Here is to you, Miss Yoon Yeo-jeong, who is indubitably the best thing in South Korean film “The Bacchus Lady”. While the movie itself often steps back from its main subject and stammers around other things, this wonderful actress did everything she could do as its leading performer, and her nuanced performance makes the movie worthwhile to watch even during its weakest moments. She is always the solid human center to hold everything in the film, and I can only admire how she pulls that out even though the movie is not as committed as what may be one of the best performances in her long, illustrious acting career.
Yoon plays an old prostitute named So-yeong, and we get to know about her bit by bit after two things happen to her in the beginning. At a clinic, she is notified that she gets gonorrhea, and it seems she was infected from her latest client (the movie never shows us who that bastard is, by the way). Not long after the meeting with her doctor, the doctor happens to be stabbed by a Filipino woman during their quarrel over their Kopino son Jason (Ha Jeong-hoon), and So-yeong comes to take the boy to her small home after his mother is arrested.
We meet a few people living around So-yeong at a house located somewhere in the Itaewon-dong area, where you can often come across its various minority residents. While her landlady Tina (Ahn Ah-joo) is a sassy transgender girl working at a local nightclub, So-yeong’s fellow tenant Do-hoon (Yoon Kye-sang) is an amiable young man with a certain disability to be revealed later, and there is also a hearty African woman who works at a nearby grocery store for foreign residents. In fact, I actually saw that grocery store during my brief visits to the Itaewon-dong area during this summer, and I can gladly tell you that the store is one of many things which imbue foreign personalities into its neighborhood besides Seoul Central Mosque, a big but modestly lovely building which is incidentally shown from the distance in one brief evening shot of the film.
We also see how So-yeong operates around Jongmyo park, a public park which is frequented by other prostitutes like her and old guys who come there as their potential clients. When she approaches to her possible client, she pretends she is trying to sell a bottle of an energy drink named Bacchus, which is a sort of code word for offering sex in her field (that is why those old women like her are called ‘Bacchus ladies’). Because of her current medical condition which should be taken care of sooner or later, intercourse is out of the question for now, but there are other ways to satisfy her clients at a cheap motel near the park – and she is ready to do whatever is necessary for earning her living.
The movie has a number of uncomfortable scenes which are clearly intended to reflect the seedy and unpleasant reality So-yeong has to deal with everyday, and Yoon willingly pushes herself into these challenging moments which would be quite daunting even for far younger performers. I was disturbed to hear about how inconsiderate the director/writer Lee Jae-yong was to his leading actress without enough assistance or understanding while he shot these scenes, but, as far as I could see from the screen, Yoon’s acting supports these scenes with no-nonsense attitude and commendable commitment while never letting So-yeong become someone to be merely pitied. So-yeong knows too well that her life is not that decent at all, but she is not ashamed of herself at all, as a practical woman who is simply fine with what has been one of a few options in her poor life.
While Yoon is fully prepared for anything along with her character, the story unfortunately takes a more conventional and sentimental route as paying attention to a little too many other subjects. As So-yeong continues to take care of Jason along with Do-hoon and Tina, they certainly look a lot like your average alternative family, and then there comes an impending matter of Jason’s mother, who surely represents those many unfortunate Southeastern Asian women impregnated and then abandoned by their lousy South Korean guys. In addition, there is a goofy documentarian eager to get any interesting story from So-yeong, and I am still wondering whether this redundant subplot is the director’s artistic alibi.
And then we get another subplot involved with So-yeong’s close clients. I cannot discuss this part in detail due to a spoiler problem, but let’s say I was not so pleased with how the movie clumsily handles a serious subject in this part. I could not help but notice its cheap emotional manipulation, and I especially felt insulted during one certain scene unfolded at the top of a mountain, which is morally and ethnically questionable but is simply discarded away after a brief, solemn obligatory moment of guilt and remorse.
Nevertheless, I remember good moments generated from Yoon’s performance which is neither sappy nor sentimental throughout the film. I appreciate how she wordlessly conveys so much during a small poignant scene where So-yeong happens to encounter someone from her old past – or when she calmly and gracefully accepts the inevitability of her situation during the finale, which is regrettably marred by the last two unnecessary unsentimental scenes (this expression may sound ridiculous, but I am not kidding at all).
“The Bacchus Lady” is riddled with glaring flaws which still bother me even at this point, but I recommend it mainly because I really enjoyed how Yoon’s performance abides despite that. Although she has led her enduring movie star career for 45 years since her debut film “Woman of Fire” (1971), I belatedly came to notice her through her scene-stealing performance in “Actresses” (2009), and this 69-year-old actress has never been boring since my late moment of recognition. She is a living national treasure as valuable as Lily Tomlin or Betty White, and, yes, she deserves to be served better than this.