A market trader becomes the victim of sexual abuse as her family and colleagues struggle to support her in Kim Mi-jo’s confronting debut feature
In quick succession Korea has produced two films on an often overlooked topic. One that may seem too bleak for many, but shows how cinema can be used to highlight societal topics of more quiet suffering.
The concept of sex crimes against elderly people, unpacked in 2019’s excellent An Old Lady, and how these crimes are underplayed and overlooked, is returned to in Kim Mi-jo's brief but challenging drama.
It is not just the lead character’s age which is relevant (this is a larger focus in An Old Lady instead), but how sexual abuse violence is treated in society, with various stages of victim blaming and denial worsening the fragile state of the victim.
What Gull does is highlight the self-interest of those not directly involved in the crime, in this case a failing market in need of government support where a rape accusation is treated as an unwanted distraction.
O-bok (Jeong Ae-hwa) is a feisty fishmonger vexed by the struggling market and her 30 years of hard graft petering out to nothing. While eldest daughter is about to get married to an educated, well-off young man, her other daughter is a young materialism, her husband a drunk and her mother is suffering from dementia.
With family woes and the gentrification of the food market immanent, she is raped by a fellow stallholder, the man organising the traders against their landlords.
When O-bok reveals what has happened, the police demand more evidence, the eldest daughter insists she drinks too much, the husband acts jealously rather than sympathetic, and the fellow traders have no interest in the distraction.
O-bok’s resulting rage – superbly delivered by Jeong Ae-hwa – represents a fury that all victims of such crimes will recognise. This rage become pure determination as she tries to prove the crime and bring the perpetrator to justice.
While the vile act consumes this rage, it plays into O-bok’s winder anger at how her life has developed. She shouts at her mother for never giving her an education like she has done for her daughters. She is furious that she hates fish, but has spent 30 years selling it with scant to show for it.
In a life where she has toiled for everyone else, she finally needs the support of those around her and she is struggling to find it. Her trader friend even crassly suggesting she should let it go, ‘like a yacht passing down the Han River’, sending O-bok into a violence rage.
There is stereotype of sex crime victims, both in society and cinema, which highlights their vulnerability. While this is often the case, O-bok is tough and forthright, yet still falls victim to such a predator.
Director Kim uses a wide range of unique camera angles, from extended single takes through to a Western-style shot between the legs like a stand-off scene. You feel there is more to come from Kim, but he demonstrates a knack for direction and tough topics in Gull.