A Girl At My Door, like Korea’s best movies, is made with poise, assurance, and control over detail. We get the sense that the filmmaker, July Jung, made exactly the movie she wanted, without compromise for the sake of producers or investors, or out of due to creative limitation, falling into the convenient grooves of convention.
This is not to say that the movie, which was screened at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, is original, idiosyncratic, unlike anything we’ve seen before. The story, indeed, is familiar. It begins Lee Young-nam (played by Bae Doona, perhaps recognizable for her roles in the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas, Jupiter Ascending, and Sense8) arriving in a small fishing town. She has been transferred there from Seoul to be the police chief. In her introduction to the town, we learn that the local economy is struggling. It relies on migrant workers to do the fishing because, with one exception, all the young men have moved away. The only one who has remained is Yong-ha (Song Sae-byeok), an alcoholic with a temper on whom the town depends to manage the business.
Young-nam, who expects to return to Seoul after a year, stays aloof with the locals, rejecting their invitations to drink—she instead drinks alone, in secret—but she does take a special interest in a young girl, a junior high student named Dohee (Kim Sae-ron, whose performance is excellent). She encounters Dohee as victim of bullying and later of child abuse. We learn that Yong-ha, who was in a relationship with Dohee’s mother before she abandoned them, is now raising her as a daughter. Yong-ha regularly gets drunk and beats Dohee, but the local police are willing to look the other way, knowing the effect his incarceration would have on their economy. Young-nam too won’t arrest him, but she ends up taking Dohee under her care for the course of her summer vacation. (The Korean title of the movie is Dohee-ya, which can be translated as “Hey Dohee”)
It is easy to imagine you know this movie: Young-nam will save Dohee, and Dohee too just may save Young-nam along the way. But, in a testament to Jung’s honesty and thoughtfulness, to her ability to imbue a familiar story with depth and complexity, she both tells that story and doesn’t.
There’s a moment I keep returning to when considering this complexity. It occurs unassumingly, at the beginning of Dohee’s stay with Young-nam. As they are preparing to sit down for dinner, Dohee does a little performance, showing off a dance routine she’s memorized and doing impressions from Korean television. The moment goes by quickly, and nothing signals the viewer to examine it closely. I realized only after the movie had ended that that it had left an impression (Dohee’s face in particular when she says, “I’ll rip you to pieces!” stuck with me).
I’m struck by this sequence because I don’t know what to make of it. I had taken its function for granted at first: we, along with Young-nam, are seeing the cute, charming side of Dohee, the side that her abusers and their enablers close themselves off from. I imagined the sequence was imploring us to hope for Dohee and foresee a bright future ahead of her if she could find a stable, loving home life. At that point in the movie though, less than halfway in, it still seems apparent what course the story is set on, that point B is already visible from point A. Only later, as expectations are challenged (quietly and gradually—they are rattled rather than subverted), did I feel the need to reconsider this interpretation.
The humanity of these characters, the fact that facile assumptions about them aren’t satisfactory, came into focus for me at a single moment. Young-nam’s former lover—a woman; we learn that Young-nam is a lesbian—arrives in town, and the two go out for dinner, leaving Dohee at home alone. At the restaurant, Young-nam continually ignores phone calls. We know it is Dohee, and we are concerned for her. We hope Young-nam will answer her phone, but what does she do? She removes her battery. This moment is filmed without self-consciousness of its import (it’s especially effective since we cannot see Dohee and don’t know why she’s calling), but the action is sufficient to reveal that Young-nam is not the archetype of a motherly savior. We realize we cannot make easy assumptions about her, or any of these characters, and other behavior retroactively becomes both more meaningful and more opaque. We now think to consider again why Young-nam drinks alone. Is she an alcoholic loner who will be saved by the grace of a child, or just an alcoholic loner? And what do we make of Dohee’s little performance? Is it endearing, or is it possible that it is annoying? It’s an uncomfortable thought to regard a victim of child abuse as annoying, yet the interpretation is worth considering. And as we consider it, we consider more thoughtfully why Young-nam has taken this interest in Dohee. Is there something suspicious in her motivation? Could lust be part of it? And while we’re at it, is lust part of Dohee’s draw to Young-nam?
Indeed, a sexual current runs between the two. In a striking scene, as Young-nam is taking a bath, drinking soju, Dohee gets in with her. Shortly thereafter, in the nude, they hug. Dohee is the assertive one—she gets in the tub without waiting for permission; she, in a fit of emotion, catches Young-nam by surprise as she hugs her—and you wonder what’s behind this taboo behavior. Does Dohee simply need maternal affection and not have a clear sense of what’s appropriate? Or is she, a girl going through puberty, seeking sexual gratification? And why does Young-nam allow this behavior? Is she simply afraid to hurt this damaged girl by pushing her away? Or is this intimacy what she wants?
The erotic vibe is not lost on the community, at least not after Yong-ha learns the secret of Young-nam’s sexual orientation. Without revealing too much, I will say that the suspicions against them lead to the story’s messy climax. The ambiguity never lets up (what is Dohee doing with that doll?), and for the all the injustice that goes on, it’s not clear what would be right or what resolution we should hope for (is Yong-ha’s fate is fair? Can you think of anything more fair?). The story is in keeping with one of the world’s harsh realities: sometimes no available course of action leads to justice. Still, a course of action must be taken, and the story does arrive at a resolution. Perhaps it satisfies you, or perhaps it does not, but arriving at a satisfying resolution is beside the point. There is too much left for us to wonder, and we are best off sitting with our incomplete interpretation, knowing we can only know a small part of the complex problems outside of us.
A Girl at My Door