A Korean take on motherly love for a teenager literally beaten by life.
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Lee Young-nam is sent to a small fishermen village at the south of Korea to be Chief of the local police station. Used to big city life, she has a hard to adjusting to some small town mindset where everyone knows everyone and they let things slide for the greater good. She encounters a teenage girl, Dohee, regularly beaten by her father, and decides to help her.
As in many good westerns, you follow the new sherif in town through her discovery of the local community. This makes it quite simple to ease into the story. You get that feeling of isolation, when even in a community that seems friendly enough, you just are an outsider. The way people react to one another is well described and lifelike.
The main plot is aptly told, adding layers and layers of details. Most things are left unsaid for the viewer to connect the dots. To me, this is the best way to get the audience’s attention. All the clues are laid out in from of you. When the movie turns to a mystery or suspense film, your mind races trying to piece everything together. Do not wait for a brain teaser that will keep you awake at night. This is not a story-driven film but a character-driven one. It’s a way of seeing how all the small decisions you make can end up creating a big mess.
In term of pacing, the movie starts slowly, giving us the possibility to wander around this town and see how everyone relates to one another. The film shifts gears when Young-Nam takes Dohee into her flat. Questions on the relationship between the two girls and how it is perceived by the village start fueling the narrative to stir trouble.
In a film like that, don’t look for fancy camerawork or cinematography, even though some shots stay in mind long after the movie’s finished. The stars of the show here are the script and the actors. In this case, all the strength of the movie rests on the shoulders of the two main actresses: Bae Doona (seen mostly in all of the Wachowski’s latest works) and Kim Sae-Ron (A brand new life and The man from nowhere were her two first films). Bae Doona’s character Lee Young-Nam carries a heavy past that she chose to hide deep inside her. Her performance is absolutely spot on as we can feel the constant weight of her secrets even though she plays it in a minimalistic way. She almost displays only a single emotion (most of the time puzzlement to the freak show happening around her) but she radiates with love for the little girl she’s trying to help. In that way, she’s the perfect vehicle for the spectator to get into the story. You can project a myriad of feelings that you might have on her neutral expression, the film giving you enough time to do so.
Kim Sae-Ron’s character, Sun Dohee, is harder to grasp. She alternates different moods from a defensive stance to fits of craziness, definite markers of a childhood spent without role model. With her frail teenage girl looks, the spectator tends to want to empathize and protect her. For people who have seen her previous work, she is still in familiar territory but her performance in this role is really heart-breaking. It’s just staggering to see this girl evolve into a great actress. She handles herself in front of the camera like a confirmed actress would but she was only fourteen years old when the movie was released. The last actress I’ve seen that started young to get this kind of range that early would be Chloe Grace Moretz.
The visual style of the movie is somewhat basic. It focuses mainly on the faces of the actors and actresses. We get the occasional lingering wide shot to reflect on the story so far and emphasize the character’s mood. Not to be derogatory but this is the usual filming technique for indie art-films all over the world. The real distinctive trait coming from the surroundings of this little costal village. It is set during the summer time. The frame is quite often filled with bright and warm light. It really feels great to get this atmosphere when most of the big films are now desaturated to the point of almost being colorless.
From what could have been just a standard drama set on an exotic southern location, July Jung is trying to make some points. The movie is filled with intent when it comes to a few topics. It addresses, for instance, the place of women in the Korean society, the xenophobic aspect of small town towards outsiders and other stronger themes that I won’t discuss here to leave you with the pleasure of discovering what the movie is all about.
Of course, as this is the director’s first full length feature, the movie’s not perfect all the way. Towards the end, there is a pre-requisite. If you are not that into the story before the final act of the film, I can guess that the twists and turns can be a bit much to stomach. Some situations might defy the movie’s logic and might end up seeming out of place. I was really into it by then and I just went with it. The most important part of the film was, to me, the emotional journey of this woman and this girl. The evolution of the characters is really well written. Someone too attached to the way the story unfolds might not get that feeling. It really depends if you’re into that kind of movie or not.
Verdict: A beautiful, and somewhat twisted, film carried by strong performances.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Child abuse: 8/10
Surprise 3rd act: 6/10
A girl at my door (2014)
Also known as 도희야 (Dohee-ya)
Director: July Jung
Writer: July Jung
Bae Doona – Inspector Lee Young-nam
Kim Sae-ron – Sun Do-hee
Song Sae-byeok – Park Yong-ha
Kim Jin-gu – Park Jum-soon, Yong-ha’s mother
Son Jong-hak – Captain Eom
Na Jong-min – Officer Kim
Gong Myung – Officer Kwon Soon-oh
review by @gbouqueau