THE BACCHUS LADY (2016)
A multifaceted view of morality and kindness, Youn Yuh-jung produces a fine lead performance as an elderly sex worker taking care of a stranded young boy
To have a good heart is one thing, to know quite what to do with it can be another. This is part of the thematic thrust of E J-yong's profound follow-up to 2014’s My Brilliant Life. This is a film which tackles tough topics – some of them very real in Korea today – but does so by unpacking the perils of being too nice. Of your kindness landing you in difficult situations.
Death, taxes and screen-pulsing Youn Yuh-jung performances (Woman of Fire, The Housemaid, Canola) continue as life’s guarantees, here producing a restrained portrayal of a person whose heart might be bigger than this world, and certainly her situation, deserves.
So-young (Youn) is an elderly prostitute who works as a Bacchus Lady – older female prostitutes in Seoul who solicit men in parks and plazas to visit nearby hotels. When she visits the hospital for an STI, an incident leaves a Korean-Filipino child without his mother.
Concerned for his welfare, So-young takes in the boy, who is unable to speak Korean. It is an act entirely aligned with So-young's character of kindness and decency. However, it proves difficult to balance her need to work with the boy’s care.
Beyond this, others are attracted to So-young's benevolence, but this often results her being drawn into increasingly difficult situations as she attempts to help everyone she can. We feel no desire to judge So-young by her trade. Youn creates a character too pure for this world. A place where such altruism can be punished by others looking to take advantage.
There is also a deeply physical component to Youn's performance. Her slight frame means she often cuts a vulnerable figure, shuffling her feet through oversize doorways.
Korea has the highest senior-age poverty rate among OECD countries – a fact directly cited in the film. In a culture that had previously focused on caring for its elderly, the implication that such poverty now troubles its older citizens is writ large. The importance of dignity in old age and the right to enjoy your final days as free of stress as possible.
The film explores the idea that those with the least are often willing to give you the most. So-young takes a maternal view of the world. That caring, like some notion of Aristotelian virtue ethics, is a matter of character.
Alongside Youn’s blisteringly lead performance are several branches and side characters who attempt to mask the angst they feel at their situation. Moving beyond So-young, we also touch on big issues such as trans rights and euthanasia.
It could be that The Bacchus Lady attempts to do too much. To stretch itself across every hot topic of modern debate. It is perhaps best understood as a view of modern pressures and societal blind spots, and how too often kindness does not offer a suitable reward for its pains.