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Pretty upstarts, beware: please make way for the grand dame. Already into the fifth decade of her career, veteran thespian Youn Yuh-jung shows her younger counterparts how the job should and could be done in The Bacchus Lady, a gritty drama about an elderly sex worker confronting not just the repercussions of her own spiraling mortality but that of her past and present clients.
Reteaming with helmer E J-yong (Untold Scandal, Dasepo Naughty Girls) — with whom she flourished playing a version of herself in the documentary-drama mash-ups of Actresses (2009) and Behind the Camera (2013) — Youn has delivered a nuanced, dignified turn worthy of attention and awards aplenty. Making its Asian bow at the Hong Kong International Film Festival after its world premiere in Berlin, Bacchus Lady — a comparatively low-budget title produced by the Korean Academy of Film Arts — is destined for a long life on the festival circuit, with possible niche releases outside South Korea.
Reverting to her more serious métier after a string of collaborations with Hong Sang-soo — for whom she mostly appears as funny, ditzy matriarchs — Youn plays So-young, a woman who peddles sexual services to retirees in a park in Seoul. The title refers to her way of soliciting business, as she codes her offer through an invitation of opening a bottle of Bacchus energy drink for interested men.
Despite having contracted gonorrhea, she persists in her job so as to pay for her son’s university studies in the U.S., and using what’s left to pay for her very modest life in a run-down apartment next to a young disabled figurine maker (Yoon Kye-sang) and a transgender nightclub singer (An A-zu).
So-young’s predicaments begin after she takes in a boy (Choi Hyun-jun), whose Filipino mother is arrested after a violent run-in with her ex-partner. As she attends to the need of the child, problems from her pension-aged acquaintances begin to seep in, ranging from the awkward needs of current customers and also observations of the deteriorating health of patrons who once paid for her services.
In what is perhaps a nod to her career-defining murderous femme fatale roles in the 1960s, Youn again gets to play the angel of death here — but an unwilling one, perhaps, as she is somehow pushed into helping old men end their sorry, confused lives. It’s perhaps fair to describe the actress as having outdone her younger self here with a performance banking not on histrionics but delicate representations of panged-up angst and despondency.
Youn’s stellar performance is also down to E J-yong’s delicate direction of a heartrending screenplay, with which he provides an engaging picture of the lonely lives of people considered by society as past their sell-by date through visits So-young pays to bedridden, senile and sick ex-patrons. Given the obsession with beauty and youth in South Korean screen entertainment, The Bacchus Lady is certainly audacious, and a powerful reminder of how lives could or would be lived once the youthful vigor is gone.
Venue: Filmart/Hong Kong International Film Festival
Production companies: Korean Academy of Film Arts
Cast: Youn Yuh-jung, Chon Moo-song, Yoon Kye-sang, An A-zu, Choi Hyun-jun
Director-screenwriter: E J-yong
Producers: Yu Young-sik
Director of photography: Kim Young-ro
Production designer: Song Hye-jin
Costume designer: Ham Hyun-joo
Editor: Hahm Sung-won
Music: Jang Young-gyu
International sales: M-Line Distribution
Not rated, 110 minutes
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