A Girl At My Door Review

Doona Bae (Sense8, Cloud Atlas and The Host) probably the most famous Korean actress right now, is the star attraction of this quietly engaging melodrama from up and coming director-writer July Jung. Her teenage co-star Sae-ron Kim, however, is clearly a star in the making (with a career as a child actress behind her) and gives an entrancing performance as the girl of the title.

Bae stars as Young-nam a promising graduate of the police academy in Seoul, who after a misdemeanour – never fully explained – is transferred to a remote seaside village. On her first day in the village she gets a taste of what she’s in for with sexist comments thrown at her and an old-timey hostility to city folk such as her clearly present. We also get a sense that Young-nam remains tormented by her past, drinking profusely in order to be able to sleep (hiding alcohol in water bottles), we also learn later that she has left a girlfriend in Seoul who makes an appearance in a bid to win her back and perhaps part of her torment is coming to terms with being gay.

It’s the usual fish out of water scenario in other words, but what makes it more intriguing is the introduction of the girl Do-Hee (Kim) mentioned. She spots her looking sullen, awkward and painfully vulnerable, being bullied by schoolkids and can’t help but intervene. It is then that there relationship becomes ever closer and Young-nam quickly learns that her mother left her and she is physically abused by an aggressive and idiotic alcoholic step-father Eun-Jung (Sae-byeok Song), and tormented by an equally aggressive grandma, who treats her like an animal and calls her a ‘dirty mutt’ as ‘ugly as her mother’.

Jung uses this situation to create an intense push and pull tension in the relationship between Young-Nam and Do-Hee. Do-Hee desperately longs for Young-Nam to be her mother and to escape the barrage of abuse and she clings to Young-Nam in an increasingly Single White Female kind of way (though more innocent in this case), punctuating their relationship with moments of self-destructive violence understandable in someone so emotionally and physically traumatised (the extent of the violence inflicted upon her made all too clear in a memorable close up of Do-Hee’s bruised back.)Young-Nam finds herself increasingly compromising her professional boundaries by this relationship, but also increasingly drawn into it, and she finds herself facing homophobic accusations that she deals with bravely, whilst Do-Hee also finds herself doing increasingly drastic things to be with Young-nam and escape the torture.

It’s the performance then that shine in this film, Doona Bae with her quietly resolute, insular and sad Young-nam – her soulful eyes and pained facial expression speak louder than words – and Sae-ron Kim with her fragile, kinetic and moving performance. They make a dynamic duo playing off each other’s performances in a way that perfectly complement each other, without upstaging the other, while the underlying theme of finding meaning and hope in an unlikely relationship also lifts the film beyond the ordinary. And while it sounds like a rather depressing film there are moments of joy and whimsy such as when Do-Hee enthusiastically copies a K-pop act on TV or  grandma’s crazy scooter riding which saves it from over the top melodrama. But watch it mainly for the lead performances.

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