Coming to British arthouse screens this September, A Girl At My Door provides a rare opportunity for Western audiences to see a Korean female director in action and in so doing become entwined in the unforgiving machinations of small-town Korean society. Bae Doona and Kim Seo-ron each deliver a knock-out performance in another stick of quiet dynamite for 2015, which I'm sincerely grateful to have seen in my old haunt, Chichester's beloved New Park Cinema.
A Girl At My Door (도희야 Dohui-ya, 2014 - South Korea) written & directed by July Jung / starring Bae Doona, Kim Sae-ron, Song Sae-byeok / cinematography by Kim Hyun-seok / music by Jang Young-gyu & Han Hee-jung / companies: Pine House, Korean Film Fund, Pecadillo Pictures (for UK)
Leaving Seoul under a cloud, the pensive, insular lesbian cop Lee Young-nam (Bae Doona) is transferred from the big city to a position as police chief in a rundown seaside town - the kind of place whose name barely has any significance, even for those living there. Greeted by drunkards and small town gossips, the Chief has landed in the lowest strata of Korean society. The town's locals subside on slim pickings, all the working-age youths have left the town and the local bully Yong-ha (Song Sae-byeok) runs the crew of impoverished migrant workers, whose oyster harvests are largely credited with keeping the town going.
The Chief isolates herself in her spare apartment, drinking and decanting rice wine (soju) into water bottles. When she stops a gang of middle-schoolers from abusing their classmate Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron) the Chief unwittingly finds herself the saviour of a girl, who has suffered violent abuse all her life, largely at the hands of her father, Yong-ha, and his brutish mother (Kim Jin-gu). The Chief takes Do-hee into her home over the school holiday and their shared history of abuse and ostracisation forms the basis of a compassionate bond. In an attempt to get rid of the increasingly bothersome Chief, Yong-ha accuses her of sexually molesting Do-hee and in the ensuing investigation the Chief is forced to relive the crass judgements of her sexuality that got her expelled from her position in Seoul. But Do-hee's inner strength reveals a heretofore hidden level of cunning that she is willing to put to use to free the only person that has ever cared about her well-being.
Making its debut in the Un Certain Regard section of last year's Cannes Film Festival, A Girl At My Door is a deliberately paced feature debut from July Jung, who distinguishes herself as a talent worthy of enthusiastic scrutiny as her career develops. Jung’s sense for structure is near impeccable and she smoothes over the functionality of a straightforward plot with layer upon layer of emotional richness - enough to yield two mid-film turning points for the price of one: one for the plot, one for the heart. Though a Western reading could easily break-down Jung’s story into a classic five-act follow-through of Freytag’s pyramid of action, A Girl At My Door also makes for a bewitching example of East Asia’s classic four-act Kishōtenketsu structure with a jagged, darkly composed modern twist for its denouement. On the subject of her characters' plight Jung eschews sentimentality and outrage in favour of quiet analysis of her characters' actions and a matter-of-fact condemnation of a society that would permit the abuse of a child. The Korean society here portrayed is one incapable of protecting victims of abuse because of its instinctual desire to cast them out into the cold. From the very beginning it is the outcasts that find each other. The Chief and Do-hee are the two sore thumbs in their community: a disgraced, homosexual city slicker and a mentally ill, victimised teenager.
Surely the film's greatest strength is in its uniformly excellent cast. Bae Doona's portrayal of the Chief drowning in soju, doubt and self-loathing is bracing, succinct and restrained. As a functioning alcoholic, the Chief veers close to Wonder Woman territory (that is if Wonder Woman was putting away litres of soju every night) but Bae’s performance pulls back on her heroine’s capability when it counts and nails the bleary-eyed fuzziness that comes with the sudden need to sober up and take control of a crisis. Bae's face and expressive eyes offer no easy answers as to why the Chief drinks but say so much when her actions and moments of stillness work with Jung's careful placement of images and sound. A newcomer to Western audiences, Kim Sae-ron delivers a knock-out performance as the mercurial teenager Sun Do-hee. When her hair-trigger vivacity disrupts the unflappable calm that Bae Doona brings to underpin every scene the tension is so thick, you could lay it down like asphalt.
Despite the pointed social commentary it was the ambiguous relationship between the Chief and Do-hee that evidently spooked many investors and the film was finally made on a budget of just $300,000. Certainly A Girl At My Door is not typical of the type of Korean film to make the jump to Western cinemas and it is perhaps a small miracle that it was made at all. But a single viewing is all that’s needed to see why this script would inspire dedication in world-class performers like Bae Doona, who got her big break working with Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook, and Kim Sae-ron who now finds herself at the crossroads between success as a child star and a future as a serious actor. That Bae and Kim both reportedly forwent their salaries to make the film is a testament to the distinctive power of Jung’s story.
It is rare to see a film willing to tackle the cultural and psychological structure of abuse without becoming turgid and patronising of it characters and audience. Writer-director Jung displays an intimate knowledge of her characters that could put many seasoned filmmakers to shame and her confident use of both Eastern and Western structural conventions keeps these characters penetrable and invites empathy for vulnerable people imprisoned by the ignorance around them. Special mention is also due for Song Sae-byeok as the swaggering bully Yong-ha - the lone big fish in a small, stagnant pond. Yong-ha's pathetic entitlement is laid bare by the compassion shown him by the Chief. He is her dark mirror, for in him she sees her own self-loathing, her own addiction to drink. But where he seeks agency in the power of the abuser, she claims agency in the power of the protector and the power to give love.