You’d never know it, but A Girl at My Door is actually the first feature film from promising new Korean director July Jung. Produced by well-regarded Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, Oasis, Peppermint Candy), the film evidently benefits from some of his expertise but it would be a mistake to over-emphasise his involvement. Like Lee’s films, A Girl at My Door is a tightly plotted character drama that opens up to explore a whole host of social issues, but Jung has certainly been able to put her own stamp on the project and if A Girl at My Door is anything to go by, she is very much a talent on the rise.
Lee Young-nam (Bae Doona) has just arrived in the little hick town she’s been exiled to thanks to some kind of undisclosed infraction committed in Seoul. As the town’s new police chief, she’s thrust into the largely male world of local law enforcement and forced to acclimatise to small town politics with hardly enough time to breathe. Lee is also a high functioning alcoholic who guzzles soju from refilled litre bottles of water, though her colleagues don’t seem to have noticed and her work is barely affected. After catching sight of the same young girl who seems to be constantly running away from someone or other, Lee eventually intervenes when a group of teenagers are picking on her. Do-hee is a troubled teenager from a violent home where, abandoned by her mother, she’s ‘cared for’ by a step father and resentful drunken grandmother. Do-hee quickly fixates on Lee and her superficially fearless attitude and eventually Lee has taken the girl in and offered her a place of solace way from the chaos of her home life. However, no matter how good one’s intentions may be, others will twist the facts to their own advantage and doing the right thing can often prove dangerous.
Possibly one of the benefits of having a high profile producer like Lee Chang-dong is that you’re able to get yourself a high profile cast of talented actors for your first film despite not having a proven track record or industry clout of your own. Bae Doona’s performance of the largely silent Lee is nothing short of extraordinary. There’s a sort of defiance in Lee’s silence, an unwillingness to speak because she knows there’s very little point. All we can glean about what happened in Seoul is that her dismissal has something to do with the fact that Lee is gay - something that is accidentally discovered by exactly the wrong person when Lee’s ex-partner comes to town. It’s not so much that she’s keeping that secret from the townspeople, but more that she knows it’s going to be a problem and she’s unwilling to deny it either - after all, she’s been here before and she knows how this scenario plays out. Taking in someone else’s child can be a dangerous thing for anyone, but according to one policeman “it’s different when a homosexual does it” and even the most innocent, well-meaning of gestures suddenly becomes something sordid and dirty. Lee’s world-weary attitude seems to imply she half-expected this would happen, still - there was a girl at her door, what else could she do?
Bae Doona is equally matched by the already fairly experienced teenage actress Kim Sae-ron as the troubled young girl, Do-hee. A mess of contradictions, Do-hee is both vulnerable and dangerous. One of the villagers refers to her as a monster and she certainly has a dark side which can be selfish and manipulative as well as a tendency towards fantasy. However, at the root of things she’s just a lonely, abandoned, unloved and unwanted child. Of course, as soon as someone shows her the slightest hint of kindness she will latch on and become fearful of losing even that extremely slight glimpse of affection. Perhaps therefore, she says things that aren’t quite true without fully understanding their implications and ironically risks ruining the fragile happiness she’s so desperate to cling to. It is quite an extraordinary performance from such a young actress - Kim Sae-ron manages to unify all of Do-hee’s contradictory sides into a convincing, and ultimately quite moving, whole.
A Girl at My Door does have its social issue dimensions - the exploitation of illegal immigrants, small town politics, homophobia, sexism and of course unwanted children are all themes at some point touched on through the film, but what is at heart is a character drama about two lonely women who both find new strengths thanks to their unexpected friendship. Jung has crafted a charming and moving film that is only improved by its tremendous feeling of stillness. Beautifully shot and full of intriguing ambiguities, A Girl at My Door is a fantastically assured debut feature which hints at a very interesting career ahead for director July Jung.
A Girl at My Door was screened as part of the 2014 BFI London Film Festival and will also be screened as part of the 2014 London Korean Film Festival on Friday 7th November 2014 before being released in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures in 2015.