How can you rescue someone from someone else when you cannot even rescue yourself from yourself?
Jang-sup has been looking for a woman named Jeong Myung-sook. The problem is that that is a pretty common name. He had been bribing a fellow detective to sneak him onto scenes regarding people with that name. He has finally hit the jackpot with the discovery of a dead woman in an apartment. Other detectives express annoyance that Jang-sup is continuing with his antics.
Jeong Myung-sook’s body had been decaying for almost a month, though her social worker had only just found her. She never interacted with her neighbors. She had no friends or family. Actually, that is not entirely true. She may not have had a family, but she had given birth to a daughter.
Baek Sang-ah is Jang-sup’s girlfriend…well, sort of. She works at multiple jobs, including a carwash and a massage parlor. She does not necessarily do a great job at either, but does enough to ear the paycheck to pay for her apartment, some semi-fancy clothes, makeup, alcohol, and cigarettes. The rest of the money she hoards, perhaps in case she has to pay for legal issues or if she just has to leave immediately. How did the two of them meet?
About seventeen years ago, Jang-sup’s first case involved a teenage Sang-ah who assaulted her rapist with a piece of broken bathroom mirror. Jang-sup protested to his superior officer that Sang-ah was still in high school and had acted in self-defense, but his boss reasoned that some punk from an orphanage has no chance against the son of a major construction company stockholder and brother-in-law to a district court judge. She would have a felony charge on her record and her rapist would have nothing. It was Jang-sup who put the handcuffs on her before leading her out to face the news media. Ever since then, he had regretted what happened to her and his part in it. So, he has spent the rest of his life trying to make up for it, taking care of her as best as he could. Perhaps he developed romantic feelings for her, or perhaps that was just a means of convince himself that it was not mere guilt and pity that has been driving him to do what has done for her. Sang-ah has not particularly expressed gratitude for his help, more annoyance and a little bit of resentment. She has repeatedly rebuffed his admittedly unromantic marriage proposals, arguing that it is not her fate to be anyone’s wife or anyone’s mother.
By the way, the detective whom Jang-sup had been bribing finds out that Myung-sook had taken revenge on her daughter’s rapist two years later by hitting the guy with her car. As a result, she spent six years in prison.
Jang-sup meets up with Sang-ah to tell her that her mother has been found dead. Initial signs point to lung cancer. He takes her to the morgue and asks if she wants to have the body cremated after the autopsy. Sang-ah says that she just wanted to see how her mother died and does not care beyond that. It is quite clear when she is alone in her apartment that her mother’s death has affected her more than she would like to admit. She desperately tries to clean up the place, panics when she is unable to wipe off some substance on floor, and almost vomits into her toilet. Sang-ah has calmed down when Jang-sup arrives the next day, but she is unhappy with him. She had told him before that she did not want him to go searching for her mother in the first place. He says that he had assumed that Sang-ah would finally forgive her mother after seeing that she had died so miserably. This sets off Sang-ah. She tells him that her mother would frequently get drunk and brutally beat her before finally abandoning her. Sang-ah will never forgive her mother for the physical abuse, the psychological scars, and the messed up childhood that has festered into a messed up adulthood. She asks Jang-sup to stop intruding into her life.
That evening, Sang-ah leaves her apartment to do…something. While walking down the street, she sees a nine-year-old girl sitting alone outside of a closed shop, shivering in the winter cold. This is not the first time that she has seen this girl outside. None of Sang-ah’s business; just leave her alone. Sang-ah almost goes back inside, but changes her mind. She puts her coat on the girl and takes her to a tented street stall to feed her. Other customers assume that Sang-ah is the girl’s mother, and has been starving her. But they don’t say anything to her. It’s none of their business; just leave them alone.
Sang-ah gives the girl a cup of water, who drinks some of it, but spills the rest. She instinctively tries to shield her head with her hands, stopping only after Sang-ah picks up the cup and refills it. The girl tries to apologize politely, using the proper honorifics, but Sang-ah tells her to just call her Miss Baek. No missus or ma’am. The girl finally introduces herself: Kim Ji-eun. Sang-ah asks Ji-eun why she never wears warm clothing outside. What do her mother and father do? Ji-eun just says that her father is the only one at home. Sang-ah notices the bruise on Ji-eun’s hand and asks her if her was father for that. Never mind, it’s none of her business; just leave it alone.
