Forced to relocate in the countryside due to an undisclosed issue in the city, police officer Yeong-nam (Bae Doo-na (배두나) prepares herself for a year of exile. Despite being one of the youngest adults in the city Yeong-nam is appointed chief of police, and in getting to know her new surroundings she is quickly exposed to the middle-aged, laid back way of life, as well as the migrant workers who help keep the town alive through manual labour. Yet no sooner as she attempts to settle, Yeong-nam is confronted with horrific child abuse against her young neighbour Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron (김새론) by her father Yong-ha (Song Sae-byeok (송새벽) and grandmother (Kim Jin-goo (김진구). To protect Do-hee from further domestic abuse Yeong-nam takes the child under her care, just as her past begins to catch up with her.
A Girl at My Door (도희야) is a simply phenomenal debut by writer/director July Jung (Jeong Joo-ri (정주리). Director Jung’s film is a powerful and intelligent exploration of discrimination and violence in Korean culture with a uniquely feminist spin that is all too rare in the industry. The approach taken in exploring such social issues is reminiscent of cinema legend Lee Chang-dong‘s work, particularly Poetry, which more than likely explains his decision to take a producer credit on the film. A Girl at My Door differentiates itself from director Lee’s work however in that director Jung’s layered script not only employs a multitude of perspectives in interrogating discrimination, but also in that she keenly conveys the ironies of Korean culture, particularly in regard to pretense. Central protagonist Yeong-nam projects a strong and stoic image as the chief of police, concealing her fraught complexity in regards to her history, emotional state, and very identity. Her dependancy on soju, which she conceals in water bottles, adds potent irony to an already paradoxical situation as she hides her addiction from those around her in a bid to remain a socially acceptable image. Director Jung captures moments such as these with incredible prowess conveying them in ways both subtle and obvious, balancing her character study with a skill belying her experience.
Yet where director Jung truly excels is through the relationship that develops between Yeong-nam and abuse victim Doo-hee. This is in no small part due to the astounding performances of both Bae Doo-na and, particularly, Kim Sae-ron. Bae Doo-na is constantly captivating as the police chief as she wrestles her internal conflicts, conveying a cold stoicism when in the presence of others yet a subtle fragility when alone. Yet it is youngster Kim Sae-ron who steals the limelight with her astonishing turn as social outcast Do-hee. Her range throughout A Girl at My Door is staggeringly impressive as an abuse victim desperate for love, with her unpredictability compelling to the utmost degree. Despite having two radically different characters director Jung crafts their relationship with a natural sincerity that never fails to be engaging. From small moments at meal times to more intimate scenes as they become closer, director Jung captures Do-hee’s reverence and Yeong-nam’s responsibility-turned-devotion with palpable affection.
Through the central relationship as well as Yeong-nam’s position as law enforcement, A Girl at My Door explores discrimination within Korean society through the microcosm of a small countryside town. Director Jung interrogates the issue from a variety of perspectives, chiefly the sexism, homophobia and ageism that is so openly expressed by those in society. Despite her position as chief of police Yeong-nam is still subjected to gender and age discrimination by those she protects and works with, while her status as someone from the city also adds to the prejudice received. Do-hee is subjected to abuse which is justified due to her social status as a young orphan of sorts. The narrative impressively examines how such discrimination has become normalised within culture at both societal and governmental levels, with the frustration of innocents attempting to fight against it a source of inspiration and empowerment. Racism also arises through the incorporation of migrant workers within the story, adding a further perspective on the issue as they are forced to endure manual labour. Through her sense of irony director Jung astutely conveys how contemporary society is willing to accept such prejudice as long as their quality of life is assured, and their terrible reaction when it is challenged even in the name of the law.
A Girl at My Door is a phenomenal debut by director July Jung, who examines issues of discrimination in contemporary Korea through the microcosm of small countryside town. Featuring beautiful cinematography and an intelligent, irony-laced script, A Girl at My Door also boasts two exceptional performances from Bae Doo-na and in particular from rising star Kim Sae-ron. Not to be missed.