A Girl at My Door (Dohee-ya, South Korea)
In Korean with English subtitles
July Jung's debut feature film is not only impressive for its professional finesse but also for its ambition in tackling a bevy of challenging subjects. While the results are uneven, the film remains an overall captivating composition.
Doona Bae (of Cloud Atlas, Sense8, and The Host fame) plays Young-nam, the new station chief of a fishing village's police precinct.
She repeatedly witnesses schoolgirl Do-hee (Sae-Ron Kim) running down streets at night or being beaten up, first by her classmates, then by her drunkard father Yong-ha (Sae-byeok Song). Such is the extent of Do-hee's abuse that even her grandmother swills alcohol while watching her son beat the teenage girl, even physically defending him when Young-Nam (who privately struggles with her own drinking problem) tries to intervene.
Do-hee repeatedly seeks refuge from the violence at Young-nam's house. When Do-hee's grandmother is found dead, Young-nam temporarily takes Do-hee into her care. The withdrawn girl quickly blooms under Young-nam's wing, but she also becomes extremely clingy and seeks intimacy that skirts the inappropriate.
Young-nam's past comes to haunt her when the townspeople discover she was relocated to her new post due to her relationship with another woman. Consequently, her interest in Do-hee becomes suspect and questioned, affecting the power struggle between Young-nam and Yong-ha.
Meanwhile, Yong-ha becomes revealed as an employer of illegal immigrants, in a subplot that complements both Young-nam and Do-hee's struggles.
And thus, Yong-Ha becomes the sole locus of what is wrong in the village. Unfortunately, he's depicted as a one-dimensional monster, as his full backstory never gets told and he's abusive in one way or another in every scene he appears. Similarly, the bullying and attacks on Do-hee are relentless from the outset. For someone as outcast as Do-hee, when she blossoms under Young-nam's care, she surprisingly appears quite often as a regular, upbeat teenager, with zero trace of damaged self-esteem or psychological wounds until she acts up. When she does let loose though, Kim is thoroughly convincing and even disturbing.
Despite her martial arts abilities, Bae evidences little toughness in her voice or stance to show what helped her rise through the ranks and persevere for a woman who faces sexism (and homophobia) on the job. However, she does demonstrate an admirable ability to convey emotional versatility simply through her eyes, from a world-weary gaze to wide-eyed shock to pensive observation that reveals much about her inner state.
That all noted, the drama remains an engrossing one, in part due to the restrained handling of the compelling subject matter, the complex interplay between the characters, and the frequent, unexpected plot twists. It's a powerful debut that marks this filmmaking talent as one to watch.
A Girl At My Door screens at the VQFF Centerpiece Gala on August 19 (7 p.m.) at the Vancouver Playhouse and August 22 (9 p.m.) at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts as part of the 2015 Vancouver Queer Film Festival.