As one of the eight (8) Korean films in the City to City program focusing on Seoul, Korea at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), A Girl at My Door (도희야) is a powerful film that highlights a society that overlooks certain issues while reviling others.
Police Captain Lee Young Nam is transferred from Seoul to a quiet small town, whose main industry is fishing and is populated mostly by foreign workers and elderly locals, following a personal scandal. Soon after arriving she meets Do Hee, an odd, quiet middle school girl who is bullied by her classmates and abused by her family.
Few people complain about the abuse Do Hee suffers as her step-father, Yong Ha, is the primary business leader in the village. Things grow more complicated when Yong Ha’s drunken mother crashing her motorbike into the sea and Young Nam allows Do Hee to stay at her house to escape further abuse from Yong Ha. For a while everything is great for Do Hee and Young Nam but soon Yong Ha starts to make trouble. And things go sour in a hurry as we see how people are quick to assume the worst of those who may be different.
It was such a powerful, complex and compelling film that it’s hard to believe A Girl At My Door is the first film by director (and writer) July Jung. In fact, after watching the film, I’ve added July Jung to my “directors to watch” list.
One of the first things that stood out for me was the setting of the film. The small town that is the center of most of the film is beautiful. But we soon see that while picturesque, it’s like a beautiful shell covering the problems we find within. The story is dark and highlights problems and social issues that are hiding beneath the surface. Interestingly though, despite the fact that the issues of alcohol abuse, child abuse, homosexuality and immigration are touched on, the film never feels preachy or like it’s trying to solve the problems, only bring them to the surface in the context of the story.
Early in the film the audience is left to wonder what exactly Captain Lee Young Nam, played well by Bae Doona (배두나), did to be reassigned. She looks very uncomfortable interacting with the people in the village, especially at the welcoming party. We know it was a personal issue but it’s not until later that we can extrapolate that it was because she was in a homosexual relationship. Perhaps that’s why Young Nam is hesitant to become friendly with anyone in the village as someone must have broken her trust in the past.
But we soon learn why the film is titled A Girl At My Door in English and 도희야 in Korean. Speaking of the titles, I’ve always found the English titles and Korean titles of Korean films interesting – sometimes they are the same/similar and sometimes not. In this case the Korean title is the name of the young girl, Do Hee, played extremely well by Kim Sae Ron (김새론). The young actress, who is only 14, was almost eerily believable as Do Hee.
While A Girl at My Door is a completely different film, with a very different story, it reminded me at times of Single White Female (a 1992 film by Barbet Schroeder), especially when Do Hee gets her hair cut. And perhaps because of that, the film – and Do Hee – started to feel creepier and darker, not that it was ever light.
The thing that sets A Girl At My Door apart are how well the two main characters are played and how believable they are. While Young Nam isn’t perfect – she drinks soju like water to sleep at night, masking her habit by pouring it into actual water bottles – she tries to help Do Hee, even knowing the danger it could represent to her reputation and career. Her character is so vividly real, that despite how aloof she tries to appear, it becomes so easy to warm up to her and connect with the character. It also makes watching the her interrogation in the police station painful to watch. You can see the expressions playing across her face as she realizes how her helping Do Hee has been misconstrued.
But if I thought that was hard to watch, it was nothing compared to the scene where Do Hee sets up her step-father. Wow, did that take courage and cunning. It also, especially combined with everything that led up to that point, makes one wonder if Do Hee has been corrupted by all the abuse. I hate to think it of a child – and the character of Do Hee is a middle school student – but she almost appears at times to be a sociopath and then at other times to simply be a victim. Apparently I’m not the only one to wonder as the speech by the young officer near the end of the film reflects that question.
A Girl At My Door is a superb first film. It would be a very good film regardless of how experienced the director was but as the first feature film by July Jung it was impressive. The story was compelling and the director received great performances by both Bae Doona and Kim Sae Ron. Add into the mix, complex issues and a beautiful setting and A Girl At My Door was a film that made me cry, think and shudder – sometimes all at the same time.
Have you seen A Girl At My Door? What did you think?