Gull (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Her little struggle for herself

South Korean independent film “Gull” is a simple but haunting character drama about one ordinary woman’s harrowing emotional journey after a traumatic incident. While dryly but sensitively observing her inner struggle without any unnecessary exaggeration, the movie slowly lets us come to know and understand her as a human being whose painful voice deserves to be heard and respected, and it is really poignant to see when she eventually comes to find her inner strength to make a strong and defiant stand against the injustice inflicted upon her.

At first, the movie succinctly establishes the ongoing daily life of Oh-bok (Jung Ae-hwa), a plain middle-aged married woman who has worked as a fishmonger at an old marketplace in Seoul for many years. Things recently become quite difficult for Oh-bok and many other minor merchants in the marketplace because of a conflict between them and those city developers who have refused to give them the proper compensation for their impending relocation, but her mind is mostly occupied with her eldest daughter’s upcoming marriage at present, and we get a little amusing moment when she is about to meet the in-laws along with her husband and eldest daughter. Although her eldest daughter’s marriage will require a considerable amount of money from her, Oh-bok does not mind at all as being really glad for her eldest daughter, and we subsequently see her checking the money for that before closing her shop in the following evening.

After closing the shop, Oh-bok drops by a small drinking party attended by her fellow merchants. While she is initially reluctant to join them, it does not take much time for her to get pretty drunk as she accepts one drink after another from others, and then, after a brief moment of blackout, the movie shows Oh-bok looking rather distraught in the next morning. As the movie closely observes her following actions, it becomes quite clear to us that she was sexually assaulted during the previous night, but she really does not know what to do about that. Although she goes to a local woman’s clinic for getting some treatment for a certain injured part of her body, she tells nothing at all even to her family members, and her husband and daughters are baffled by her abruptly changed mood and attitude.

While trying to gather herself enough to work again at her shop, Oh-bok also tries to get an apology from the person responsible for her sexual assault. That person in question is one of her fellow merchants, so she asks one of their mutual colleagues/friends to deliver her indirect message to that person, but, of course, that person does not reply at all while showing more impertinence. In addition, that person happens to be one of the leading figures in the public protest of Oh-bok and many other minor merchants, and most of them understandably do not want any fuss from whatever happened between Oh-bok and that person, which may jeopardize their ongoing negotiation between them and those city developers.

Feeling more helpless and frustrated, Oh-bok comes to reflect on how much she has been disregarded and unrecognized as frequently being pushed to support her family as a mother and wife for many years, and there is a restrained but undeniably heartbreaking scene where she happens to talk with her mother on the phone while sitting alone inside a local high school. As talking more with her mother, Oh-bok is reminded of how much she has been constantly neglected throughout her whole life without receiving any support or help, and her seemingly phlegmatic face conveys to us a lot about her suppressed pain and sorrow of many years.

In the end, Oh-bok comes to confide to her eldest daughter on what happened to her during that night. While quite shocked to say the least, her eldest daughter promptly embarks on helping Oh-bok to some degree. For example, she assists her mother in filing a report to the local police station, and she also gives her mother some emotional support although she still does not tell anything to her father and her younger sister.

The mood becomes a little tense when Oh-bok’s public accusation against that person is consequently spread around the marketplace, but director/writer/editor Kim Mi-jo, who previously made a couple of short films before making a feature film debut here, wisely stays away from any possibility of gratuitous sensationalism and exploitative melodrama. Even during a few moments of emotional outburst in the film, cinematographer So Seong-seob’s camera firmly sticks to its calm and static position, and we come to pay more attention to whatever is churning inside Oh-bok’s mind, while also discerning more of how difficult it is for her to make even a tiny step toward the justice for her.

As the center of the film, Jung Ae-hwa is simply superlative in her subtle but ultimately powerful performance, which will be an overdue breakthrough for this relatively unknown stage/movie veteran actress. While Oh-bok is not exactly a very nice person, Jung brings considerable humanity and dignity to her character without any ounce of pity or excuse, and her performance here in this film is surely one of the best performances in South Korean cinema of this year.

Overall, “Gull”, which was incidentally produced as the director’s graduation work in Dankook University, is another notable South Korean film of this year in addition to being a relevant female drama film of the ongoing #MeToo era, and its very last shot still touches me with a small but significant act of defiance and resilience from its heroine. Maybe she will be disregarded again, but she will not be silent anymore just like many women who came forward during last several years, and that reminds us again that we really need to listen to women more than ever.

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