A Girl At My Door

A Girl At My Door DVD Final
Directed by July Jung
Starring Doona Bae, Sae-ron Kim and Sae-byeok Song
On UK DVD January 11th, 2016

by Richard Hamer

It’s not an easy watch. A Girl At My Door is a scathing, far-reaching attack on inequality and bigotry in Korean society, exploring issues as diverse as child abuse, alcoholism, homophobia and even illegal immigration. There is precious little levity in what is a consistently grim picture; but it is one worth sticking with, filled as it is with wonderful performances and a tense, dark central story.

In it, we follow Detective Young-nam, a young police officer who finds herself transferred to a small rural town following some initially unspecified misconduct. Soon she comes across Do-Hee, the teenage daughter of loathsome, but essential community linchpin and industry leader Yong-Ha. Immediately it’s clear that Do-Hee is the victim of brutal, serial abuse from Yong-Ha; abuse fueled by alcoholism and loathing towards Do-Hee’s absentee mother, tolerated by a close-knit community all too accustomed to turning a blind eye to things that don’t concern them. Young-nam intervenes, taking the girl in and looking after her as a surrogate mother. From there, events begin to unravel with the detective’s own past becoming a weapon used against her by an increasingly desperate Yong-Ha.

Writer/Director July Jung (for whom this is, somewhat unbelievably, her feature debut) handles what follows with a confidence, the drama consistently escalating as accusation piles on top of accusation, increasingly petty, small-minded nastiness rearing up every few minutes. There’s a sense in which the town is slowly creaking, falling apart, all the hate that lives just under the surface building up, pushing out through the gaps.

Doona Bae as Young-nam and Sae-ron Kim as Do-Hee do a tremendous job in the two leading roles. Doona Bae – an actress whose Western reputation sadly lies in Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending – is quiet, understated, but utterly believable in her pain. The weight of it all is reflected convincingly in a single tired look, the phrase ‘It’s hard to do the right thing’ rings true every time she appears on-screen.

But it’s perhaps Sae-ron Kim – only fourteen years old at the time of production – who is the most surprising joy in the film, in what is arguably the far more challenging role. Without at all compromising her position as the victim of the story, she lends Do-Hee a slightly unhinged edge, a strange and uneasy manner borne from the most awful of battered upbringings. While it never leads you to lose sympathy for her plight, it creates enough of a subtle uncertainty to help sell a grim, twisted finale.

So, it’s definitely not an easy watch and – to be critical for a moment – there is a certain amount of shallowness in how its creates this mood, a somewhat cynical, scatter-gun approach to exploring social ills; raising plenty but not thoroughly exploring any. One side-plot concerning illegal immigrants among Yong-Ha’s staff, for example, seems to exist for little reason other than to make the villain appear more villainous, there and gone again without much thought.

Which may be enough to hold it back from classic status, but it’s not enough to make it any less than a compelling movie, worthy of your time. If it fails to truly speak to the larger issues it touches on, it wholly succeeds in speaking to the heart: It leaves you more aware than ever of the tragedy that can exist behind the veneer of the mundane and the domestic, and the importance of bringing it to light, no matter the cost.

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