At that moment, another woman enters the tent and calls for Ji-eun. The woman is all smiles with a nice outfit. Sang-ah asks if Ji-eun belongs to her; she says not quite, but does not elaborate and Sang-ah does not press. She does say that Ji-eun has a weak metabolism and should watch what she eats, but acts like she is starving. Sang-ah is about to leave, but Ji-eun is quietly holding onto her fingers. The woman apologizes for Sang-ah wasting her money and time, offering to pay for the food. As the woman removes Sang-ah’s coat from Ji-eun, Sang-ah notices other marks on Ji-eun. She says nothing, takes her coat back, and leaves, not even seeing the smiling woman with the nice outfit lead Ji-eun into a nice car. She had already interfered enough.
The woman, Joo Mi-gyeong, goes to the massage parlor to meet with Sang-ah. Despite Sang-ah saying that it is none of her business, Mi-gyeong insists on explaining, in case Sang-ah gets the wrong idea. He boyfriend fathered Ji-eun when he was twenty and fatherhood has not matured him. Mi-gyeong did not even know that he had a kid when the two of them got together. Though love has kept her with the two of them, she had thought of leaving several times. After all, sometimes you feel like leaving your own kid; so raising someone else’s kid? Sang-ah remains a blank slate; her business is giving a massage and nothing else.
Mi-gyeong goes home. The apartment is a mess. Her boyfriend has been playing computer games for…ever, not responding when Mi-gyeong tells him that the state has cut off child support. She goes to the bathroom to wipe off her makeup and sees Ji-eun sitting in the corner cowering. Mi-gyeong beats her, sprays her with the shower head, and then leaves her to soak in the bathroom with the light off.
After signing her mother’s death certificate, Sang-ah sees Ji-eun outside again; this time standing in the middle of…nothing really. No one seems to take notice of her; not the new marks on her body or the older marks. But Sang-ah notices, particularly the bloodied finger on the hand clutching a 1000 won (82 cents US) banknote. She goes over and asks if Mi-gyeong hit her. This time, it is her business. Ji-eun softly says no. Sang-ah knows that this is a lie, but does not press the matter.
Sang-ah takes Ji-eun to buy her some proper winter clothes, some lunch and, most importantly, a Band-Aid for that finger. Actually, she buys way too much food for an adult, let alone a child. She asks where Ji-eun had been planning to go, and Ji-eun responded that she was hungry. Sang-ah asks about food and money. Ji-eun tells her that they give her money after beating her. This is the first time that Ji-eun acknowledges being beaten to Sang-ah. Sang-ah asks if anyone else knows. Ji-eun tells her that she had gone to the police once and they just sent her back home, telling Mi-gyeong to be less forceful with the disciplining.
So, Sang-ah lets Ji-eun tag along for the rest of the day, observing her washing a car…not so well. After work, Sang-ah asks Ji-eun if there is anywhere she can go. There is nothing. Sang-ah then asks if there is anywhere that she wants to go. Nothing. Sang-ah tries to look up places to take a kid, settling on an amusement park. There are many rides and activities there, but Ji-eun seems content just to look out on the water where the birds are flying and a ship is passing through. She takes Sang-ah’s hand and thanks her. They spend a few more hours at the park. At some point, Sang-ah asks about Ji-eun’s mother. Ji-eun says that she is in Heaven. Not dead; just that anywhere away from her ex and her daughter is what she calls Heaven. Ji-eun asks about Sang-ah’s mother. She is in Hell. Sang-ah suddenly has flashback to when her mother told her to run away from her. She buries this memory back down, telling Ji-eun that it is time for her to go back home.
Sang-ah accompanies Ji-eun to the front door of her apartment, rings the doorbell and starts walking away. Ji-eun’s father opens the door, kicks Ji-eun in the stomach, and then drags her into the apartment. Sang-ah runs in before he can close the door, pushes him aside, and grabs onto Ji-eun. Mi-gyeong, still eating dinner and feeding her dog, asks her what she is doing. Still smiling, not so nice an outfit. Sang-ah tries to warn Mi-gyeong about hurting Ji-eun, but Mi-gyeong mocks her, calling her nothing but a measly masseuse and tell her to stop meddling. Sang-ah pushes her aside and attempts to take Ji-eun away when Mi-gyeong mocks her some more, saying that Sang-ah had probably never even raised a dog. She offers to sell Ji-eun for 100 grand. This proves to be too much, and Sang-ah assaults Mi-gyeong.
