A fiercely internalized performance by Bae Doona is just one of the reasons to see A Girl Next Door, a provocative drama that requires her to covey a range of complex emotions while inhabiting a character who aims to reveal as little about herself as possible. Following her recent forays into Wachowski wonderland with the time-spanning epic Cloud Atlas (2012) and box office catastrophe Jupiter Ascending (2015), this determinedly low-key first feature from July Jung is a welcome reminder of why Bae became one of the faces of South Korean cinema in the 2000s.
Bae plays police officer Lee Young-nam who is removed from her post in Seoul following a sex-related scandal and relocated to a remote seaside town in Yeosu to serve as station chief until the gossip that has resulted from her indiscretion dies down. The town is under-populated and struggling economically: its inhabitants consist of ageing natives whose children have left for better opportunities in the cities and illegal immigrants of Southeast Asian and Korean-Chinese descent who constitute the workforce of the local fishing industry. This exploited local underclass is presided over by Park Yong-ha (Song Sae-byeok), whose loutish behavior is tolerated because his operation financially sustains a flailing town that would otherwise be in even swifter decline.
However, the new police chief soon makes an enemy of Park when she comes to the assistance of his shy stepdaughter Seon Do-hee (Kim Sae-ron) who is being physically abused at home and taunted by her classmates. Following a motorcycle accident that causes the death of Do-hee’s grandmother, Young-nam allows the teenager to stay with her during the summer vacation to ensure her safety, although this domestic arrangement attracts the unwanted attention of the townsfolk. A close relationship develops between Young-nam and Do-hee, with the 14-year-old coming out of her timid shell to show troubling signs of a precocious nature with a capacity for manipulation and volatility. Do-hee insists on a revealing bathing suit over a children’s swimming costume when out shopping with Young-nam and breaks-down when her protector’s ex-girlfriend from Seoul turns up town seeking some form of reconciliation, while it is suggested that she may have had a role in her grandmother’s death – the elderly lady was chasing after her granddaughter when the accident occurred – although this is one of a few plot strands that the film never conclusively follows through on.
Jung is clearly interested in how social roles, identities, and positions of power are never as obviously fixed as they appear to be, with Young-nam at once representative of state authority while positioned as an outsider not only in relation to the surrounding community but also within mainstream society because of her sexuality. Young-nam is in charge of the police station and has the self-defense skills necessary to take care of herself, yet her subordinates often feel the need to protect her from the townsfolk, frequently forming barriers between her and angry parties which mark her out as an interloper. While her efforts to rescue Do-hee from an abusive domestic environment cast her as a savior figure, Young-nam is a complex character who struggles to negotiate her feelings to her houseguest while dealing with a myriad of personal demons through drinking large amounts of soju which she decants into water bottles to avoid leaving any trace of her alcoholism. Young-nam frowns on the locals for their heavy drinking, but seems to consider her alcohol consumption to be acceptable because she drinks privately and can still function professionally when under the influence. Do-hee starts out as a bullied youth in need of a protector, recalling her role as the kidnap victim in The Man from Nowhere (2010), but later sly reinforces her relationship with her ostensible savior and tricks her stepfather into a compromising scenario. Bae and Kim both acquit themselves superbly, finding moments of nuance in moments of loneliness and scenes that revolve around surprising role reversals.
While it is reassuring to see that South Korean cinema still evidences an interest in the realities of provincial life, it should be noted that A Girl at My Door was only realized because the budget was kept down to a thrifty US$300,000 with Bae waiving her fee for the opportunity to play a rare mature role. Produced by the celebrated director Lee Chang-dong, the film has aesthetic echoes of his thoughtful dramas Secret Sunshine (2007) and Poetry (2010) in its use of a deceptively placid landscape to explore social dysfunction. Similarities to her mentor’s work aside, Jung brings a unique perspective to the multitude of issues that are raised by a relatively slender narrative and has crafted an impressive debut feature which deftly tackles sensitive material with commendable restraint.