The Cost of Justice in the Aftermath of Tragedy

Jayil Pak’s Korean-language short film “Georgia” opens on a scene that appears unremarkable in the extreme: a middle-aged couple are struggling with technology, and losing. They are trying to use Photoshop. The husband pecks the words “love” and “daughter” out with his index fingers. They bicker, grapple for control of the mouse, and the husband peers farsightedly at an instruction manual. They want to use the font Georgia, but can’t make it work; the Korean characters turn into blank squares. An expert is needed. The husband warns his wife that this will triple the costs for their project. She insists and he acquiesces, arrested by the sight of a piggy bank with the words “American dream” written across its plastic belly.

It soon becomes apparent that this is no ordinary family. The loved daughter, Jina Lee, killed herself after a group of her high-school classmates gang-raped her. A member of the school design club, she had been working on a Korean version of the font Georgia, and dreamed of going to design school in the United States. After Jina’s suicide, her mother suffered a stroke and now struggles to speak. She depends on her husband, who bathes her and takes her along to his factory job, in an improvised cart hitched to his bicycle. The couple are three months behind on rent and under enormous pressure to take a cash settlement from the rapists’ families. But they are unable to move on, and they funnel their meagre resources into making protest banners that they believe will force the police to reinvestigate Jina’s case.

Pak drew inspiration for “Georgia” from a notorious 2004 gang-rape case in Miryang, South Korea, in which at least forty-one male high-school students were accused of raping several middle-and-high-school-age girls in the course of almost a year. The rapes provoked widespread outrage, as did the police’s handling of the subsequent investigation: officers reportedly harangued the victims, telling them they’d ruined the city’s reputation, and leaked identifying information about them to the media. Pak, who observed the scandal from the U.S., where he was living at the time, said that when he was writing his script he found himself struggling to make the story believable. “If you made a film exactly about it, it’s almost like one-dimensional storytelling,” he said, referring to the case. “I felt I had to tone it down. I didn’t think anyone would believe it.”

Pak’s version of the story picks up after the official investigation has closed, and grapples with the isolation and arrested emotions that the victim’s parents feel in the aftermath. The perpetrators in the film, as in the real-life case, face only minor punishments for their crimes. Only one of the rapists is sent to juvenile detention, and two have faced suspensions from school. When Jina’s mother goes to clean out her daughter’s school locker, she finds, to her rage, one of the boys laughing with his friends and eating tonkatsu, a dish her daughter also loved.

During the film’s thirty-minute runtime, the phrase “we still have a life to live” is repeated—by the mother of one of the alleged rapists, and even Jina’s father. The perpetrators and their families, the other students at school, the police, and the community at large are ready to move on. But, in their fight to hold their daughter’s abusers to account, Jina’s parents must consider the difficult questions of what the living owe the dead, and the possibility and costs of justice.

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