Everyone ends up at the police station. An officer takes off the Band-Aid on Ji-eun’s finger and Mi-gyeong immediately says that Ji-eun has a habit of biting her nails. The officer asks Ji-eun about the marks on her legs, and Ji-eun answers that she fell down…by herself. The chief says that the next door neighbor had never heard any child crying and the school is closed for winter vacation. Sang-ah insists that she is a witness, but the chief says that there is no concrete proof and it would be too much of a hassle to proceed. And even the kid is denying everything. Now Mi-gyeong speaks up. Sang-ah took Ji-eun without parental consent, broke into their home, and attacked her. The chief does not respond directly, but points out that Sang-ah has not provided any evidence of a relationship to the child. He asks for a form of identification, or at least a name and identification number. She writes down her information and her felony record almost immediately gets flagged. It is right then that Jang-sup shows up. As always, Jang-sup is just in time to be just too late. Perhaps he is able to prevent Sang-ah from going to jail, but not from keeping Ji-eun from return home to her abusers. He tells Sang-ah that the Children’s Crisis Center would check up on Ji-eun regularly.
So, that is that. Maybe it is for the best. Sang-ah reasons that she must have been possessed to do all of this. For someone who had never even taken care of a dog. She should not have interfered. Not her responsibility. None of her business; just let it be.
Okay, before I talk about the movie again, I have to talk about the lead actor, since this may have colored my take on this movie. I knew practically nothing about this movie except for the synopsis before I started watching it. So when she first appeared, at first I thought that she looked like Han Ji-min, only to look it up and find out that it was indeed her. How did I not recognize her from the promotional image?
When I first saw Han Ji-min in 2005 in the back-half of the K-drama Jewel in the Palace, I developed a bit of a crush that would last about ten years. I ended up seeing a lot of the TV shows that she was in. I saw the beginning of the show All In, which I guess was her debut in a small role. I saw Resurrection, which saw her in a lead. I saw the show Wolf, which was canceled due to an actor injury. I saw Great Inheritance, Capital Scandal, Yi San, Cain and Abel, and Padam Padam. In terms of movies, I saw Blue Swallow, The Cut, Detective K: Secret of the Virtuous Widow, and The Plan Man. None of those movies will be featured in this series. I also started the shows, Rooftop Prince and Hyde Jekyll, Me, but never got past the first few episodes. So, yeah that crush got me watching a bunch of her stuff, even things that were difficult to find and are probably no longer available to me. My attempts to seek out her work started to fade away around 2015, though I was pleasantly surprised to see her in 2016’s The Age of Shadows, which was fine, but also not going to show up in this series.
I never thought her performances were ever far above fine. Her characters were either just nice or wild comedic forces of nature to be tamed into becoming just nice. I never watched anything from her expecting it to be particularly good or for her to be particularly good in it; she had to be happy or sad variants of charmingly cute and did that well. This movie blew me away. She was given a nuanced character and she really delivered on it. I mean, sure, put Jeon Do-yeon or Bae Doona in this role and they would have killed it, but I would have expected them to do so. Han Ji-Min? That was an unexpected choice and it worked. Now, my opinion of this movie and her performance in it may have been influenced by my prior experiences watching her, but I looked around online a bit and others have seemed to have the same opinion of her performance here. I feel some validation, though I am guessing that this may all mean nothing to someone who has not seen her in anything else before. Whatever. Anyways…
South Korea has its fair share of movies about abuse. Many are very good and a few will show up in this series. What sets this movie apart from the others that I have seen is that the protagonist is not merely some outsider trying to uncover the mysterious past of some other character or someone experiencing her own abuse. It initially appears that Jang-sup would be the main character, trying to finally work out the mystery of his aloof and introverted girlfriend through tidbits of exposition doled out piece by piece. Maybe he will finally save her and earn her love. Instead, there ends up large swaths of the movie where he is not even an indirect presence. It is mostly about her.
There may be gaps in Sang-ah’s past, but little mystery. That she was a victim of parental abuse and rape are revealed pretty early on. There is no indication that she has been abused as an adult either; it is the trauma of childhood that hurts her still. The enduring scars that she tries to cover with makeup. The psychological damage that prevents her from trusting her judgment. The raging turmoil that she tries to mask with stoicism. The bitter cynicism that makes her keep people at arm’s length. The loneliness that she uses as a defense mechanism. The fear that she could be like her mother preventing her from marriage and motherhood. The shame that makes her doubt her own good intentions. The self-hatred that makes her backtrack her good acts. Sang-ah does not deem herself worthy of being a good person. Sure, a more put-together person could have done something more sooner, but none did. If the capable people do not step in to do what is right, then what hope does she have in trying?
The movie is not particularly subtle in drawing the connection between Sang-ah and Ji-eun. Their first on-screen encounter has them wearing the same type of flip flops. If that is not enough, flashbacks to Sang-ah’s life with her mother has her character portrayed by the younger sister of the girl who plays Ji-eun. The lack of mystery and the overt connection between the two characters should make this an easy plot, right? Woman with a traumatic past sees a girl who is most likely going through similar trauma and rescues her from her terrible father and wicked stepmother. That would be the easy plot, sure. And that is probably why the movie frontloads those themes instead of dragging them out. Those are not discoveries. Those are obvious. For sure, Sang-ah sees part of herself in Ji-eun, but that is not enough.
