Combining gay rights with all the tropes of a horror movie, July Jung’s A Girl At My Door is strangely haunting, but struggles with a split personality.
Deliveranceby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The debut feature from Korean director July Jung, A Girl At My Door is a curious half-breed, half-way between moral drama and horror. It opens with a young girl squeezing frogs at the side of the road, her straggled hair hanging down over her face like the creature from Hideo Nakata’s Ringu. And as the new police chief rides into town, the atmosphere darkens as local yokels, who really should be missing teeth, cackle to themselves as they hide the shady goings-on down at the harbour or cover up domestic abuse. It’s Yeosu – what appears to be Korea’s Wild West – and all its inhabitants need is a good sheriff to clean up this cotton-pickin’ dirty town.
Relocated from Seoul, police chief Young-Nam (Doona Bae) is stationed in the backwater fishing district of Yeosu, where alcohol-fuelled locals run amok, beating their children and extorting undesirable labour from illegal immigrants. Pulling into town, Young-Nam meets Do-Hee (Sae-ron Kim), a schoolgirl abused both by her drunken father and her classmates, and it’s not long before the new police chief becomes her defender. Running away from beatings at home, Do-Hee moves in with Young-Nam for the summer – a mother-and-daughter idyll that’s called into question by prying villagers. And when Young-Nam’s ex-girlfriend from Seoul arrives, it’s enough to send Do-Hee into meltdown and out Young-Nam to the whole town.
With homosexuality still a relatively hot topic in South Korea, July Jung’s A Girl At My Door is a political statement. In a town where women’s work is restricted to mending fishing nets for the menfolk to go trawling with the next day, July delivers a strong-and-silent-type heroine, a police chief in a station populated almost entirely by men. She’s protective, but also forgiving (warning Do-Hee’s alcoholic father countless times before finally arresting him) and understanding too – talking illegal immigrant Bakim down from ruining the village by destroying the seed oysters. But behind closed doors, Young-Nam doesn’t quite have it together – drinking soju rice wine by the litre, disguised in plastic water bottles.
It’s uncertain, as the young police chief allows the strangely feral Do-Hee into her house, quite where her inclinations lie, touching her scars with a mixture of concern and forbidden fancy. And while Young-Nam is bitterly aware of the implications of a maternal hug, there are some interesting gay rights issues at play here, as the propriety of her relationship with Do-Hee is called into question as soon as they find out she’s a lesbian. There’s no doubt the police chief’s intentions are entirely proper, but as she refuses to answer the interrogating officer’s question about her sexuality, there’s a universe of institutionalised homophobia within and beyond those walls that can only be escaped by upping and getting out of Dodge.
Unfortunately however A Girl At My Door bites off rather more than it can chew, turning its teenage abuse victim into an unsettling child-monster – an ungrateful liar, a K-pop dancing queen, a manipulative avenger and granny-killer. There’s no sensitivity around the film’s storyline of abuse – populated with drunk, screeching crackpots who wouldn’t look out of place in John Boorman’s Deliverance and who, reaching fever-pitch in the first reel, have nowhere left to go. Its domestic scenes are much more successful, and Doona Bae crackles with understated emotion, hanging somewhere in the balance between mother, lover and loner. Lurching between delicacy and crassness, July Jung’s A Girl At My Door is frantic and out-of-kilter, but makes for a haunting and unusual cross-genre domestic horror.
A Girl At My Door is released on 18th September 2015 in the UK