South Korean film “A Girl at My Door” has an uneasy undercurrent behind its seemingly plain rural background, and that becomes more palpable as things get complicated for its distraught heroine and a young, problematic girl she pities and cares about. She just wants to help the girl in the need of the kindness of a stranger, but, as observing them and other people in their village, the movie gradually pushes these two lonely tarnished souls into the dark, uncomfortable territory of country noir. While we see the unpleasant sights from a human society surrounding and suffocating them, they are not entirely innocent in their gloomy circumstance, and they may pay a big price for their actions if they are not careful.
For Yeong-nam(Bae Doona), it was initially a simple matter of keeping herself quiet when she began her first day as the new precinct chief of some beach village. Through her meeting with the superintendent at headquarter, we can only guess that she is transferred from Seoul to this remote rural area because of some personal matter of hers. Neither she nor the superintendent directly mentions it during in their private conversation, but it is clear that she is not so pleased about this downturn of her career. She is cordially welcomed by the village people, and they hold a welcoming party for her during the evening, but she rather wants to be alone, while showing alarming signs of a typical alcoholic including hiding soju in fresh water bottles.
As she gets accustomed to her temporary staying place, Yeong-nam comes to pay attention to a young teenager girl named Do-hee(Kim Sae-ron). While their first encounter was not very pleasant at first, Yeong-nam saves Do-hee when she sees Do-hee being bullied by her schoolmates on one day, and then she 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 in 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 deserves to be punished.
As the precinct chief, Yeong-nam is determined to do something about this problem, but others are not very willing to assist her. Her policemen in the precinct understand her concern, but they also remind her that their village depends a lot on Yong-ha, who has been supplying illegal immigrants to the village which does not have many young guys to work. The village people have turned on a blind eye to Yong-ha’s despicable behaviors because of that, and we also see how they and Yong-ha have been enslaving and exploiting those poor illegal immigrant workers. When Yong-ha savagely beats one of them, everyone near him just stands by while doing or saying nothing, and that makes this cruel moment all the more disgusting.
Yeong-nam is not going to ignore these injustices in the village, and that is certainly not welcomed by Yong-ha and others, who do not like their ‘ordinary’ way of life to be interrupted by an outsider. Some of them frankly express their sexist view even when she is near them, and Yong-ha remains rude and arrogant as before – and he keeps abusing his stepdaughter even after being warned by Yeong-nam at one point.
And then something happens under a rather suspicious circumstance. I don’t dare to detail what it is, but I can tell you that it leads to more development of the relationship between Yeong-nam and Do-hee. When the summer vacation begins not long after that incident, Do-hee starts to stay at Yeong-nam’s home, and Yong-ha does not seem to mind about that at all. After all, he does not give a damn about his stepdaughter even when he beats her, and he sees no problem in someone taking care of her instead.
Now I should be more discreet about describing the movie because the main pleasure of the movie is watching how it reveals what is below the surface as steadily rolling its plot and characters. This is the first feature-length film by the director/writer July Jung, who is also known as Jeong Ju-ri in South Korea, and she did an impressive job of establishing a realistic rural mood for her movie. The Characterization may be a little too simplistic in case of the supporting characters, but they feel like real people you may meet in any country town in South Korea – or any other countries. 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 excuses.
Disgusted by this banal evil inside the village, Yeong-nam feels more need to protect and help Do-hee, but, like any flawed/damaged noir characters, she has a secret she does not dare to tell to others. Around the time we get to know more about it, Yong-ha also happens to discover Yeong-nam’s secret by chance, and that makes her situation more difficult. Will she be able to do the right thing even if he will expose her secret to everyone?
And then we begin to observe some questionable aspects of the growing relationship between Yeong-nam and Do-hee. While she is still a child with pieces of innocence left inside her, Do-hee has hidden troubled sides as shown during a striking moment of hysterical self-abuse, and her increasing affection toward Yeong-nam feels rather unwholesome especially when she shows her strong need to be loved under Yeong-nam’s care.
As observing their scenes, we naturally wonder about what exactly Yeong-nam feels about Do-hee, and Bae Doona is superb in her understated performance which implies a lot about what is possibly imploding behind her mostly calm face. There is a terrific scene in which Yeong-nam cannot simply answer yes or no to a very insensitive question hurled at her, and we can sense both anger and shame behind her face even while she maintains her tight composure on the surface. Yes, it goes without saying that she did a right thing for Do-hee when she let Do-hee stay at her house, but we also know that her time with Doo-hee was not wholly innocent even in objective view – and so does she.
The performance by Kim Sae-ron, a 14-year-old actress who previously made a breakthrough with her remarkable debut performance in “A Brand New Life”(2009), is also crucial to the film. As an abuse victim, Do-hee surely deserves care and help, but she gradually turns out to be not as innocent as she seemed to be at the beginning. She may be innocent enough to throw her protector into a serious trouble, but, as one supporting character points out, she is a lot different from other kids at her age, and we slowly begins to feel the darkness somewhere inside her elusive bruised heart as watching her unsettling behaviors. Look at her face closely when she realizes something should be done at one point – and look at how she subsequently follows the logic of her situation with no hesitation or guilt.
We are accordingly disturbed by what she does during one quiet but intense scene, but we are not surprised because we have somehow been aware of what she is capable of. This scene is uncomfortable to watch for good reasons, but it is thankfully handled with care and restraint, and Kim Sae-ron proves again that she is a genuine talent to watch, as deftly modulating her performance somewhere between innocence, boldness, and wiliness.
While generating nervous chemistry between their very good performances, Bae Doona and Kim Sae-ron are surrounded by good supporting actors. Song Sae-byeok is truly loathsome as the scumbag villain of the movie, and you will probably want him to be struck by lightning sooner or later. Some of you may think Song is too over-the-top in his slimy performance, but I must tell you that I have seen a number of very rude Korean animals like him during my daily life in South Korea – and they usually chew their scenes without any inhibition to hold them. Moon Seong-geun and Kim Min-jae briefly appear as Yeong-nam’s superiors, and Jang Hee-jin has a revealing scene as a minor character who visits the village to meet and talk with Yeong-nam for their unfinished matter.
Not long before it was released in South Korea, “A Girl at My Door” was also shown at the Cannes Film Festival of this year, and it has been receiving positive reactions from both sides. Some critics pointed out that the movie could have dug deeper into its social subjects, but the movie is effective as a very compelling mix of character drama and shady noir tale thanks to its good mood 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 the story and its characters, and that is more than enough to recommend this wonderful debut work, which will be remembered for a long time with the special performances from its two talented actresses.