A wrenching yarn about a mother seeking justice for the rape of her daughter, “Azooma” is more about bullying as a social malaise in South Korea than about sexual assault. Effectively inflammatory in depicting the characters’ uphill battle against corrupt, male-dominated systems, the film reps an opportune vehicle for thesp Jang Young-nam to deliver an all-consuming perf. Debuting helmer Lee Ji-seung’s artily edited and compulsive storytelling tactfully sidesteps the subject’s lurid horrors, but still skirts too close to exploitation with a literally jaw-dropping payoff. Extreme Asian ancillary sales and fest play are assured.
Although the film was made on a thrifty budget, helmer Lee (who produced such lavish blockbusters as “Haeundae”) demonstrates clear aspirations to quality arthouse filmmaking, using multiple stylized flashbacks to visualize the deeply injured subconcious of his mother-daughter protags.
The pic opens with one such montage, in which insurance agent Yoon Young-nam (Jang) chases a mugger (Hwang Tae-kwang) through Seoul’s filthier byways. Flashbacks show Yoon discovering her 10-year-old daughter, Yeon-ju (Lee Jae-hee), bleeding excessively in a rubbish heap. The rest of the incident, including Yoon’s backstory, is economically revealed in further flashbacks identifying the mugger as the perp who drove up to the girl and tricked her into getting into his car.
Yoon corners the suspect in a cul-de-sac, but she’s become so hysterical that the police accuse her of assault when they arrive. The cops’ visible reluctance to take her side is just the film’s first example of how male-centric authorities mistrust and disrespect women by default; thus, Yoon is addressed as “Azooma,” which means “married woman” but carries implications of social inferiority. Just as shocking as the inaction of the corrupt police force is the reaction of Yoon’s ex-husband (Bai Song-woo).
Over the course of the film, Yeon-ju’s ordeal is re-enacted partly via her own patchy recollections, and partly as Yoon’s self-tormenting visualization of what happened. Whereas several recent Korean films, such as “Silenced,” revel in torturous depictions of pedophilia and rape (and there are enough to constitute a subgenre), the deliberately nebulous lensing by d.p. Hwang Ki S. and snappy editing by Shin Min-kyoung skip over the graphic sexual details here, while unequivocally implying their heinousness.
Jang, who received the Directors’ Guild of Korea’s actress award, goes over-the-edge to hypnotic effect, provoking more fear than the cool, collected rapist. Her perf will grate for many, but could be interpreted as a skilled projection of what a nuisance she appears in the eyes of an apathetic society. Acting as a quiet foil, Lee expresses internalized trauma with minimum dialogue.
Given what Yoon’s gone through, one can readily sympathize with her, and hope that she gets the justice she seeks. Still, only a cynic could see the film’s grisly payoff as cathartic, though the pic does suggest the angst of a national psyche that feels overwhelmed by widespread injustice (as denoted by the ironic Korean title, “A Fair Society”).
In the hands of a lesser editor, the film’s nonlinear structure might be confusing, but the story’s progression is suspenseful yet logical. Tech credits are average, except for the desaturation of image color, which smacks of faux arthouse grunginess.