Empathy and sympathy tussle with self-preservation and a hardened shell. Beyond simply not being equipped to take responsibility for another’s well-being, she cannot be saddled with a liability that reminds her of the past that she desperately wants to escape, especially now that the ghost of her mother is haunting her. No one had saved Sang-ah from her mother and no one had saved her from her rapist. No one is there to help her pick up the pieces of her life except for this one dope who will never understand anything. Why should Ji-eun be any different? To allow such a vulnerable person into her life may cause her to reveal her own vulnerability, and that could destroy her. She is not simply flawed, she is broken. How could someone as messed up as she is give this girl a better life than the one that she has? Either someone else will save Ji-eun or no one will. Even the small acts of kindness that Sang-ah performs for Ji-eun come with risk, both from outside and within her own mind.
Those small acts of kindness are more than others provide. Ji-eun’s father and his girlfriend beat her when they are not simply neglecting her. The state had been propping up their lifestyle through child support, but stopped with little evidence that it was due to any concern for Ji-eun. Her biological mother is simply gone. The next door neighbor claims to have not heard anything disturbing, but probably just willfully ignored everything. The police are near useless. The other customers in the food stall tent assume that Sang-ah is abusing Ji-eun, but ultimately do nothing. At the same time, they assume that Sang-ah is her mother; after all, who else would give a girl food? The only person who truly tries to do the right thing is Jang-sup, and it pretty much always ends up going badly. Doing good is never rewarded and everyone already thinks the worst of Sang-ah, so why bother? The general attitude that people exhibit towards everything is to avoid getting involved in matters that are not their business. One can comment on what is going on, but it is best to avoid bringing trouble, causing trouble, creating trouble, or making trouble. Just mind your own business.
This atmosphere of cynical apathy is how Mi-gyeong can get away with seeming joyful, pious, and glamorous while living a homelife of miserable filth. It is how Sang-ah slipped through the cracks as a child and lived away from prying eyes as an adult. The only time that society paid attention to her was after her arrest for attacking a rich boy. This is how the world is. Sang-ah even sometimes frames her acts of kindness as aberrant behavior; merely another example of how messed up in the head she must be. After all, what could the alternative be, that she is a good person capable of doing good deeds? What even is that? No, she must be crazy. Of course she is crazy. And if she keeps acting kindly towards this girl whom she is completely unrelated to, other people will find out.
This movie is pretty harsh in its content and presentation of said content. The storyline, plot, characters, characterization, and acting are pretty grounded and blunt. As such, this movie could have worked as another cold scold about terrible people in a terrible society. But I am guessing that the people behind movie knew that it would be difficult enough to watch without having to actively make it more difficult through a sour attitude. Thus, the movie thankfully displays an atmosphere that is openly sympathetic towards both Sang-ah and Ji-eun. The music and the cinematography are often gentle and melancholy, the stuff that would accompany a more sentimental take on this subject matter. Or a sweeping romance about terminal illness. In other words, a standard Han Ji-Min weepy. Even if the characters may try to keep from crying, the audience is invited to do so pretty early on. The movie is not on the outside looking in. The movie wants the audience be inside the mind and heart of someone who does not let anyone inside. The movie wants to understand and accept the torment that she is going through, not judge her for the actions that she takes or simply look upon her as an object of pity. Miss Baek is not just the titular character; she is the movie. This is not what you would do in her shoes, this is how could you have possibly done any different?
This movie could have been either melodramatic or coldly clinical, but combined both to make a better piece of work. It holds back on the tearjerker vibe at moments and deploys it strategically for optimal crying. There is a point at around an hour in where the melodrama threatens to get too much, but I do not feel like it overplays its hand. And it is not a total cryfest, as there are moments of levity in the interactions between Sang-ah and Ji-eun. The greedy detective is good for a couple of laughs. Jang-sup has an older sister who had to take care of him when they were kids due to their mother being not so great; their bickering is funny too. Those moments, however, are rather sparse.
There is so much that I want to say about this movie, but I have trouble doing so. I feel like I did not do justice in talking about Sang-ah and I cannot really describe how I felt when the movie was done. This movie is definitely a difficult sit, and I will not try to push it upon anyone who refuses to touch it. But it is excellent. If you think that you might be able to stomach it, then I highly recommend it.
WTF ASIA 105: Firaaq (India: 2009, approx. 99-102 minutes)
WTF ASIA 106: Yojimbo (Japan: 1961, approx. 111 minutes)