Big city cop meets a small town family.
Available online. Approximately 119 minutes.
Inspector Lee Young-nam is moving from Seoul to a small coastal town to be the new police chief. Before even getting settled in, she meets the three members of the Park family. First, she drives past the teenage Sun Do-hee, who had been playing around with frog on the side of the road. Young Nam accidentally splashes water on her gets out of the car, perhaps to apologize, but Do-hee runs away.
Later, while driving with Captain Eom, Young-nam sees the elderly Park Jum-soon on her…scooter truck? Captain Eom yells at her to stop being so reckless on her vehicle, but Jum-soon does not care.
Almost immediately after that, Eom and Young-nam meet Do-hee’s stepfather, Park Yong-ha. He is driving around his employees, who are mostly Koreans from China and Southeast Asians. He and his band are among the very few people in their twenties and thirties who are still around in the town, so he has quite a bit of local clout. Eom introduces her as the new chief, and all Yong-ha can says is that she is sexy.
Young-nam seems to keep her distance from everyone in town, acting reserved and professional at most times. What others see as urban arrogance, however, hides something else. For one thing, this transfer was meant to be for only a year or so, so she should not get too comfortable here. Secondly, the reason for her being here in the first place is due to a personal scandal that her superiors in Seoul are hoping to ride out, and her absence is deemed necessary for that to happen.
Another thing that few people in town realize is that she is an alcoholic. She buys bottles and bottles of rice wine (Soju) and pours them into water bottles, perhaps to hide how much of a problem she has. So while others go out to drink socially and have fun, Young-nam drinks alone and in secret, inside her temporary house.
On occasion, Young-nam sees Do-hee around town. Sometimes she is just wandering by herself. Sometimes she is being bullied by other classmates.
One time, during one of her drunken binges, Young-nam barges into the Park residence to stop Yong-ha from beating Do-hee. Jum-soon tries to intervene on behalf of her son, but Young-nam has Yong-ha brought to the police station for child abuse, where he stays overnight.
The next day, Captain Eom tells a sobered-up Young-nam that Do-hee is actually not Yong-ha’s daughter, but the daughter of an ex-girlfriend who abandoned them. Eom tries to blame Yong-ha’s violent behavior on alcohol. Young-nam scoffs at that, but does not argue that she functions perfectly well despite frequently getting drunk herself.
Despite the twenty-year age difference, Young-nam and Do-hee strike up a bit of a friendship. Or rather, Do-hee starts viewing Young-nam as a friend and follows her around. Yong-ha scoffs at this, saying that Do-hee is as crazy as her mother was, but he cannot stop her from frequently trying to visit Young-nam at home. Young-nam grows fond of Do-hee and tells her that it is not right for adults to hit children. Unfortunately, she is unable to bring herself to intervene when she witnesses Jum-soon beating Do-hee again.
One night, Do-hee shows up at Young-nam’s house, upset and shaking. Jum-soon and her scooter truck has fallen off the road and into the water. Do-hee claims to have run away from home to keep from getting beaten and pretty much everyone chooses to believe her except for Yong-ha. He comes to the crime scene, understandably upset that his mother is dead. However, he almost immediately tries to attack Do-hee, and has to be restrained. Eventually, Young-nam decides that Do-hee can stay at her place over the school vacation. Some townsfolk raise their eyebrows at this unconventional arrangement, but they don’t do anything to stop it; at least not yet.
When I first heard about this movie, I decided that there was no way that I was not going to see it. First off, it starred Bae Doona, whom I could watch in anything that was not Cloud Atlas or any scene past her introduction in that Country Princess show, which was where I first saw her. Second it also starred Kim Sae-Ron, who first burst onto the scene in A Brand New Life when she was only nine-years-old and has proven herself ever since, mostly playing troubled girls in trouble. Third, almost all of the reviews that I had read have been really positive. So, of course I had to watch it. And it exceeded expectations.
My write-up of the first third of the movie or so may make it seem like it is about a woman who protects a girl from parental abuse. It is and it is not. Only some of the violence is shown, so to avoid being too exploitative. But really, the movie is about the type of abuse people tolerate and the type of abuse people do not. And while some of this story is more specific to societies like South Korea, it would be misleading to say that this could not apply elsewhere. The movie does not focus on Do-hee getting beaten to get a rise out of the audience because it does not have to. There are plenty of other scenes that are just as off-putting and unsettling. While I could say that I could see where the movie was going at certain points, there was definitely one twist that caught me off guard. Even watching it a third time, I still don’t know what to think of it, but I know that it will rub many people the wrong way. At the very least, though, it was not some Kim Ki-duk nonsense, so I was okay with it. But there is some, so be aware of that.
This is a small town that is both set in its ways and slowly deteriorating. Most of the people in their twenties and thirties have left. One may think that that might allow the elders to consolidate their authority but, instead, it made the remaining young adults a rare commodity, since they are the ones who can still actually do work. Eom tells Young-nam on multiple occasions that Yong-ha is the only reason why the town is still afloat. So Yong-ha is able to throw his weight around, exercising power over even the police.
While it could be argued that Yong-ha and Jum-soon are cartoonish bad guys, one could not argue that Young-nam or Do-hee are total good guys. There is Young-nam’s alcoholism, which could very well be worse than that of any townsfolk’s alcoholism. Her keeping her distance from pretty much everyone except for Do-hee does not really endear her to anyone, including those who may have tried to befriend her. Then there is the reason for her transfer which, which may or may not be as bad as the other things, but would probably raise eyebrows, particularly in small towns like this.
As for Do-hee, she is a little weird. She can be nice and fun and sympathetic at times. Other times…she is weird. Some of that may be simply due to her being fourteen. Some of that may be due to her getting bullied and beaten all of the time. Some of that may be due to her mother abandoning her. Some of that may be due to her mother also having been weird. She does not get checked for having any psychological condition, but it is possible. Back when we first see her, she is playing with a frog and has a bit of blood on her finger. Later in the movie, one might be justified in wondering if she goaded that frog into biting her finger.
A Girl at My Door is the only feature film written and directed by July Jung. It is also seemingly the last thing on her filmography. That is unfortunate, unless this is the only movie that she wanted to do and has been following another calling during the past six years. In any case, she has left us with a movie that, while not an easy watch, is a very good one.
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