A female police chief’s attempt to protect a teenage girl from domestic abuse fuels a layered expose of violence and bigotry in provincial Korean society in the wrenching drama “A Girl at My Door.” Tyro helmer-scribe July Jung’s studied film language sometimes devolves into overheated scenes of psychosis, but the pic is ultimately held together by the mesmerizing presence of Bae Doo-na in the title role and an equally bracing performance by teen thesp Kim Sae-ron. With starry leads, a sensational subject and the pedigree of Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong as producer, the film should come a-knocking at festivals and enjoy considerable success in niche arthouse release.
“A Girl at My Door” bears more than a passing resemblance to Lee’s “Poetry” in its suggestive evocation of the hidden sins in a close-knit, backward community, but its distinctly feminine angle on female relationships engages on a direct, emotional level. While this is not the first time Korean helmers have depicted their society as a hotbed of neurosis and inebriation, Jung leavens it all with a tinge of irony, as when Bae’s policewoman guzzles soju stored in one-liter bottles.
Seoul police officer Lee Young-nam (Bae, “Cloud Atlas,” “Air Doll”) arrives in a remote fishing town to take up the post of precinct chief. There, the sight of Do-hee (Kim) immediately catches her eye: A scrawny waif with disheveled hair and soiled clothing, Do-hee roams the fields like a specter out of a horror film.
It doesn’t take long for the newcomer to notice that Do-hee is a resident scapegoat whom locals scorn rather than pity. No sooner has Young-nam stopped the girl’s classmates from bullying her than she catches the girl’s drunken stepfather, Park Yong-ha (Song Sae-byuk), beating the living daylights out of her, while her grandmother watches approvingly in between gulps of Makoli wine. However, when Young-nam forcibly overcomes Yong-ha, she’s seen as a meddler by her smirking subordinates and the oafish townsfolk. With the migration of young people to the city, the town’s meager livelihood is precariously sustained by foreign workers hired and supervised by Yong-ha, who behaves like a local honcho.
Do-hee suffers more severe battering after Grandma falls to her death in the sea, so Young-nam has no choice but to temporarily take her in. The 14-year-old blooms into a pubescent beauty during their time living together, and her devotion to her protector and only friend exceeds mere childish admiration, insinuatingly underscored by d.p. Kim Hyun-seok’s lushly lit closeups of the femmes bathing or hugging each other.
Their dynamic becomes even more intriguing as Young-nam’s past comes to light, and she, too, emerges as a victim of persecution. In a flashback that explains how she got transferred to the sticks, she is rebuked and humiliated for unexplained “misconduct,” yet in contrast with her usually tough, self-assured stance, she proves mortified and apologetic. Her discrimination provides a wider social context for later plot developments when the town gangs up on her, and complements a subplot involving the exploitation of foreign workers.
The film’s depiction of an outsider confronting the blatant sexism of a rural community, and trying to make sense of a fellow femme’s docile tolerance of abuse, recalls Jang Cheol-su’s feminist revenge slasher “Bedeviled.” However, Jung’s yarn proves more artful and complex than that. Rather than resorting to another bloodbath in order to raise dramatic stakes, the script allows Do-hee to turn the tables with more insidious methods that also underscore a darker side to her nature.
In what is arguably her first role as a mature woman, Bae is both towering and frail as she switches convincingly from authoritative to maternal to defensive. After making a strong mark as the soulful lead of “A Brand New Life” (also produced by Lee) and “Man From Nowhere,” Kim is electrifying as the unpredictable girl-woman whose helplessness can morph into manipulation or hysteria in a heartbeat. By contrast, Yong-ha remains a one-note character no matter how much Song (“Mother”) dials up his fury. In fact, there’s too little variation in the way he goes mental, and it occurs too frequently, compromising Jung’s restraint elsewhere.
While tighter editing could clear up some minor plot confusion, tech credits are just right. The Korean title means “Hey Do-hee.”