Writer: July Jung
Cast: Doona Bae, Kim Sae-ron, Song Sae-byeok
Running time: 119mins
Original title: Doheeya
The lowdown: July Jung’s debut movie is a good example of the powerful, satisfying melodrama Korean cinema can do so well. Wachowski muse Doona Bae is Young-Nam, a Seoul police chief banished to small coastal town and its small-minded residents. Soon she finds herself the reluctant protector of Do-hee, a teenage girl terrorised by her abusive father and grandmother. Captivating and tragic, with Bae deservedly winning Best Actress at the Asian Film Awards for her nuanced portrayal of a flawed, conflicted woman.
The full verdict: One of the best films of the past ten years is Lee Chang-dong’s Palme D’or nominated Secret Sunshine. Strangely never picked up in the UK, its story of a woman struggling to find peace after a life changing event has echoes in A Girl At My Door.
Unsurprising seeing as Lee was once July Jung’s university tutor and acts as producer on her film.
But, writer/director Jung has not opted for a pale retread of her teacher’s work; this is polished, confident and emotionally wrenching.
Patiently unfolding its plot over the first hour, Jung allows the audience to spend time with police chief Young-Nam. Her days are spent ignoring suspicious glances and snide remarks from the locals, by night she dives to the bottom of bottles of soju rice wine.
Her nemesis emerges as Yong-ha (Song), a foreman of a fishing trawler exploiting illegal immigrants for cheap labour. He and his harridan mother psychologically and physically abuse his spacey, withdrawn teenage daughter, Do-hee (Kim) in a series of increasingly disturbing scenes.
When Do-hee flees to Young-nam’s house to escape her family, events spiral beyond the policewoman’s control.
Shifting tones like much great Korean cinema, it’s difficult to pin a specific genre on A Girl At My Door. On the surface a drama, the bubbling sense of dread and unease makes it seem more like a thriller.
What it ultimately emerges as is a woman’s picture in the vein of the great Hollywood melodramas such as Mildred Pierce or The Reckless Moment.
Led by Doona Bae’s astonishing performance, her expressive eyes doing most of her talking, Jung’s movie is about a woman’s struggle for acceptance when on the receiving end of either anger or confusion from the men in her life.
Young-nam pointedly shares more in common with the illegal immigrants being exploited or the abused Do-hee than with her fellow officers or the women in the local hair salon.
Kim proves herself an actress to note, moving from joy to abject misery in the flick of a heartbreaking crooked smile.
Jung displays a gift for judging mood, knowing how dark to make the drama without tipping over into empty exploitation, keeping visuals in well-composed mid-shot.
And she tops it all off with an ending guaranteed to move even the most stoic bottom lip.