It's not often we witness a film that has a sympathetic protagonist who happens to be a police officer, much less one that actually deserves the audiences' attention. But the South Korean film A Girl At My Door, is exactly that. Actress Bae Doona stars as the police chief of a small town, sent there as a kind of punishment, the result of a personal incident.
Bae's character, Lee Young-nam, is a functioning alcoholic, the kind who can keep it together and nothing like the village drunkards. Her character is juxtaposed against the city's leading entrepreneur, Park Yong-ha (Song Sae-byeok), a rather vile man who spends his nights abusing his daughter, Seon Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron). When Young-nam meets the abused child, she takes it upon herself to protect the girl from the physical and emotional abuse that surrounds her, and their relationship. However strange it seems, this is what fuels this curious little film.
A Girl at My Door unfolds nicely, falling somewhere between tense drama and quiet thriller. There are drawn-out moments of tenderness and introspection that are the hallmark of a group of South Korean filmmakers (such as producer Lee Chang-dong). And, there are surprisingly messed-up plot twists that aren't as unpredictable as the film wishes they were, but they satisfy regardless. Much of the film's intensity comes from its stark approach to child abuse. Kim's performance, in particular, is terrifyingly good.
She shares the film with Bae though -- who arguably hasn't had a role that allows her to explore such a range of emotions since Air Doll -- and many will recognize her from the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas. The shifts in her personality as time passes are tough to watch, but she nails the varying states of inebriation and sobriety. Most affecting are the close-ups of her face during moments of duress, and it's with her reactions that Jung focuses on.
And exploring controversial, or rather little-seen, themes is exactly what July Jung does best. She's interested in assessing misogyny inherent in society, specifically with the way women are dismissed in male-dominated field that are defined by power (i.e. chief of police). Even more fascinating though is the way she exposes a nation's homophobia. A Girl at My Door presents its lead character with a sense of internalized hatred because of the things she deals with, and isn't at all preachy about it either. Jung never looks down on Young-nam, but always seems intent on presenting the unfair world in which she is trapped.
Because of its thriller-genre trappings though, one can't help but wonder if Jung aims too high. But, it's easy to overlook that, especially when it's as strange and entrancing a work of art as A Girl At My Door is.
A Girl at My Door will be playing at Coral Gables Art Cinema on Friday, March 6, at 7 p.m. and at Regal South Beach Cinema on Sunday, March 15, at 9:30 p.m. as part of the Miami International Film Festival. Tickets cost $13. Visit miamifilmfestival.com.
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