“Don’t call me granny. My vagina is still young!” snaps the feisty female protagonist of “The Bacchus Lady,” South Korean helmer-scribe E J-yong’s impassioned study of old ladies who turn tricks to make ends meet. Taking on a potentially sordid subject, E brings attention to the harsh realities of growing old without a safety net, but also infuses his characters with warmth and racy humor, typified by the never-say-die attitude of the heroine as played by the magnetic Youn Yuh-jung. The film expands beyond senior prostitution to explore a range of social issues, championing diversity in a subtle, unpatronizing way. The controversy of this phenomenon and E’s lively storytelling could help the film reach beyond its domestic market to niche overseas venues, especially online platforms.
The problem of senior prostitution in Korea first drew attention abroad when BBC News reported about it in June 2014. These Bacchus ladies, or bagkaseu halmeoni (Bacchus grannies), are named after a taurine energy drink they sell to older men, often as a pretext for offering cheap sex. There are reportedly some 400 of them who ply their trade at Seoul’s Jongno Park, the main location of the film.
E employs the subplot of a journalist doing an undercover story to impart the fact that, despite being the world’s 11th biggest economy, Korea has the highest senior poverty rate among OECD countries. Although the film doesn’t delve into the paucity of state welfare or the new generation’s disregard for Confucian filial duty, at one ironic moment the protagonist remarks that going to prison is an alternative to moving into a retirement home, which she couldn’t afford.
The film pulls no punches about the Bacchus ladies’ predicament, as the 65-year-old So-young (Youn) goes to a clinic to get treated for an STD. During her consultation, her doctor is stabbed by his Filipina g.f. over a paternity dispute involving their son, Min-ho ((Choi Hyun-jun). Amid the chaos, So-young grabs the boy and takes him back to her home, where she bosses her neighbors into sharing child-sitting responsibilities with her. Although Min-ho is anxious and reticent at first, he soon settles into the bickering, laid-back surrogate family provided by So-young, her transgender landlordy Tina (An A-zu, elegant and dignified) and her amputee neighbor Do-hoon (Yoon Kye-sang).
In a couple of scenes brisk enough to avoid any prurience or suggestion of eroticism, E sketches the indignity as well as the mundane nature of So-young’s job. Yet, even when he unsentimentally records fleshy contact in seedy love motels, there’s a deadpan element to So-young’s businesslike approach, as when she couches her infection in a cunning euphemism — “I have some issues” — when servicing a john.
However, the film also makes clear through sadly telling details that, although not quite destitute, she definitely needs to pinch her pennies. Her predicament is brought home at one point when she stares at an elderly cardboard collector arduously pushing her trolley, and the look on her face shows she’s trying to determine who’s sunk lower in life.
Without lingering gratuitously on the sexual aspect of So-young’s routines, the narrative moves on to her relationships with her regular customers, whose lonely existence is no less painful or meaningless than So-young’s. E offers a sympathetic portrayal of each man, whether it’s the once-dapper Savile Row Song, bed-bound in a home; Jung-soo, whose dementia is advancing rapidly; or the gentlemanly widower Jae-woo (Chon Moon-song), who conceals his long-festering depression.
Eventually, So-young finds herself roped into offering them a “service” that’s more dicey than illegal sex, giving insight into why Bacchus ladies are indispensable to old men with diminished or non-existent sex drives. The final stretch contains some scenes that are very difficult to watch but have the kind of harsh, wrenching power that Korean cinema is known for. While Korean films often have the tendency descend into violence or excessive sentimentality, the film’s coda is neither artificially upbeat nor exploitively tragic.
So-young’s character represents a less shiny legacy of modern Korean history. As snippets of her past emerge, her youthful occupation as an escort for American G.I.s and her greatest regret as a mother throw light on her impulsive desire to care for Min-ho. In another dig at Korean male sexual irresponsibility and exploitation, the film offers parallels between the country’s hushed up issues on adoptees, so-called “half-breed” children (of Korean mothers and African-American G.I.s) and the recent growth of “Kopinos”: children of Korean men who sowed their wild oats while studying or working in the Philippines.
Although Youn has played key roles in Korean cinema and TV since 1971 (she debuted in Kim Ki-young’s “Woman of Fire”), this film may still count as one of her lifetime achievements. Despite having every chance to chew the scenery, she casts aside her diva image in E’s “Actresses” and dials down her scene-stealing imperious bitchiness in Im Sang-soo’s “The Housemaid” and “The Taste of Money.” Instead, her performance is reflective and thoughtful, focusing on So-young’s simple goodness, and hinting that beneath her boundless resourcefulness and razor-sharp tongue, she’s wrestles with self-doubt and fatalism. The committed and engaging supporting cast are careful to steer the drama away from ugly caricature or farce.
Set mostly in beautifully maintained public parks, especially around Jungmyo Confucian Shrine in Jongno Park and replete with shots of autumn leaves in their burnished splendor, the gorgeous mise-en-scene reinforces the paradox of Korea’s economic clout and her class disparity. On a more poetic level, it also echoes So-young’s melancholic pickup line to her clients: “How many more autumns will we live to see?”
Other craft contributions are ace without overly glossy aesthetics. Poignantly accentuating So-young’s straitened circumstances, costume designer Ham Hyun-joo outfits her in bargain basement casual-wear, which Youn carries off with a tacky flamboyance.
The Korean title is “Killer Lady.”