Miss Baek (South Korea, 2018) [NYAFF Winter Showcase 2019]

Director Lee Ji-won’s first feature, Miss Baek, follows a child abuse survivor who comes out of the shadows to help an abused little girl. Women are at the center of this story about power, motherhood, and trauma.

Working a variety of low wage, low visibility jobs (washing cars, serving as a masseuse) Sang-ah Baek (Han Ji-min) lets her past define her, keeping her in the shadows and in a state of misery. But when she meets Ji-eun (Kim Si-ah), a 9-year-old girl whose stepmother Mi-kyung (Kwon So-hyun) and father (Baek Soo-jang) neglect and brutally abuse her, Sang-ah, a child abuse survivor herself, begins to open up to the world and to the idea that she could be a better person, if just a little bit

When Sang-ah’s detective boyfriend Jang-sup (Lee Hi-joon) finds her mother dead in her apartment, old memories resurface. Rejecting her boyfriend’s marriage proposals and struggling under the weight of childhood trauma, Sang-ah sees herself as someone incapable of loving or being loved. But everything changes when she meets Ji-eun–covered in bruises and wearing rags–and feeds her. The child’s stepmother comes for her, but Sang-ah doesn’t forget the telltale signs of abuse. She does everything she can to get Ji-eun out of this dangerous situation–as her desperation grows and her fury builds.

At home, Ji-eun’s stepmother Mi-kyung (Kwon So-hyun) treats her beloved Pomeranian with more care and concern than Ji-eun whom she resents. While Mi-kyung relentlessly beats her, her father’s involvement is almost more sinister, and he mostly turns a blind eye, spending all of his time playing video games in the dark, lit only by the glow of his computer. The movie brings the issue of child abuse to the fore without feeling like an after-school special.

Sang-ah spends more and more time with Ji-eun, trying to figure out how to protect her when the authorities (apart from Jang-sup) are unwilling to do so. The most beautiful scenes are the quietest ones, such as when Sang-ah shows Ji-eun her scars after the little girl hesitates to undress for a bath. She senses the girl’s anxiety and attempts to assuage it, even when it means exposing her own vulnerabilities. “We are the same,” she says.

Over time, viewers get a deeper sense of Sang-ah’s past. As a high-school student, she fought back against a rape, attacking her attacker. But her rapist had a powerful father, and she had nobody, save for an alcoholic mother from whom she was estranged. So Sang-ah found herself in handcuffs instead of her rapist. Later, her mother avenged her daughter’s rape and went to prison herself.

Sang-ah’s past certainly weighs on her, but none more so than her legacy of childhood abuse. Her mother abused her, and then later abandoned her at an orphanage to save her from further abuse. So she asks herself, Can someone like me be a mother? This theme runs throughout the film, as Sang-ah tries to figure out how to help little Ji-eun – or even if she can help her. When Ji-eun’s father is eventually arrested for child abuse, he cries out to the police that they never helped him when he was beaten as a kid. Yet despite going through similar childhood hell, Sang-ah didn’t become an abuser.

The movie hurtles toward a climax that finally gives Sang-ah the opportunity to unleash her fury on Mi-kyung, and ultimately leaves few questions unanswered. Still, the ending is true to the characters and doesn’t feel saccharine.

Miss Baek gives the viewer a glimpse into how trauma has the power to destroy one’s life and perpetuate a vicious cycle, while also proving that it doesn’t always have to be this way. What you do despite your past is what defines you, not your past itself – something that “Miss Baek” demonstrates, surprising even herself.

Miss Baek is showing on February 1 as part of the New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.