South Korean film “Miss Baek” is a glum tale of a woman who simply wants to help a young little girl who is not so different from who she once was. While it is often uncomfortable to watch due to several dark, horrific moments associated with domestic abuse, the movie mostly works well as a gritty but sincere drama, and we come to care a lot about two desperate characters at the center of the story.
The movie opens with the discovery of the death of some old lady who had lived alone in a small shabby apartment. She was the mother of Baek Sang-ah (Han Ji-min), and Sang-ah is soon notified of her mother’s death, but she does not give a damn about that because she still feels hurt about how much she was abused by her alcoholic mother who also struggled with depression problem.
We come to learn a bit about how Sang-ah’s life has been hard and difficult since she was eventually abandoned by her mother. Several years ago, she was arrested for attacking a guy who tried to assault her sexually, and she was unfairly treated by the police and the media just because that guy in question was someone with power and connections. At least, she has been helped by a sympathetic cop who sincerely wants to get closer to her as a friend, but she does not want anyone to get closer to her, and there is the considerable gap between her and the cop as shown from one scene between them.
And then something happens during one evening. When she is returning to her apartment building after another day of hard work, Sang-ah comes across a young little girl named Ji-eun (Kim Si-ah) outside the apartment building. After discerning that Ji-eun is cold and hungry, Sang-ah takes the Ji-eun to a nearby food stand, and she notices scars and bruises on Ji-eun’s body. Although Sang-ah remains cold and distant as usual, we can clearly sense that she feels some pity toward Ji-eun, and we get a little warm moment when she opens her heart a bit to Ji-eun
Eventually, Ji-eun is taken away to where she lives with her father and his current girlfriend, and we feel chilled and disgusted as observing the abusive domestic environment surrounding Ji-eun. As your typical alcoholic bum, Ji-eun’s father Il-gon (Baek Soo-jang) spends most of his time on alcohol unless he is occupied with playing online game, and he often beats his daughter whenever he gets quite drunk. In case of his girlfriend Mi-kyeong (Kwon So-hyun), she does not just care much about Ji-eun; she really hates Ji-eun, and there are a couple of restrained but undeniably gut-chilling moments showing her brutally mistreating Ji-eun.
When Sang-ah meets Ji-eun later, Ji-eun remains sad and desperate as before, so Sang-ah decides to take her to a local amusement park, and that leads to one of a few bright moments in the film. As spending more time with Sang-ah, Ji-eun becomes a little more cheerful than before while also appreciating Sang-ah’s kindness, and Sang-ah comes to see more of her younger self from Ji-eun, while also reminded of her last happy moment with her mother.
When Sang-ah and Ji-eun come back to their apartment building, Il-gon and Mi-kyeong are pretty drunk in their apartment, and they also try to abuse Ji-eun again. Angered by their despicable behavior, Sang-ah comes to clash with Il-gon and Mi-kyeong , so she and they are eventually taken to a local police station, but Sang-ah soon gets frustrated with to see that policemen do not pay much attention to what has been happening to Ji-eun. Even when Ji-eun came to the police station for herself, policemen simply sent back to Il-gon and Mi-kyeong, and, not so surprisingly, they lazily overlook Ji-eun’s desperate circumstance again. They have no problem with believing the false explanation from Il-gon and Mi-kyeong, and they also distrust Sang-ah just because of her previous trouble.
Although knowing well that Ji-eun will be mistreated again as usual, Sang-ah sees that there is really nothing she can do for Ji-eun. She decides to move away to somewhere else, but then she comes to change her mind during a rather unlikely moment, and she soon finds herself reuniting with Ji-eun, who needs Sang-ah’s help more than ever.
Around that narrative point, the movie falters to some degrees, but it is still supported well by its main cast members at least. Han Ji-min is impressive while ably conveying to us her character’s strength and vulnerability, and young performer Kim Si-ah is also solid as holding her own place well besides her co-performer. In case of other notable performers in the film, Lee Hee-joon is suitably cast as a decent cop who genuinely cares about both Sang-ah and Ji-eun, and Kwon So-hyun, who drew my attention for the first time via her harrowing performance in “Madonna” (2014), and Baek Soo-jang are effective in their respective loathsome roles.
“Miss Baek” is written and directed by Lee Ji-won, and this is her first debut feature film. Although there are several notable weak aspects including a number of plot contrivances in the story, the movie is still engaging to watch despite its uncomfortable subject, and it also distinguishes itself with a strong, independent heroine to remember. In my trivial opinion, this is one of more interesting South Korean films of this year, and I think you should check it out someday.