Junho (South Korea/USA, 2021) [CAAMFest 2021]
After testing the waters with a few shorts, Korean-American director David Boo is coming to the Center for Asian American Media festival (CAAMFest) with his debut feature Junho, a scathing take on the South Korean Me Too movement. Most films of this kind tend to focus on either the victim or the perpetrators, but Boo decides to focus on the bystanders instead. The result is a fresh, albeit somewhat unpolished, take on one of the most pertinent issues of our time.
While Me Too is a movement that originated in the US, much of the South Korean entertainment industry has adopted the term as part of a concerted effort to expose sexual abusers within the industry and more. Numerous incidents in the worlds of film, politics, theater, and journalism, to name a few, have been reported in the last few years, sparking a myriad of judicial investigations. The plot of Junho is directly inspired by the reported sexual assault incidents in the theatrical world which caught the country by storm. The protagonist of the film, the titular Junho (Wonju Jo), emigrates to America after a Me Too scandal destroys the reputation of his acting troupe and all of its members. He has left his country to escape the guilt of being a bystander, as his best friend in the troupe, Jin (Hanna Jun), was assaulted by the troupe’s theater director. However, despite his best efforts to start a new life, he seems forever trapped in his past inaction and the bitterness of being caught in the crossfires of someone else’s sins.
Junho – the character and the film – is split between the past and the present, trying to make sense of the events that brought things to their current predicament. We are almost always in Junho’s head, and from very early in the film it becomes evident that his attempts at inner peace are futile, even though the cause of his struggles are never explicitly shown. What exactly did he do? What exactly happened to Jin? The audience is only given hints to piece together the past as well as Junho’s precise emotional state in the present. At one point he asks Chang, his only friend (or rather acquaintance) in San Francisco who used to be a senior member of the troupe, “How could you not know?” This raises the question, did Junho himself know? The film relishes in vagueness, much like the events it is trying to describe. It makes the case that whether we like it or not, complicity involves everyone, or at least it has the potential to involve everyone.
Jo gives a terrific performance as Junho, expertly capturing the array of emotions that Junho experiences and the eventual breakdown that he is led to. He is a man out of place and out of time, walking the line between utter defeat and a sliver a hope that he might be able to return to his dream of becoming an actor. Jin’s phone call at the end of the film suggest that the hope is there, though it remains unclear whether Junho can overcome his guilt. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is not quite up to par with Jo’s performance, ranging from the awkward or over-the-top, like Junho’s landlord, to the rather unremarkable as in Junho’s friend, Chang, or the rest of his troupe in the flashback scenes. In a similar vein, the cinematography and production design are effective yet unremarkable most of the time, managing to stay out of the way of the performances which deservedly take center stage.
These few shortcomings aside, the film is all about the main character, Junho, and on that end it unquestionably delivers. With Junho, first time director David Boo has created a timely and thought-provoking drama that offers a genuinely new perspective on the Me Too movement, as far as cinema is concerned. It’s an important film which will hopefully gain traction beyond the festival circuit.
Junho is available on demand as part of CAAMFest 2021 from May 13-23.