July Jung’s “A Girl at My Door” – 2015 AAIFF Review

“A Girl at My Door,” the extraordinary debut film by writer-director July Jung, connects thematically with other recent Korean films that deal with the subject of the abuse (sexual and otherwise) of children and young women. “Han Gong-ju” (2013), “Hope” (2013), “Silenced” (2011), and “Poetry” (2010, directed by Jung’s producer and mentor Lee Chang-dong), are some of these. However, as powerful and affecting as those films are, Jung goes deeper and delves further, extending her inquiry to critique other serious problems in contemporary Korean society. Besides child abuse, Jung also tackles racism, sexism, homophobia, alcoholism, exploitation of illegal workers and a broken justice system.

The two central characters encounter each other in the very first scene, an encounter which perfectly presages the nature of their eventual relationship. Young-nam (Bae Doo-na), a police officer from Seoul, has relocated to the small seaside town of Yeosu to serve as the new police chief. She isn’t doing so by choice; she was embroiled in a scandal back home that, judging from a later flashback scene, seems to involve some sort of alleged sexual misconduct. However, the precise details remain vague. In any event, she’s been sent here as punishment/reform opportunity, with the promise that if she keeps a low profile for about a year or so, things will have blown over enough for her to return.

On the first day Young-nam drives into town, her car splashes water onto Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron), a disheveled, tall, rail-thin waif of a girl who’s been playing by the road. Young-nam gets out of her car to greet the girl and apologize. But as soon as Young-nam approaches her, Do-hee runs off, disappearing into the tall grass.  The next time Young-nam sees Do-hee, the girl is getting bullied and slapped around by a group of her classmates. Young-nam intervenes, assuring Do-hee that she’s got her back the next time anyone tries to bully her again. Later on, it becomes apparent that Do-hee is the victim of an even bigger bully, her own stepfather Yong-ha (Song Sae-byuk), who regularly beats her in full view of the other townsfolk.

When Young-nam catches Yong-ha in the act one night, she throws him to the ground judo-style, cuffs him, and takes him down to the station for his violent public drunkenness. But she finds that Yong-ha isn’t as easily controlled as the school bullies. Almost entirely populated by the middle-aged and elderly, this economically depressed town’s main livelihood depends on the fishing industry, mostly oyster harvesting. Yong-ha, as the head honcho, pretty much runs the town and seems to be the main employer. But a large portion of his staff aren’t locals; they’re mainly illegal immigrants, mostly South Asians, whose legal status and their desperately poor situation leaves them vulnerable to all manner of exploitation at Yong-ha’s hands. As a result, Yong-ha essentially treats the place like his personal fiefdom, acting with near total impunity. This extends to the local law enforcement; Young-nam is urged by the other cops to let Yong-ha go with a warning.

Still, Young-nam continues to keep an eye out for Do-hee’s welfare. Do-hee’s regular beatings continue, with Yong-ha’s mother joining in, cursing her and reminding her that she’s been essentially abandoned by her mother. This abuse is exacerbated by the fact that both her guardians are functional alcoholics, makoli and soju seemingly being the main staples of their dietary intake. Because of this, Do-hee has taken to showing up at Young-nam’s house to get away from her home. Young-nam feeds her and buys her nice clothes, and Do-hee talks of her dreams to be a dancer.

Things come to a head when Yong-ha’s mother is found dead, smashed on the rocks by the sea along with her vehicle. Do-hee says the old woman fell off the road while chasing her. Afterward, Yong-ha takes out his grief on Do-hee, battering her even more than usual. Eventually, after Do-hee again runs to Young-nam’s house to escape, Young-nam decides to take her in for her safety over the rest of the summer, until school is back in session. Yong-ha grudgingly allows this, but when a surprise visitor from Young-nam’s past arrives in town, causing word of the scandal that occurred in Seoul to reach Yeosu, the townsfolk turn on her, accusing her of having more sinister motives than simply protecting a young girl from abuse.

As mentioned before, July Jung’s mentor on “A Girl at My Door” was the great director Lee Chang-dong (“Peppermint Candy,” “Secret Sunshine”). There are indeed marks of his influence.  Lee produced this film, and previously was Jung’s professor at the Korea National University of Arts. Jung’s cameraman Kim Hyun-seok also shot “Poetry,” and “Girl” also shares with “Secret Sunshine” the premise of a city woman moving to a small town, and dealing with provincialism and prejudice. But I feel that the Lee Chang-dong connection tends to get overemphasized when discussing Jung’s film, ultimately doing a disservice to her remarkable achievement. Jung most definitely has her own voice, and a uniquely powerful one at that. Her rather devastating critiques of contemporary Korean society are potent and razor-sharp. Jung also has a distinctly feminine – and feminist – sensibility that is artfully rendered without resorting to stridency, heavy-handed ideology or preaching. She has a beautiful, sensitive and almost viscerally intimate way of looking at her characters that, despite the violence and pain we see, makes the film often a quite lovely one to look at.

Crowning the achievement are the exquisite performances by Bae Doo-na and Kim Sae-ron. Bae (“The Host,” “Linda Linda Linda,” “Air Doll,” “Cloud Atlas”) takes a welcome break from being a puppet for the Wachowskis to deliver perhaps her finest performance to date. Bae’s otherworldly looks and demeanor are put to great use in conveying just how much her character doesn’t fit into her new environment. Even though Young-nam’s a police chief, she hardly projects authority in the eyes of her coworkers or the townsfolk. Not to mention she has her own drinking problem, which she hides in plain sight by pouring her prodigiously large soju stash in water bottles so she can drink openly without anyone knowing. Young-nam’s progression parallels Do-hee’s, as she too becomes a victim of the town’s collective bullying.

However, as far as characters go, this film absolutely belongs to the astonishingly talented Kim Sae-ron as the title character (in both English and Korean; “Dohee-ya” (도희야), the Korean title, refers to the girl’s name). Kim has already delivered great performances in “A Brand New Life,” “The Man From Nowhere” and “Barbie” (alongside her little sister Kim Ah-ron). But “A Girl at My Door” confirms that Kim is one of the great actresses of her generation who can stand toe to toe with anyone of any age. Do-hee, when we first meet her, seems a simple victim, but she’s eventually revealed to be much more wily, worldly, and manipulative than that. And Kim doesn’t miss a single note in portraying her character. At the tender age of 14 going on 15, she’s already mastered her craft.

Jung has said in interviews that she much prefers the international poster for her film. The Korean poster is a fairly standard one which features several of the main characters on it. However, the international poster is a close-up of Bae and Kim holding each other. This is the enduring image left in our minds by this intense and brilliantly accomplished film: two women, cast aside by society, finding comfort and shelter from the world’s hatred and cruelty in one another’s arms.

“A Girl at My Door” screens July 26, 8 p.m. ET, at the Village East Cinema in New York as part of the Asian American International Film Festival. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit AAIFF’s website.