Film Review: 'A Girl at My Door'

★★★★☆
July Jung's A Girl at My Door (2014) offers a South Korean domestic abuse psychodrama marked by its slow pace, minimalist framing and unsettling sexual overtones. The link between bigotry and victimhood is quickly established on Young-Nam's (Doona Bae) first day as the police chief of an isolated seaside village: her all-male colleagues casually refer to her as "sexy girl" and she encounters a raggedy girl named Do-Hee (Sae-ron Kim), mud-splattered by passing vehicles as she plays alone on the side of the road. Young-Nam is repeatedly forced to intervene when Do-Hee's irascible drunk of a stepfather Yong-Ha (Sae-byok Sung) and sadistic grandmother beat her and call her a "bitch".

Bullying schoolchildren gang up on Do-Hee, labelling her "little whore". In this forsaken backwater, whose survival is predicated on exploiting foreign dockworkers - there is an ugly scene of Yong-Ha beating an illegal immigrant to a pulp with impunity - villagers are more than willing to look the other way. After her grandmother is killed in a mysterious motorbike accident, Do-Hee shows up at Young Nam's door more than a couple times, in the middle of the night. As a sort of surrogate mother, Young-Nam cooks Do-Hee meals, takes her shopping and tries to teach her to value herself - until Yong-Ha comes knocking. A deal is struck and Do-Hee is allowed to stay with Young-Nam for a period.

As Do-Hee blooms into pubescence, Yong-Ha accuses her of being seduced by the older woman and next time its the cops who arrive at Young-Nam's doorstep to arrest her, albeit without a warrant, for sexually molesting a minor. The investigation slanted against her from the start, Young-Nam replaces Do-Hee as the village scapegoat: the malicious townsfolk consider it "abnormal" to take in a girl who has her own family. Young-Nam is further stigmatised when they learn that she was originally transferred to the boonies from Seoul for homosexual "misconduct". Refusing to be shamed, the mesmerising gaze of Young-Nam often verges on intense deliberate blankness. But between the seemingly effortless switches from authoritative to maternal to defensive, the viewer glimpses what it really costs her to maintain her composure under constant attack. Although Young-Nam attests Do-Hee's affection to the fact that she "looks powerful in her uniform" and "confronts" bad men, she also recognises her own vulnerable inner child in Do-Hee. However, Do-Hee's feelings toward her, exceeding mere childish admiration, are insinuatingly understood by Hyun Seok Kim's lushly-lit close-ups of the females bathing or embracing each other. A Girl at My Door swerves into revenge-drama territory as the script allows Do-Hee to turn the tables on her stepfather with insidious methods that underscores the darker side of her nature. From a distinctly feminine perspective, the hidden sins of a complicit society come at the highest price - the incalculable damage of a physically and psychologically battered younger generation.

Christine Jun | @ChristineCocoJ

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