An eye opening and unique film which is engaging throughout.
Korean cinema may be obscure to some, but if there is one film worth seeing it is A Girl at My Door. The film follows Young-Nam (Doona Bae), a police academy graduate who is transferred to a small seaside village in Yeosu after misconduct in her previous location of Seoul. Young-Nam quickly learns that not much happens in this village, but is captivated and concerned by one of the village’s young girls, Do-Hee (Sae-Ron Kim) whom she soon learns is the victim of an abusive grandmother and father, and whose only option is to look to the protection of Young-Nam.
The film touches strongly on themes of neglect, as Do-Hee is clearly the victim of an abusive home, which is inescapable until Young-Nam moves to the village. Young-Nam has moved to a very backward community where women are not recognised as a legitimate authoritative force by the locals, and for this reason, she finds it very difficult to simply use words to warn Do-Hee’s abusive stepfather Yong-Ha (Sae-byeok Song) of the consequences of his actions. For the same reason, Do-Hee is her stepfather’s means of releasing his drunken anger. Do-Hee’s appearance is enough to suggest that she is a victim of neglect as she hides behind her unkempt hair and dirty uniform. Her father carries a false sense of authority which is fuelled by his supervision of the town’s main source of income, migrant labour. This results in an obnoxious bravado which becomes out of control when Yong-Ha drinks. In this way, at times the film carries with it an uncomfortable atmosphere, however one which is entirely necessary to facilitate the plot.
After a particularly severe beating, Do-Hee flees to Young-Nam in desperation. The film reveals that Young-Nam is battling personal demons, however she undergoes a complete character change when Do-Hee is left standing helpless at her door. In the couple’s first encounter, Young-Nam does not appear to be a particularly soft character, as she attempts to uphold her authoritative position. However through a maternal instinct she quite literally takes on the role of Do-Hee’s mother. This mother figure is lacking in Do-Hee’s life as her birth mother abandoned her, and so Young-Nam becomes a person who Do-Hee becomes incredibly attached to. This element of the film is incredibly moving, as it becomes clear that the two are simultaneously filling a void in each other’s lives.
There is a gossipy nature of this coastal town due to its insular community, which Young-Nam becomes a victim of. There is some insight into her past which includes a relationship with another woman, which is hinted at as the reason for her transfer. As well as this, she too suffers from alcoholism which suggests that she is looking for a sense of escape from her personal issues. Both Bae and Kim deliver incredibly strong performances as two females struggling from their circumstances, and it is these roles that work to sell the story and results in the audiences championing their causes.
Kim delivers a highly convincing performance as a girl trapped by her circumstances, who is desperate for an alternative; her character’s transformation from a shy, troubled girl, to a blossoming young woman is intriguing. In the same way, Bae’s role is particularly demanding as she is not only internally battling with herself, but is constantly having to decide what is morally right and what is best for young Do-Hee. The only criticism of such a performance is that, in an attempt for dramatic effect, her expression sometimes comes across as blank, however this is mostly due to the nature of her character.
A real strength of the film is its cinematography. Director July Jung succeeds in creating some visually beautiful shots in what is a mostly bleak existence for the characters. This suggests the potential for the characters and mostly Do-Hee for a brighter life. The sound clarity also is critical in creating the engaging and painfully tense scenes which makes the film. It is undoubtedly a technical success, which enhances the overall viewing experience. In addition, the authenticity of the Korean location gives the film more credibility, and emphasises the fact that this is a very real issue for people in similar locations and circumstances.
July Jung ultimately succeeded in taking a relatively low budget film (largely financed by the Korean film council – Bae and Kim amazingly agreed not to be paid at all for their roles) and creating meaning at every opportunity. The performances of the actors – Kim in particular – evokes a sympathetic response from the audience, keeping them continuously engaged throughout, overall creating a very thought-provoking and strong piece of world cinema.
A Girl At My Door (2014), directed by July Jung, is distributed in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures. Certificate 18.