Korean director E J-yong is certain to shock with his Berlin Panorama film “Bacchus Lady.” Its focus is an old lady who sells sex in a public park in Seoul – cheaply and mostly to other pensioners. Doubling the shock value, the woman is also revealed earlier in her life to have been a “comfort woman,” an Asian euphemism for a prostitute who served foreign troops.
The director – ‘E’ is actually an ironic westernization of the way that the family name Lee is written in Korean – however is not setting out to shock for the sake of shocking. He says he wants to draw attention to the plight of the elderly in contemporary Korean society.
“Fifty years ago Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. Now it is the world’s eleventh richest economy. Things have changed so fast that we are like a runaway train, there’s no looking back” says E. “The traditional system of filial duty, where children support their parents, is almost completely gone now. People cannot afford their parents’ lifestyles. “That means many elderly are desperately poor, they have no hope and are simply waiting for death.”
The plight of Korea’s old folk has occasionally been highlighted in foreign documentaries, but it is rarely top of the agenda in Korea itself – though the concept of the elderly hawking Bacchus health tonics is well-known.
In contrast, the comfort women issue has been highly politicized in Asia, and is used by both South Korea and China as a political stick to beat Japan, which forced foreign women into military brothels during WWII.
What E’s film also reveals is that his lead character serviced American troops – rather than the Japanese — stationed in South Korea since the Korean War (1950-1953) to the present day. “The Korean government allowed and controlled prostitution for the U.S. soldiers. It was like public prostitution,” says E.
Still he insists that his film, which E describes as a “bittersweet drama” is more about death than sex. “Her role in helping other people, assisted suicide, is something we don’t like to talk about very much.” (As a project it was earlier pitched under the title “The Death Lady.”)
E has a glittering track record as one of Korea’s most consistent directors of art-house and intelligent commercial movies – with credits including “Untold Scandal,” “My Beautiful Life,” and “Actresses” – and frequently combines lush visuals with gritty, contemporary subjects.
And, in male-dominated Korea, E is also one of the few directors to consistently give women the leading roles. That may be a combination of the idealistic and the pragmatic. He says women are often victims in Korean society and describes himself as “a force for balance”. He also says “older women actors are not as busy as older (male) actors.”
Unusually, the film is likely to play internationally and is confirmed for a gala screening at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, before it heads for commercial release in Korea. “This one is going to need some help from festivals before we put it out in Korea,” says E.