Anticipation. That’s the word best used to describe this film. I have been waiting to watch it for months, with some part of my brain fairly sure it was going to be my movie of 2014. Which is a particularly daft way of going about things, especially as it has held up my annual Top 10. And now we are getting near March, I am not certain I will bother with that! Anyway, the task at hand is this film, so I shall cease my procrastination and get on with it.
As “A Girl at My Door” opens, Police Inspector Young-nam (Bae Do-na) has been sent from Seoul to a small fishing town to head up the local force. Almost immediately it is clear she is going to have some problems with this job, not because she is an outsider and a women, but because she is bringing some baggage with her. This new posting is a punishment, although we are not privy to the reasons. What we do know is that she is secretly finding solace in alcohol. Of course, alcohol is a big part of local life too, but Young-nam keeps her habit furivley hidden away. She has several random encounters with a young troubled girl called Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron), who is clearly being abused by her Grandmother and Step-Father (Song Sae-byeok). After the Grandmother is killed in somewhat suspicious circumstances, Young-nam decides to take the girl under her wing and allows her to stay with her during the summer holidays. The two start to get along famously, and start to open up to each other, but then someone from the past comes to town. Young-nam it seems is running from many things, one of whom is her ex-girlfriend. This creates a number of ripples.. the neediness and self-destructive behavior of Do-hee, and the small mindedness of people with regards to her sexuality eventually resulting in Do-hee accusing Young-nam of sexual abuse. Things don’t look great for Young-nam, and as the story unfolds, the viewer is forced to ask a few uncomfortable questions.
So, what we have is another entry in what’s becoming a very crowded sub-genre in Korean cinema – the child abuse drama. Fortunately, not only is this an important issue to discuss in Korean society this time, but it is handled very sensitively. The visual appearance of the film is fantastic and is surprising to learn that this is the first film director July Jung. Small town Korea is evoked superbly and the opening sequences surely deliberately echo “Memories of Murder”.
Performances of course of this cast list are undeniably fantastic. The always wonderful Bae puts in another stellar performance which to my mind is even more brilliant because she doesn’t have a lot work with as her character is emotionally and physically withdrawn before the film has even started, and we are not given the benefit of flashbacks to flesh out Young-nam’s past. Song too puts in a strong performance especially as the unsympathetic step-father. It is even more impressive when you remember he normally takes far more comedic roles. In fact newcomers to Korean cinema might find his role a little unrealistic but I assure you this is a fairly accurate portrayal.
But top of the tree here is the remarkable Kim Sae-ron. It’s hard to believe this girl is still only 14 years old she so accomplished is her performance CV. Her Doo-he is an amazing little character – sometimes sad and withdrawn, sometimes outrageously flirty and demanding and as the film progresses frighteningly manipulative. It’s an astonishing thing to see such a young girl not only stand up to the performance of an actress as good as Bae, but potentially even surpasses it. Of course up until now her roles have been solely the province of precocious young girls, only time will tell if her undoubted talent finds more interesting performances for the down the line.
So, another beautifully made film, with great performances across the board. Add in some meaty subject matter such as Child abuse, homophobia, alcoholism, and the erosion of small town life, you’d have to say this is a tough but rewarding watch, that’s surely worthy of any plaudits.
And yeah, it is. Except I have a couple of issues with the film. Firstly, and it’s somewhat minor, but the subplot about illegal immigrant workers didn’t work for me. Whilst this does act as a method of driving part of the plot forward and give you an insight into Young-nam’s character, it feels somewhat forced and doesn’t really go anywhere. In a film already full of very worthy issues, I didn’t feel this thread quite worked and it felt tonally somewhat awkward.
My real issue with the film however is with how Young-nam’s character is portrayed. Whilst Do-hee’s character is tragic, she is quite clearly drawn as examples of how life has been bad to her and how she abuses and manipulates those around her character may be complex and debate worthy, but I understood her as an individual. Young-nam’s role simply doesn’t get the same treatment. Her withdrawal means she rarely gets to express how she’s feeling about events both past and present. Whatever scandal that not only bought her to this place both geographically and emotionally are never really discussed. Was it her alcoholism? Her sapphic tendencies? Or do some other hints add an even more horrific layer to this? I don’t need to be spoon-fed, but for me it means that the somewhat open ending of the film is for my money too open to interpretation. It wouldn’t necessarily be an issue, if it were not that I felt much more empathy and understanding with every other main character.
However this issue beside, it doesn’t stop the fact that July Jung is not only a filmmaker to be reckoned with in the future but she’s already committed one classic to the screen. Well made, brilliant performances and an interesting and challenging story this would certainly makes this on Highly Recommend.