This is one of the year’s best films.
The South Korean film “A Girl at My Door” is a low-key psychological thriller with uneasy feelings pulsating beneath its plain rural background on summer days. Its damaged heroine just wants to help a desperate girl in need of care and protection, but the movie slowly draws these two lonely tarnished souls into the dark, uncomfortable territory of country noir. While we see the unpleasant sights from a corrupt human society surrounding them, they are not entirely innocent in their problematic circumstances, and they may pay a big price for their actions if they are not careful.
For Yeong-nam (Doona Bae of "Cloud Atlas"), it was initially a simple matter of keeping herself out of any further trouble when she began her first day as the new precinct chief of a beach village far from Seoul. During her meeting with the superintendent at the local headquarters, it is implied that she has been transferred to this remote rural area because of some personal matter. Neither she nor the superintendent directly mentions the matter during their private conversation, but it is clear that she is not so pleased about this downturn of her career. She is cheerfully welcomed by the village people, but she rather wants to be alone, and she also shows alarming signs of alcoholism, including her drink hidden in fresh water bottles.
While getting accustomed to her temporary staying place, Yeong-nam comes to pay attention to a young teenage girl named Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron), who she saves from a bunch of bullying students, and learns about how much this young girl has been mistreated by not only her abusive stepfather Yong-ha (Song Sae-byeok) but also others in the village. Yong-ha beats his stepdaughter whenever he gets drunk (he usually does), and there is no one to stop him at his home. Do-hee’s mother left her husband and daughter several years ago, and Yong-ha’s aging mother never cares about her son’s domestic violence. As a matter of fact, she also beats Do-hee whenever she thinks Do-hee needs to be punished.
As the precinct chief, Yeong-nam is determined to do something about this problem, but other people in the town are not very willing to assist her. The village depends a lot on Yong-ha, who has been supplying illegal immigrants to the village, which does not have any young guys to work except Yong-ha. The village people have turned a blind eye to Yong-ha’s despicable behavior, and we see how they and Yong-ha have been enslaving and exploiting poor immigrant workers from Southeast Asia. When Yong-ha savagely beats one of them, everyone near him just stands by without doing or saying anything, making this cruel moment all the more disgusting.
And then something happens under a rather suspicious circumstance that leads to more development of the relationship between Yeong-nam and Do-hee. After suddenly appearing at the front door of Yeong-nam’s place, Do-hee starts to stay with Yeong-nam because she feels safe there, and Yong-ha sees no problem in that. After all, his stepdaughter has been no more than a burden for him from the beginning.
First-time director July Jung, who is known as Jeong Ju-ri in South Korea, focuses on the unstable emotional interactions between her two main characters, and the movie slowly builds its tension under the seemingly peaceful atmosphere of a country town. The characterization is a little too simplistic in the case of the supporting characters, but they feel like real people you may meet in any country town in South Korea. These ‘ordinary’ people in the movie condone the violation of human rights just because it benefits them and their village, and we all know such a thing has been committed around our world countless times in the name of common good or any other convenient excuse.
Disgusted by this banal evil inside the village, Yeong-nam feels more need to protect and help Do-hee, but then there is a secret she does not dare to reveal to others. Around the time we get to learn more about it, Yong-ha also happens to discover it by chance, and that makes her situation more difficult than before. Will she be able to do the right thing even if he exposes her secret to everyone?
It goes without saying that Do-hee is a domestic abuse victim who must be helped and protected, but then it turns out she is far more troubled than expected. While she can be cheerful and lively just like any young girl, she also can be quite tempestuous as shown during one striking scene, and her affection toward Do-hee begins to look more uncomfortable especially when she is more blatant about her increasing need to be loved and protected under Yeong-nam’s care (“I don’t need anyone. You are the only one I need.”)
As Yeong-nam tries to handle her rather tricky situation with Do-hee, she eventually gets herself into really serious trouble, and Bae, who has been more notable outside South Korea thanks to her performances in “Cloud Atlas” (2012) and the recent TV series “Sense8,” is superb in her understated performance, which subtly suggests more than what it is shown on the surface. In an infuriating scene in which Yeong-nam cannot simply answer yes or no to very insensitive questions hurled at her, Bae effectively conveys what is imploding behind her character’s tight composure. Yes, she let Do-hee stay at her house out of compassion and care, and that was a right thing indeed, but we also know that her time with Do-hee was not wholly innocent, and so does she.
Song Sae-byeok is truly loathsome as the scumbag villain of the movie, and you will certainly want his character to be struck by lightning sooner or later. Some of you may think Song overacts in his slimy performance, but I must tell you that I have seen a number of very rude Korean animals like Yong-ha during my daily life in South Korea. Moon Seong-geun and Kim Min-jae briefly appear as Yeong-nam’s superiors, and Jang Hee-jin has a nice scene as Yeong-nam’s unexpected visitor who wants to meet and talk with her for their unfinished matter.
Kim Sae-ron, a 15-year-old young actress, who previously made a breakthrough with her remarkable debut performance in South Korean movie “A Brand New Life” (2009), gives an exceptional performance which is as crucial as Bae’s in the film. Do-hee may be a kid innocent enough to willfully cause troubles for her and Yeong-nam, but, as one supporting character points out later in the film, she feels different from other kids her age as a girl who has suffered domestic abuse for years. We come to sense the darkness somewhere inside her elusive bruised heart. For example, look at her face closely when she realizes what she has inadvertently caused at one point, and look at how she subsequently follows the logic of her situation with no hesitation or guilt.
We are disturbed by what she does during the following scene, but we are not surprised at all because we have somehow been aware of what she is possibly capable of. This tense climactic scene is quite uncomfortable to watch for good reason, but it is thankfully handled with care and restraint under Jung’s thoughtful direction, and you may be chilled by how this little girl can be as resourceful as, say, Amazing Amy.
“A Girl at My Door” was shown at the Cannes Film Festival around the time when it was released in South Korea in last year, and it received positive reactions from both sides. This is a compelling mix of character drama and shady noir tale, fueled by its excellent atmosphere and performances, and the ambiguous tone of its ending will leave you something to think about after watching it. There were actions, and then there are consequences, so what will happen next? I do not have an easy answer for that, but I did care about its story and characters, and that is more than enough to recommend this impressive debut work, which deserves to be remembered for the very special performances from two talented South Korean actresses to watch.
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