May 23, 2014

Cannes 2014: A Girl At My Door

 Dir: July Jung
Like many fans of South Korean cinema I have, over the past decade, been charmed and impressed by Bae Doo-Na, who is one of the biggest stars in her home country.  It is fair to say, however, that Bae has a rather set onscreen persona; playing the charming, slightly kooky ingenue in many of her films.  That's no bad thing, I've frequently compared Bae's onscreen charm and magnetism with that of Audrey Hepburn, which isn't something I do lightly.  However, A Girl At My Door (Dohee-ya in Korean) seems to mark a real shift.  At 34 Bae seems to be wanting to finally play a real grown up and this often tough drama offers her that chance.

Bae plays Young-Nam, as the film begins she is moving to a small town to become their Police chief.  There are hints throughout the first half of the film that this is because of a problem in her past, which saw her sent away from Seoul.  When she arrives Young-Nam soon meets 13 year old Do-Hee (Kim Sae-Ron), who is picked on by the local kids and abused by both her father Yong-Ha (Song Sae-Byeok) and her grandmother.  Doo-Hee becomes very attached to Young-Nam and, after an especially bad beating, Young-Nam takes the young girl in.  This causes tension in the town, especially when Young-Nam's past comes home to roost.

A Girl At My Door, with its non-descript title and (relatively) lighter first hour, managed to trick me when it came to what kind of film it would be.  For ten minutes at the beginning we might be about to watch a fish out of water comedy about a big city cop coming to a backwater.  Then there is a turn for the dramatic as Young-Nam's problem drinking is revealed, but as the story between her and Do-Hee takes centre stage it seems as though we're actually going to be seeing a film about how an unexpected surrogate parent comes into the life of a troubled kid.  None of these ideas is especially original, and nor, really, is the direction of the film's third act, but the way that writer/director Jung manages to continually set us up for one thing before turning in a slightly different direction keeps things interesting and works to the film's advantage.

Towards the start and the end of the film, Jung slathers on the abuse just a little hard, it's not that graphic until one late scene that I'm surprised she even got away with a clear implication of, but it comes up so regularly at times that there is a slight tragedy porn feeling.  What saves the film in these moments, as well as from a rather OTT performance from Song Sae-Byeok, is the fact that the two leads are outstanding.

Bae seems to have made a conscious choice here to shift her image and while Song spends most of his scenes yelling abuse at whoever he's sharing the screen with at that moment, she dials everything back for a reserved performance that is sometimes resolved and sometimes porcelain fragile.  There is no coasting on her looks and her charm here, even as Young-Nam comes to care for Do-Hee there is a sense that the older woman is putting up a wall (why she may be doing so is another of the interesting shifts in the film).  Throughout, Bae does some wonderfully subtle physical acting, whether it's to do with Young-Nam's relationship to Do-Hee or to alcohol.  We see the complexities etched in particularly fine detail in what emerges as one of the film's key scenes, when Do-Hee asks if she can get in the bath with Young-Nam.

Bae might simply have walked off with the movie thanks to her performance, but 13 year old Kim Sae-Ron, who may be known to western audiences as the little girl in The Man From Nowehere, gives her a serious run for her money and establishes herself as an actress to keep an eye on as she and her roles mature.  What Kim manages to capture with great clarity here is the sense of a child suddenly growing up very quickly, perhaps thanks to a new influence in her life, perhaps due to the temporary absence of an old one.Jung's screenplay and Kim's performance both advance Do-Hee's character and her process of growth incrementally.  It's incremental enough that it's not that noticeable from one scene to the next, but it's credible that she changes as much as she does.  There is also a sense, which towards the end of the film another character also gets, that there is something underlying the broken exterior of the Do-Hee we first meet, and this is something that Kim puts across subtly but strongly.  All in all  it's a remarkably nuanced piece of acting for such a young performer.

While this is a creditable feature debut for July Jung there are still a few cracks that make it feel like a debut.  Visually the film is strong, and even if it doesn't yet speak to a deeply personal eye it has several very striking images (a repeated motif of Do-Hee dancing outside, for example).  The screenplay can be more problematic.  For instance, Young-Nam's drinking feels like it should be a major theme, but it is largely shunted aside; serving mostly as a misdirection early on.  Also problematic is the fact that when, with about 35 minutes to run, the film takes a not entirely unexpected turn into very dark territory it doesn't quite have the courage of its convictions.  This means that it strains credulity more than a little in both the speed and the ease with which it finds its ending.  It's not ruinous, but it's less complex than I'd like, given the preceding 100 minutes.

Overall, A Girl At My Door has its flaws, but when it concentrates on its two central performances it absolutely commands the attention and it's well worth seeing, especially for fans of Bae Doo-Na who want to see her branch out.

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