AN OLD LADY (2019)
Director: Lim Sun-ae
Run time: 1h 40m
Cannes Marché du Film, 25 June 2020
Tackling the often-ignored topic of the sexual abuse of the elderly, this is a subtle yet powerful treatment of a harrowing event
An Old Lady is an expansive piece of work. It is about rape, but not exploitative. It is about memory, but is not condescending. And it is about our treatment of the elderly, without being preachy.
While the topic of the rape of an elderly person may seem too heavy to be lifted out of the bleakness of its subject matter, Lim Sun-ae's film has a tenderness that floods you with empathy.
The opening scene of the film is a powerful demonstration of how minimalist filmmaking can still make you hold your breath. The screen is entirely blank and we bear audio witness to an awkward and inappropriate medical practitioner-patient conversation.
We are spared any further details of the event, but when Hyo-jeong (Ye Su-jeong) claims young male therapist Lee Joong-ho (Kim Jung-yeong) has raped her, we join her on the battle to be believed.
While younger rape victims might be questioned and doubted over their choice of clothing or the extent they “led” the attacker on, here there is a new remit of doubts thrust upon sexual abuse victims. Would a good-looking guy in his 20s really rape a 69-year old? Does she suffer from dementia, is the problem here her memory?
When Hyo-jeong decides to report the crime to police, she is accompanied by her friend and flatmate Nam Dong-in (Ki Joo-bong), who becomes a passionate defender of her claims and driving force behind the hunt for justice.
While the police pursue the case, they do so with a surprise which belittles Hyo-jeong's pain. Challenged on the claims, Lee Joong-ho argues that the encounter was consensual.
When Hyo-jeong's memory is questioned, the case seems to be falling apart despite the physical evidence of the event and her successful polygraph exam. She is then left with the choice between returning to living out her final days or seeking the justice she really deserves.
For younger viewers, the film is likely to trigger some considerations about how society treats its elderly. It is likely to create some genuine panic that this is not a fate they want in their twilight years. For older viewers, it is likely to strike a chord at any marginalisation they suffer.
Ye Su-jeong was a late arrival to acting but has credits in supporting roles in the likes of Save the Green Planet! (2003) and Train to Busan (2016). However, she excelled as the lead here, providing a considered performance of a woman who seems to be invisible in a society which has just stopped looking.
The film is infuriating in all the right ways, as the slow and uneven path to justice seems too difficult a path to walk upon at times.
It was a tall task to make a film of this emotional depth and sensitivity in the context of the harrowing topic of the sexual abuse of the elderly. To have achieved this and much more makes it a very important piece of work.