Wednesday, June 29, 2016

NYAFF ’16: The Bacchus Lady

Well, this is interesting product placement. Those bottles of Bacchus So-young offers to lonely old men in the park are sort of like Red Bull. The implication is clear. If they go off with her, they should get their energy up, so to speak. It is a tough racket for a senior citizen, but So-young’s bills won’t pay themselves in E J-yong’s Bacchus Lady (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Evidently, elder prostitution is kind of a thing in Korea, but nobody besides E J-yong talks about it. So-young (the English double meaning of her name is intentional) only takes on clients of similarly advanced years. It is not much of a living, but at least her transsexual landlord and the cashier at the hourly no-tell motel are patient. They will have to be during the week she recuperates from the old sailors’ disease. Somehow she also manages to pick up a kid at the doctor’s office.

Poor lost Min-ho is the love child of a Filipina mother and a rich deadbeat Korean doctor. When her confrontation turns non-lethally violent, So-young takes in the confused boy, hiding him from the cops. Of course, her life seems somewhat strange to the innocent lad, but they soon warm to each other. Meanwhile, So-young’s career takes an Arsenic & Old Lace detour when several old clients request her help arranging final exits.

Sounds like a load of laughs, right? Yet, somehow Youn Yuh-jung, one of the leading lights of Korean cinema keeps things relatively light and totally dignified. She covers the full gamut, but her So-young is always tough. Frankly, if this were an American film, everyone would be scrambling to give Youn awards, because it is both a tragic and empowering performance, in a film that ticks so many social issue boxes.

Some of those secondary themes are more potent than other. Arguably, the euthanasia subplot feels a little shopworn, following in the depressing footsteps of Grace Quigley, Honey, and The Farewell Party. However, the camaraderie So-young shares with her former clients is rather intriguing.

Bacchus Lady is nice film that is considerably elevated by Grand Dame Youn’s gritty, gutsy, and graceful performance. There are not a lot of surprises waiting to be sprung on the audience, but there are moments that will stick with you. Respectfully recommended, The Bacchus Lady screens this Friday (7/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.