at the market, while her inept husband just naps. His attitude towards life hardened. 2Don’t give anything to anyone,” she says to Myung-eun when the child tries to give something to a beggar. There’s also a rift between the mother and her side of the family – an older, kind father and her rather desperate son, Uncle Jin-woo.
As the new school year begins, Myung-eun desperately seeks approval from her new young teacher. But there is a form to be completed by the teacher in consultation with each student. In front of her class, Myung-eun is asked where her parents work. Too ashamed to tell the truth, Myung-eun imagines that her father works for a luxury stationery store. There is a very funny sequence later when Myung-eun, to provide photographic evidence of this successful father, manages to persuade a handsome young office worker to a supposed interview. Myung-eun shows equal initiative by introducing herself as class president with her imaginative idea of having a secret mailbox, where students can post suggestions. At first it was a great success. Myung launches a classroom library and invents a new party ritual for each student’s birthday. She herself begins to show real talent as a writer, winning a silver medal in a competition (“Why not gold?” asks her petulant father). Her stories allow her to develop her fiction of being part of a happy family.
But there is suffering ahead of us. The students grow tired of Myung-eun’s initiatives. Boxes of snacks, sent by wealthy parents, are obviously an important bargaining chip. When Myung-eun manages to persuade her parents to contribute, the students haughtily reject the offered bananas. Then a more obviously charming student who makes himself the teacher’s pet: Myung-eun’s face is graven with pain and weariness. What else must she do to gain approval?
Then there’s another assault on his position: two mysteriously defiant sisters join the age group and to Myung-eun’s distress, quickly challenge his position as top writer. There is a very funny scene in the library when Myung-eun cocks the electric pencil sharpener to indicate the battle lines being drawn. But she has an important lesson to learn from them. Their writing wins awards because they dare to speak the truth. Their situation is much worse than his – they’re not really twins, to begin with, and the mother of one of them runs a brothel. Myung-eun’s private release as she begins to write the reality of her situation is evident. But a complex ethical question awaits us.
Relatively little is said throughout the film, but Myung-eun’s expressive face, usually shown in close-up, is powerfully eloquent and tells a captivating story.
The 17th London Korean Film Festival 2022 runs from November 3-17 in cinemas across London. For more information: https://www.koreanfilm.