One of the recurring themes in 21st century South Korean movies is bureaucratic negligence and the corruption in legal or justice system. A good deal of movies have come out in the past five years from Korean peninsula that depicts how the ‘system’ itself is an oppressor or abuser, just like a vicious perpetrator. “The Attorney”, “Way Back Home” and the gleefully gooey “Miracle in Cell no.7” are some of the few flicks with a lacerating view point on Korean bureaucratic and justice system. The most disturbing kind of negligence or ignorance is the ones witnessed in child or teen abuse cases. “Silenced” and “Han Gong-ju” were based on the real life sexual abuse incidents of minor girls. Both the movies depicted how the community’s politicians & prosecutors join hands to cover up the truth rather than punish the perpetrators. The chief problem in such movies has been the overtones of melodrama and caricatured characters. They all are shocking or disturbing in its portrayal, but subtlety is one vital thing that most of these Korean films are devoid of.
July Jung’s “A Girl at My Door” (aka “Dohee-ya”, 2014), on the outset, looks like another overly sentimental film on the theme of child abuse. The movie’s posters have the two of the most melancholic faces of Korean cinema -- Doona Bae & Sae-ron Kim – looking at viewers with a forlorn expression. The story line nudges you to think that it’s going to be another ‘fighting against the system’ movie, but “A Girl at My Door” surprises us at every turn. July Jung takes up the most tried and tested theme, in not only Korean cinema, but world cinema, and still breathes in an understated intrigue and beauty. There are few melodramatic touches, unnerving sexual overtones and tonal glitches, but the nuanced performances alongside the psychological examination of characters turns it into one of the vital works of modern Korean cinema.
The movie opens with a woman driving to a seaside village that buzzes with a sound of cicadas and where sun hardly shines on the lush green fields. The woman is the newly assigned police chief, Young-nam (Doona Bae). On the side of the road, a young girl Do-Hee (Kim Sae-ron) plays with a frog and as Young-nam drives past a puddle, the girl is doused in rainwater. Young-nam gets out and they both stare at each other before Do-Hee dashes off into the field. The title then appears on the sun-drenched field (which reminds us of the opening symmetric shot of the field in “Memories of Murder”). A fellow police officer takes Young-nam through the coastal village, which seems to be only populated by old people, except for Yong-Ha (Sae-byeok Song) and his gang of foreign workers.
Yong-Ha is a hotheaded guy, who makes some passes on the young station chief, who subverts it with her melancholic face. A couple of villagers seem to be annoyed by Young-nam, bringing bottled water to the village, as if there is no clean water there. But, we later learn that the ‘water is actually an alcohol and she is drinking loads of it every night before going to sleep. Young-nam’s alcohol problem seems to have raised from her past humiliation. Her assignment to the village is subtly referenced as a punishment for‘misconduct’. The close-knit townsfolk and the quotidian police work do nothing to change her gloominess. Young-nam, however, is intrigued by the bedraggled 14 year old girl, Do-Hee, who is repeatedly beaten by her drunk step-father Yong-Ha and unruly, motorcycle driving grandmother.
Do-Hee’s is often addressed by words like ‘bitch’, little whore’ and ‘mutt’ (even her classmates use those words). Do-Hee’s mother seems to have abandoned the girl and from then on she is bearing the Yong-Ha’s unrestrained rage. The girl shows up at Young-nam’s door couple of times, seeking respite from her dad’s beating. Young-nam repeatedly warns Yong-ha and gradually becomes a surrogate mother to Do-Hee. She makes Doo-Hee to stay with her during the vacation, cooks meals, takes her shopping and teaches few life lessons. As the young girl gradually blooms into pubescence, Young-nam’s troubled past resurfaces. Her quest to protect the girl is seen with a malicious intent by the townsfolk as well as the law officers.
Although Jung’s story takes place in a Korean coastal village, the patriarchal mindset, bigotry and misogyny are common themes that could be universally experienced – urban or rural. Jung points out at the distressing aspects of traditional Korean culture and confronts it with mature, contemporary viewpoints. A variety of themes are scrutinized in the narrative including alcoholism, psychological impairments, child abuse, the plight of illegal immigrants and homosexuality. Some of the themes aren’t explored in a satisfactory manner, but Jung never offers any easy or sentimental resolutions to the problems presented. One of the strongest aspects of the script is the way it circumvents the expectations of audiences and their perceptions. Based on certain Korean stereotypes, viewers may expect this film to be a condemnation on ‘the system’. Jung, more or less, observes the incidents rather than passing judgements. The idea of exploring ugliness beneath the serene rural setting isn’t something new to Korean cinema, but director Jung uses it in an effective way.
The transgressive relationship between Do-Hee and Young-nam is handled in a sensitive manner. A little mistake would have made the relationship either controversial or cheap. Despite the presence of taboo cinematic subjects like child abuse & homosexuality, the film is mainly about loneliness & banishment of females in a patriarchal society. The tolerance of abuse and other psychological ills from the female perspective is also impeccably addressed. Movies on the taboo subjects often leave out the end result of abuses on the victims. Here, it shows how the young victims themselves become violent and manipulative as their abuser. A highly distressing scene happens latter in the film, where the victim uses the general perception to her advantage. A little earlier, before that scene, an interrogator asks Do-Hee “did she (Young-nam) adore you?” The young girl replies with a wide, elated eyes, although what she says is perceived from the wrong context. From that experience, Do-Hee learns an insidious idea of manipulation (the follow-up sequence in interrogation room is washed with irony).
The movie is also about the double standards we often take for the perceived betterment of society or family. Yong-Ha is often addressed as the man helping for the village’s economy, and so his pernicious exploits are turned a blind eye. Young-nam’s innocuous connection with Do-Hee is closely watched, when secrets about her sexuality are discovered. The interrogators are more interested in sexual abuse of the child, compared with the other forms of abuses she has faced. Although the male characters aren’t as three-dimensional as females, the performances all are uniformly excellent. Kim Sae-ron has previously played couple of neglected child roles – in “A Brand New Life” & “The Man from Nowhere”, but her acting never takes the predictable route. Kim plays a more mature character than in her previous films as she subtly expresses the prolonged abuse of Do-Hee. Her eyes faultlessly convey the compassion and the inner vicious feeling. Doona Bae has the perfect melancholic face to play emotionally bruised characters. She is both convincing as an authoritative law officer and also as a defensive surrogate mother.
“A Girl at My Door” (120 minutes) takes one the bleakest subjects in cinema (child abuse) and refuses to travel in the regular or melodramatic ‘victim’ narrative. The movie’s feminine perspective and subtle revelations raises many thought-provoking questions.