Director: Jeong Joo-ri
Writer: Jeong Joo-ri
Producer: Lee Jun-Dong
Cast: Bae Doo-Na, Kim Sae-Ron, Song Sae-Byuk, Kim Jin-Gu, Son Jong-Hak, Na Jong-Min, Gong Myung
Running Time: 119 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Korea has arguably been producing the best movies to come out of Asia for the last 15 years, however one criticism of the industry has always been the lack of lead roles for women, outside of romantic comedies and flower vase roles in male dominated thrillers. In what’s still considered to be a male dominated society, the issue is confounded further by the lack of female directors. While directors like Shin Su-won and Bang Eun-jin are exceptions to the rule, there’s no doubt that the Korean film industry could be even stronger if it embraced the large amount of female talent that’s out there.
With A Girl at My Door, first time director and scriptwriter Jeong Joo-ri will hopefully be a name that can be added to the expanding pool of female directors active in the industry. Joo-ri’s talent had a notable hand to guide it, which came in the form of Lee Chang-dong. Chang-dong, the director of such masterpieces as Green Fish, Oasis, and Secret Sunshine, was Joo-ri’s teacher at the Korea National University of Arts, and he clearly had enough confidence in his students ability that he came on board as producer for her debut.
A Girl at My Door also gives us a female-centric story, which is headlined by Bae Doo-na and Kim Sae-ron. Doo-na is no doubt one of the most recognizable faces in Korean cinema, having caught audiences attention with her roles as the quirky girlfriend to Sin Ha-gyoon’s mute in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, to the crossbow wielding family member in Bong Joon-ho’s monster movie The Host. Understandably Hollywood came calling, and most recently she’s starred in the Wachowskis’ (of The Matrix fame) blockbusters Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending.
Sae-ron has equally being making a name for herself as one of the busiest child actors in Korea. While readers here will most likely recognize her as the kidnapped girl Won Bin goes on a mission to rescue in 2010’s The Man from Nowhere, she’s been in plenty of drama series’ and movies in-between. While in The Man from Nowhere Sae-ron was just 9 years old, 4 years later and she’s now a teenager, and very much looking to be one of the brightest female acting talents in Korea.
In A Girl at My Door Doo-na plays a police captain who, in the opening, we learn has been transferred to a new post in a remote seaside town. As she drives into the town on a bright summer’s day, she inadvertently runs through a puddle, dousing a scruffy and tattered looking girl by the roadside with water. The girl is played by Sae-ron, and as Doo-na stops the car to check if she’s ok, instead of speaking they wordlessly stare at each other, before Sae-ron dashes off into a field. It’s worth noting that Sae-ron’s character is called Do-hee, which is also the name of the movie in Korean, and from that first meeting between the two characters, the ominous tone which you can’t quite put your finger on is set.
It’s established from the word go that proceedings are going to revolve around the relationship between Doo-na and Sae-ron’s characters, and Joo-ri shows an assured hand at constantly feeding small hints of information about both of their characters as the movie progresses. This isn’t a type of movie which spoon feeds the audience, and it’s all the better for it, as with each part of their history that’s revealed, we gain a greater understanding of their actions, which makes it a highly rewarding experience to watch. That’s not to say things move at a fast pace, if anything the opposite is true, however there’s never a moment when proceedings feel slow or dull, as every scene and frame is there to add something to the fabric of the story being told.
When it’s revealed that Sae-ron’s character is living with her highly abusive step-father and his elderly mother, who abuse her both physically and verbally on a daily basis, Doo-na’s police captain eventually ends up taking Sae-ron under her wing, allowing her to stay at her home. However when the step-father’s mother is found dead, seemingly by accident, things begin to get complicated. The step-father is played by Song Sae-byeok, and in a refreshing change from the comedic roles he’s most well known for, here he comes across a constantly drunk brute, always seething with anger. Feeling harassed from the sudden attention off Doo-na’s police captain, both because of the abuse, and what appears to be his hiring of illegal Indian immigrants to help run the towns fishing fleet, he begins to do his own research as to the reasons behind her transfer.
A Girl at My Door is a decidedly difficult movie to market, while for international audiences it will most likely be touted as a murder mystery, the event is really only a device in which to frame the relationship that develops between Doo-na and Sae-ron. It’s the effect that they both have on each which forms the heart of the movie. Both characters are essentially broken, Doo-na from whatever it was that led to her being transferred to such a remote town, and Sae-ron from the years of abuse she’s being suffering after being abandoned by her mother. While Doo-na’s story arc is thoroughly addressed, to go into any details of it would be to spoil some of the movies finest moments.
Joo-ri shows the influence of her teacher in many of the scenes, with plenty of visual metaphors to enjoy for viewers who are looking for them. Perhaps one of the best being the image of a trail which is overgrown with vines and bushes, with Sae-ron’s house at one end of it, and the vast expanse of the ocean at the other. The direction the characters go along the trail, from the beginning to the end of the movie, being a meaningful representation of their mindset. While the story may seem like yet another entry in Korea’s genre of dark family dramas, this would be misleading. A Girl at My Door is actually about the hope that two people can bring to each other, and while neither of the two leads are given an easy time throughout the movie, their efforts are ultimately rewarded, and as a result, so are the audience.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10