Saturday, July 25, 2015

AAIFF ’15: A Girl at My Door

Lee Young-nam is a high functioning alcoholic. That alone would not derail her police career. After all, most big city forces have plenty of the low functioning variety. However, a scandal in her personal life had to be swept under the rug. As part of her rehabilitation, she must serve as a coastal fishing village’s station chief for one year. The last thing she needs is trouble, but when she gets personally involved with an abused school girl, conflict becomes inevitable in July Jung’s A Girl at My Door (trailer here), which screens as part of the 2015 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Lee is painfully reserved and socially awkward. The way she secretly stashes gin or vodka in water bottles does not look particularly healthy either. As soon as she sees the scrawny, conspicuously bruised Do-hee, she recognizes a fellow underdog. Lee proactively intervenes when Do-hee is bullied by classmates, but it is harder to protect her from her “guardians,” her resentful stepfather Park Yong-ha and his cruel, half-senile mother.

Park the wheeler-dealer is considered one of the few viable employers in the economically depressed township, so moving against him would be a tricky proposition, even for a copper with a spotless record. Nevertheless, after interrupting an especially vioent beating and seeing the marks left by subsequent assaults, Lee reluctantly shelters the emotionally broken girl in her own home. Obviously, this will be a problematic arrangement.

Even though Do-Hee quickly bonds with Lee, both carry extensive baggage that will complicate and hinder their relationship. The loathsome Park is also constantly turning up the pressure on Lee. Many times, she decides to wash her hands of Do-hee and Park, until a fresh outrage revives her indignation. Unfortunately, when a face from her scandalous past briefly visits, it gives him plenty of ammunition.

Door is light-years removed from a simplistic celebrations of innocent victims triumphing over adversity. In this story, there is darkness in everyone’s heart. It is also unusually nerve-wracking for a message-driven family abuse drama. Frankly, it is the sort of film that would make Oprah what’s-her-name’s head explode, which is a perfectly good reason to support its screenings.

It is also an enormously compelling film. Produced by art-house stalwart Lee Chang-dong, Door is just as much a gritty thriller as it is a work of social criticism. It is quite notable how many hot button issues Jung addresses, including child abuse, alcoholism, homosexuality, crony corruption, the exploitation of illegal migrant workers, and the shortcomings of the Korean justice system. Yet, each potentially controversial plot point flows seamlessly from the central narrative, rather than feeling tacked on for the sake of statement-making.

Wachowski regular Bae Doo-na takes her craft to a whole new level, basically ripping our souls out in the process with her quietly harrowing depiction of Lee. Watching her face, you can plainly see how much it hurts to be that repressed and alienated. Likewise, young Kim Sae-ron (who is amassing quite a resume, including the Lee Chang-dong produced A Brand New Life and the breakout action hit, The Man from Nowhere) viscerally conveys the physical and psychological trauma of abuse.

In an impressive debut, Jung takes the audience on a dark, twisty ride, while never watering down the narrative’s implications or taking any easy outs. It is tough stuff, but it latches onto viewers like a vice. Very highly recommended, A Girl at My Door screens tomorrow (7/26) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.