A Girl at My Door, the first feature of Korean director July Jung, and produced by respected auteur Lee Chang-dong, deserves more credit than it gets. Seen as a provincial family drama it is a strong but never exceptional work, and the impressive emotional complexities are diminished by a failure to comprehend the film’s subversions, presented with an admirable lack of force or frenetic attention. A well-executed but restrained lead performance from Bae Doona, and rhythmic cinematography that is consistent almost to the point of becoming formulaic both contribute to A Girl at My Door presenting as a particularly well-done piece of standard fare. The atypical and bold elements are easily missed if you watch the film without an eye to the monumental significance of the relationships in the film.
A Girl at My Door is centred upon Lee Young-nam (Bae Doona), a newly-arrived police chief in a tiny rural community, and Dohee (Kim Sae-rom), a young girl with an abusive and viciously alcoholic father, who Young-nam becomes intent on protecting her from. Bae Doona as Young-nam gives a tightly intense performance and her sometimes un-emotive acting works to accentuate Young-nam’s loneliness and rigidity. Young-nam is deeply uneasy in her social environment; unsmiling and stiff in many of her interactions, and repeatedly forced to demur the attentions of her fellow villagers and colleagues, she regards her own private drinking problem with something that seems to rest between disciplined stoicism and denial. When she first interacts with a timid Dohee, bruised and drawn into herself and being bullied by her classmates and abused by her father, Young-nam’s obvious lurch of compassion is muted by her detachment. The initial assurances she offers Dohee are minimal and pragmatic. As it becomes increasingly obvious that the regular beatings Dohee suffers are an open secret, with which the majority of the town is complicit through apathy, even Young-nam’s scant support draws Dohee to her.
Jung is sparing with these interactions: there are no emotional pleas from Dohee, who instead simply jumps on the back of Young-nam’s bike or turns up at her door, and there are no articulations of disgust or empathy from Young-nam. The dialogue is simple and unsentimental, the music is pulled back, and the camera often holds off on the obvious close-ups that would crudely signal the growing intimacy. There are a handful of exceptions to this, where Jung curiously decides upon a contrived sweetness and creates the sort of commercialised summery ambience that is better left for beer ads and Top-40 music videos, complete with light-bursts and a sunset drive.
However, the stripped vulnerability of the other scenes is an adequate remedy for the fleeting lapses into sentimentalism. As Dohee and Young-nam bathe together, in an initially awkward but authentic interaction, Dohee bares her back for the first time to expose the purple-blue mottling of her abuse. There is nothing overdone here, and the consequent deepening of the attachment between Dohee and Young-nam feels utterly reasonable to the viewer – which becomes significant later on, when the relationship between the two comes under the scrutiny of others.
The cinematography in A Girl at My Door does its best work for Dohee and Young-nam. Throughout, the film is defined by a soothingly consistent neatness of framing, unwavering movement and almost-predictably rhythmic editing, but also by a tendency to switch to hand-held camera work in moments of heightened emotion. Most significantly, when Young-ha, Dohee’s abusive father, beats her or takes to the screen in one of his many drunken rages, Jung switches to the more fluid, erratic movements of hand-held shots, which almost seem reminiscent of the harsh rise-and-fall of a hard-breathing chest.
For Young-nam and Dohee, however, the intensive use of two-shots and pronounced balance in the framing are used to fix the relationship between the two to greater significance. The insistent balance and alignment of our protagonists in shot after shot feels seems to be a visual inscription of an emotional symmetry. Of course, the relationship is already the most significant in the film, but way in which Jung stresses the community of experience between the two lonely female leads moves the relationship beyond singularities and into a resonant portrayal of womanhood (which, of course, encompasses girlhood, too – which we watch Dohee begin to outgrow).
Their relationship doesn’t become an abstraction or a cliché, however – it is fraught, and painful at times. Both are well-written and complex characters, and Young-nam is flawed, troubled, and distant, while Dohee’s adoration of her, combined with an emergent will, leads to increasingly uncomfortable situations. Dohee, a girl teetering on the edges of adolescence, is simultaneously naïve and oblivious but also manipulative and canny. The combination plays out with deft irony, which moves between wry and discomforting, and subverts any lazy pigeonholing of either woman that could easily have befallen A Girl at My Door. Young-nam is neither a saviour nor a maternal stand-in, and Dohee is not a passive victim or an object of rescue. Jung thankfully succeeds at something so basic yet so vital – and where so many other filmmakers inexplicably fail – in representing women as subjects, unmarred by the deficiencies of objectification.
The suggestion of sexual contact – which would, of course, be abuse – emerges towards the end of the film after being precipitated by Young-ha’s discovery that Young-nam is a lesbian; the developments that follow are engaging and unsettling. Until the very final moments there is enough ambiguity as to what has actually happened to disturb the trust that has been placed in the observational eye of the film. Privileged narrative access is an almost unwavering assumption of mainstream cinema, and it’s a surprising and impressive feat from Jung to temporarily dislodge the audience from such a position.
Or perhaps it’s not so surprising, given that A Girl at My Door is studded with unexpected and underrated subversions. Race, class, institutional power and neglect are all nestled into the narrative, neatly enough that they don’t stick out, and alongside alcoholism, sexism, homophobia and abuse. In particular, the manner in which A Girl at My Door deals with Young-nam’s sexuality is refreshingly almost peripheral. Her lesbianism is unknown for most of the film and emerges only when demanded by the plot. Her sexuality never defines her; it never becomes divergent with the relatable humanity of Bae’s performance, or with the nuanced sensitivity of Jung’s direction.
In perhaps the most unusual defiance of all, and the easiest to miss, A Girl at My Door is a story of queered kinship.1 Young-nam takes Dohee into her home, protects her, feeds her, sends her to school, and the two grow to care deeply about each other. The depiction of their powerful and positive intimacy defies categorisation. It exceeds the boundaries and the capacities of conventional friendship: usually a relationship of such proximity, strength and support would be situated within either familial or romantic/sexual sphere but this is neither. Despite the relationship between Young-nam and Dohee becoming confrontingly, though temporarily, problematised towards the end of A Girl at My Door, it still remains a rare representation of a strong, nurturing female bond that exists outside the regulations of the patriarchal and heteronormative hegemony (if it seems odd to simultaneously claim queering as untied from the strictures of sexuality while still decrying heteronormativity, remember that heteronormativity structures familial relations as well as romantic/sexual).
A Girl at My Door is not revolutionary or radical cinema, but it gestures towards new and bold representations of kinship and community that are sorely missing in society. Regarding the social commentary offered by the film, one critic concluded that ”[t]his is certainly not a film that aims to make Korean men feel good about themselves!” It’s vital to not be blinkered to cultural specificity by Eurocentrism, and such an interpretation would seem to overlook the global prevalence of abuse, alcoholism, homophobia, misogyny and communal complicity. Though made in a different cultural context, A Girl at My Door is about issues that are not demarcated by distance, nation or culture. The film certainly deserves a wider audience than it will get, and greater recognition for the representational possibilities it explores.
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