As we’ve learned from Save the Green Planet!, Korean films with seemingly banal or friendly titles aren’t always as benign as a quick glance would determine. A Girl at My Door, whose title sounds normal enough, piggybacks on this notion. In both name and content, this independent Korean film covers a deep pit of darkness with a paper-thin facade of serenity.
Gray clouds, the remnant of a rainstorm, shroud the film’s first few seconds. Our protagonist, a female police inspector named Lee Young-nam (Played by Bae Doo-na, who’s probably best known to Western audiences for her role in Cloud Atlas), drives down a winding mountain road. As she rounds a corner, sunlight and a breathtaking view of South Korea’s southern coastline peek through. Lee soon finds herself at the outskirts of a bucolic fishing village, driving amongst rice paddies freshly inundated from the recent rain. The visuals are idyllic, but the substance beneath is anything but.
As it journeys besides the rice paddies, Lee’s car speeds through a puddle and splashes a disheveled girl crouching on the roadside. Lee goes out to check what’s happened but the girl runs away, leaving her puzzled. A local policeman soon joins Lee on the ride and starts explaining the village’s situation: besides farming, its income comes mostly from octopus fishing. Unfortunately, all the village’s young men have left, save one — Park Yong-ha. Park is thus vital to the community’s economy, not because he single-handedly fishes, but rather because he recruits South Asian and Korean-Chinese illegal immigrants to man the boats and docks. Inspector Lee, we learn, has been transferred from Seoul to be this village’s new police chief.
On her first night in the village, Lee glimpses the disheveled girl from earlier in the day, who appears to be crying in the darkness. The next day, Lee bikes through the rice paddies and again sees the girl, who’s being bullied by other middle schoolers. Lee chases the bullies away and learns the girl’s identity: Sun Do-hee, daughter of Park Young-ha. As it seems, none of the villagers like Do-hee; in fact, the biggest source of disdain is her father — who Lee catches ferociously beating the girl one night. Lee offers sanctuary to Do-hee, who becomes “a girl at her door”, fleeing to the inspector’s house when Park threatens violence again.
This could be the setup for an unremarkable story about strong, saintly female characters who slay abuse and misogyny with the shining sword of justice; however, just like how beautiful rice paddies hid Do-hee’s pain, things are not so black and white. Lee did not come to this remote village from her previous position as a police academy instructor in Seoul by choice, and the shadows of her past start coming to light as she and Do-hee grow concerningly closer. Similar, there may be more to Do-hee than meets the eye. As one of Inspector Lee’s colleagues observes, “she doesn’t seem like other kids…sometimes, she seems like a little monster.”
Therefore, A Girl At My Door‘s biggest strength comes from the fascinating complexity its characters embody; it is from this complexity that all else follows. The plot is gripping — though Do-hee is supposed to be the victim, Park the perpetrator, and Lee the savior, those roles are highly fluid, and the movie keeps you guessing as to what each character’s final label will be. This ambiguity exists in no small part thanks to the quality of acting that the cast brings. Specific praise goes to Kim Sae-ron, the 14 year-old actress who played Do-hee with such skill that she made the character seamlessly alternate between delightful, forlorn, and downright creepy. It is Kim and Do-hee who drive this movie home, a fact reflected in how its Korean title’s literal translation is actually “Do-hee-ah”.
What makes the movie even more powerful is its unvarnished depiction of some of modern South Korea’s social challenges. Young people are leaving the countryside in droves; thus, illegal immigration and mail-order brides — and the discrimination and exploitation associated with them — have started filling in the vacuum. Despite its rapid modernization in the past few decades, not every corner of South Korea is as cosmopolitan as Seoul, and parochial attitudes about race, gender, and sexuality persist for better or for worse. A Girl at My Door tackles all this and more — hint: Park Young-ha doesn’t just beat his daughter. While illegal immigration (2014’s Haemoo comes to mind) and child abuse aren’t completely new topics for Korean cinema, A Girl at My Door is somewhat unique in showing it directly and bluntly. For instance, while the 2010 thriller The Man From Nowhere depicted child slaves working for its drug lord villains, that rather brief scene was nothing in comparison to some of what A Girl at My Door offered.
All these issues do restrict the film’s appeal, and during production it actually had a difficult time procuring funding due in part to its controversial content. Its budget was restricted to $300,000 USD, and both Bae Doo-na and Kim Sae-ron did not receive payment for their performances. Child abuse obviously isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and not that many people will be willing to sit through two hours of screentime about it. While highly contemplative and powerful, A Girl at My Door is by nature not the type of film that even cinema enthusiasts would be inclined to watch over and over again — it is more unsettling than evocative, though the latter sensibility certainly isn’t completely absent.
Despite that, A Girl at My Door is still an superb piece on the fronts of technique, plot, and acting. Its characters’ depth and nuance build an exceptional foundation for the rest of its elements, and it presents a thoughtful, though obviously disconcerting, look at the less glamorous portions of South Korean life.
A Girl at My Door (Korean: 도희야)–South Korea. Directed by July Jung. First released May 2014. Running time 2hr 0mins. Starring Bae Doo-na, Kim Sae-ron, and Song Sae-byok.