A Girl at My Door (Dohui-ya). South Korea (2014). Written and directed by July Jung / Cinematography by Hyun Seok Kim / Edited by Young-lim Lee. Starring Doona Bae / Sae-ron Kim, Song Sae-byeok, Kim Jin-gu.
The pint-sized Chichester International Film Festival consistently punches above its weight, among other riches in its twenty-fourth year, three outstanding police and detective thrillers from 2014, all of which go well beyond the merely procedural. Alberto Rodriguez’ Marshland puts a murder investigation in a moody landscape with a backstory from the Franco era; in Ramil Salakhutdinov’s A White White Night, a detective’s missing-person search in St Petersburg is constantly diverted by tales of the city; and in July Jung’s expressive A Girl at My Door, procedure has all but disappeared, replaced in this South Korean story by a mercurial relationship between a disgraced policewoman and an abused teenager in a forlorn fishing town.
In A Girl at My Door, a young Seoul police inspector Lee Young-nam (Bae Doona) has been banished to the sticks because of her lesbianism. She also drinks heavily, evidently to help her sleep and to keep at bay painful memories of the end of the offending affair (although we suspect that her difficulties and unhappiness run much deeper). To cool off the situation, Young-nam is given a backwater posting in a fiercely chauvinistic marginal fishing community. Here, she becomes merely ‘the Chief’—and an outsider. As the extent of Young-nam’s dependence on alcohol is revealed, we begin to appreciate the degree of control over herself that she struggles to exercise as she comes to grips with her exile.
The economy of the town is dominated by an oyster-catching business relying on immigrant labour run by hothead Park Yong-ha (Song Sae-byeok), whose love of drink is exceeded only by that of his offensively wild mother Park Jum-soon (Kim Jim-gu). His thirteen-year-old daughter Sun Do-hee (Kim sae-ron) has been abandoned by her mother and is bullied at school and beaten relentlessly by her father and grandmother. The Chief intuitively notices this cruelty and, as Do-hee becomes the girl at her door, takes the teenager under her wing, whilst constantly stopping short of prosecuting Yong-ha for her abuse. The Chief’s ex-girlfriend arrives in town and wants to emigrate with her. Yong-ha spots the two women kissing and the scene is set for a campaign against the Chief which, given her close friendship with Do-hee, inevitably leads to her arrest for child molestation. Conditioned by a lifetime of abuse, Do-hee has become cunning and resourceful, breaking down the Chief’s carefully constructed reserve. Towards the end, she has come to adore the Chief and takes shocking advantage of two opportunities to keep the Chief by her side, finding her anger and exacting a terrible revenge. The relationship between the Chief and the girl blossoms in a loving collusion in spite of the moral dictates of the law.
Freed from procedure, the film concentrates on a growing understanding of just what kind of person—and policewoman—the Chief is, exploring this through her opposites. If Yong-ha is a wild alcoholic, then the Chief is a secret one, on a steady diet of soju (rice wine) which she decants into big plastic water bottles in an underground car park, partly to avoid bin-loads of empties but mainly to hide the truth from herself. Both drink to cope with a sense of precariousness—the Chief, who cannot sleep, and who needs the utmost control over potentially annihilating feelings as her career and identity come under scrutiny; and Yong-ha, who works hard and plays hard, alcohol offering the only release from a bleak life. The Chief is reluctant to prosecute Park Yong-ha for the abuse of his daughter: she sees in him not a mainstay of the economy who must be protected but a reflection of her own unlawful self.
Do-hee is also an opposite, who constantly tests the Chief’s glacial control with her mercurial demands. At the beginning, she is a whimpering, crushed child, fresh from a spot of bullying, her long black hair cascading from her bowed head to hide her face. As the Chief befriends her, the girl becomes emboldened and is soon at the Chief’s door, bright-eyed, coquettish and animated, having constructed inventive and effective defences of her own to keep despair at bay—a certain kind of option for abused children. With her capacity for control seriously eroded, the Chief takes in the child, laying herself open to an accusatory world out to get her. An imperishable bond results as the Chief, perhaps for the first time, confronts the abandonment and abuse that we suspect she suffered too: at one point, off-camera taunts by grandma about the girl’s useless mother sound over the blank stare of the Chief as if in her head. (The abandonment by her mother is the one terrible aspect of Do-hee’s life that she finds hardest to defend herself against; a new mother is the only solution for her.) If the Chief recognizes a dark fellow-traveller in Yong-ha and imprisons herself by failing to separate herself from him and bring him to book, then her relationship with Do-hee sets her free, leading her to a new-found object of love, and a capacity for forgiveness which, we sense, she is now able to extend to herself, beyond any sense of what the law means to her in the exercise of her job.
Bae Doona and Kim Sae-ron excel as woman and girl, the landscape of their faces carrying the emotional weight of the story. Bae’s face and slight build express an immensity of suffering concealed by a calculated assurance and a capacity for the logic of truth (the Chief’s interrogation reveals how, in the face of crushing defeat, she is still able to argue her case). The Chief’s drinking too emphasizes the mismatch of the outer and inner woman, as what she drinks only once appears to ravage her. Bae catches a kindly compassion marked with a cruel sadness, the opposite of the mischievous coquettishness of Kim’s abused child. She has no need of histrionics. Yet again, we see one character carrying the emotions for another whose defences against despair prohibit feeling. In coming to need someone, however, Do-hee finds her anger as, with cool calculation, in a late plot-twist, she dispatches her tormentors. Perhaps the only cavil is that, as an experienced child-actor, Kim is a little too ebullient and polished in her role. But no matter. Her performance is astonishingly effective.
A Girl at My Door is remarkable for its unflinching examination of difficult issues in a society that is still uncomfortable with homosexuality and child abuse. The accomplished young female writer-director July Jung has chosen an uncompromising path, avoiding the temptation to go for the outward territory of a ‘police procedural’ and creating instead an interior journey centred on the affinity between a troubled protagonist and the damaged people that she encounters, in a world as precarious as her own.