A GIRL AT MY DOOR (2014)
Director: July Jung
Run time: 1h 55m
This low-budget, big issue tackling directorial debut takes on child abuse and homophobia with superb lead performances
While Korean cinema has made international waves with the likes of the searing ultra-violence of Park Chan-wook and the off-beat class struggle dramas of Bong Joon-ho, there is a much more muted output around LGBTQ issues or work by female directors.
LGBTQ issues are rarely addressed in a country with a historically uncomfortable relationship with such discussions, but A Girl At My Door was a showcase for such issues, landing a host of international awards, with director, acting leads and the overall film all being recognised.
For July Jung, this is a directing debut which outstrips the first-outings of many of Korea’s now directorial masters, suggesting this is the first step in an important career for the country’s cinema.
Produced by filmmaking heavyweight Lee Chang-dong, it is possible to see his fingerprints in the poignant and sensitive slow burn the film provides. Made with a measly budget of just US$300,000, with many actors forgoing a payday, it provides a remarkable return on investment in terms of its emotional punch.
Police academy instructor Lee Young-nam (Bae Doona) is shifted from her Seoul-based job to the remote outpost of a seaside police substation in Yeosu after an undefined personal scandal.
Wrangling with drunken locals, she hides her own alcohol abuse at home, decanting soju into water bottles. She meets Sun Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron), a 14-year-old who is bullied by her classmates and abused by her drunken stepfather and grandmother.
Concerned for her safety, Young-nam allows Do-hee to stay with her during the summer vacation, but Young-nam’s past in Seoul creeps back into her life and details of the previous scandal quickly spreads across the small community.
The film hinges on the believability of the relationship between Young-nam and Do-hee. On how well we understand their vulnerability and what they find in each other. That is why the performances from Bae Doona and Kim Sae-ron are so spell-bounding, perfectly creating this tone of pain and redemption.
For many international audiences, this will seem a slightly sophomoric attempt at progressing LGBTQ issues, but it must be watched in the context of a Korean film with an acceptance that the conversation has not always been as open in Korea. However, this film represents an important piece of progress for the country’s individual journey.
If child abuse, sexual abuse and homophobia were not big enough issues, the film also focuses on immigration ethics, with Do-hee’s stepfather, an oyster farmer and the town’s main employer, using undocumented immigrants in his business. Much like his abuse of Do-hee, he dehumanises and abuses these vulnerable employees, a development that Young-nam refuses to accept.
A Girl At My Door is a difficult watch, but that discomfort is what drives the film’s power. We should be made to feel uncomfortable by the poor treatment of minority groups. Bae Doona and Kim Sae-ron produce two superb lead performances in a haunting and affecting tale of discrimination in rural Korea.
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