'A Girl at My Door' ('Dohee-ya'): Cannes Review

'A Girl at My Door,' July Jung (Un Certain Regard)
Courtesy of Festival De Cannes

Jung’s debut feature focuses on the story of a young woman -- played by Korean star Doona Bae (Jupiter Ascending) -- who is being abused by her stepfather. It was produced by director Lee Chang-dong, who himself has appeared in Cannes competition with Milyang (2007) and Shi (2010). (Sales: CJ E&M Corp.)

A middling and muted drama revolving what could have been a convergence of many forms of social injustice.

'Cloud Atlas' star Doona Bae stars as a policewoman taking in an abused teen in Korean helmer July Jung's Lee Chang-dong-produced feature-film debut.

Produced by two-time Palme d'Or nominee Lee Chang-dong and featuring Cannes alumni Doona Bae (now internationally known for her role in Cloud Atlas) and the now teenage Kim Sae-ron, A Girl At My Door's connection with the festival also lies with the narrative. July Jung's feature-film directorial debut offers South Korea's recent Croisette crop of what can be dubbed the "child-abuse drama", a subgenre first brought to the fore in the Kim-starring A Brand New Life (2009) and then propelled to the fore by Lee's Poetry (2010).

But the film's innocent-sounding English title is an apt pointer for an outing that is at once less disconcerting in its tone and more middling in its handling of the issue -- perhaps the result of Jung seeking to simply use the story of a battered teenager as a jump-off point for something else altogether. So it is that the titular girl could be the physically assaulted and psychologically disheveled small-town adolescent Dohee (Kim), but the director seems to also want to use this simply as a backdrop to highlight the mental impasse of her savior Young-nam (Bae), who recently transferred from Seoul to a South Korean Hicksville to avoid the fallout of a troubled, sex-related past.

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While Jung's efforts to avoid sensationalism and employ multiple threads are very admirable -- there's also an attempt to explore the plight of migrant workers in South Korea as well -- the result is a mild-mannered piece short of a sufficiently substantial exposition of its plethora of characters and the problem they face. All this leads to Bae giving an internalized performance dangerously close to blankness; fortunately, Kim is on hand with a turn that suitably brings to the screen the psychotic state of her battered character.

The film's final swerve into suspense-building revenge-drama territory -- courtesy of a somewhat extreme act from its teen protagonist -- adds an element of intrigue that could attract more attention from the viewer. Still, Girl's post-domestic future probably lies with festival bookings secured on the strength of Bae's name; its premiere at Cannes (in the Un Certain Regard sidebar) on May 19 would provide some useful help in attracting an edge as South Korean major CJ Entertainment releases the film wide at home on May 22.

Girl begins with a tatty-attired Dohee dreamily playing with a toad on the road but then is splashed all over with dirty water by a passing car in which Young-nam is traveling. While it would take some time for the policewoman to get in touch with the teenager, her crash course into her new realm's crassness is quick and ominous: It's a terrain of prejudices, as Indian workers are dismissed casually as slackers and the townsfolk couldn't see beyond her looks, with the uninitiated asking whether she's someone's "new bride" while being dubbed as the "sexy one" by others.

The last comment came from Dohee's father, Yong-ha (Song Sae-byuk), a vulgar brute who -- along with his equally violent and crass mother, Juh-soon (Kim Jin-gu) -- has no qualms in beating up his daughter at home or even in public. As Young-nam stops him for the first time by judo-wrestling him to the ground and bringing him to the station, she is warned of the menace she's potentially at war with: In a forsaken backwater from which most young men had fled, Yong-ha is seen as the guy "making the town work" and having everyone under his sway.

All this seemingly paves the way for some really nasty business, but it takes forever to come. With the narrative moving at a languid pace and the confrontation between Young-nam and Yong-ha hardly brewing up to a last-chance-saloon duel between the sheriff and the black-hat, much attention is instead paid to -- as the title suggests – Dohee knocking at Young-nam's door.

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As Young-nam agrees to take Dohee in during the summer vacation so as to save her from her father's wrath, the policewoman learns more about how her mother fled while she was very little and how the physical abuse has failed to dim the teenager's aspirations towards adulthood (she prefers a bikini than a pink, cartoon-character-covered one-piece swimwear) and a brand new life (she practices singing and dancing routines she saw on pop TV shows). Things get more problematic, however, when Dohee's attachment becomes unnerving, as she demands more intimacy from Young-nam (taking a bath together, for example).

It's a situation foreboded by Yong-ha's remark when Young-nam first decided to shelter her. "The girl's got issues," he said -- and what could have been the confused state of puberty is heightened when Young-nam's ex-girlfriend Eun-jeong (Jang Hee-jin) comes to town, the pair's brief meeting leading to Dohee's mental breakdown. Meanwhile, the outing of her sexuality would provide Yong-ha with a point to fight back, as he sets the town ringing with rumors about Young-nam's motives in embracing her daughter.

The twists and turns do provide Jung with quite a few opportunities to either ramp up the drama and/or expand on the wider implications of these conflicts in Korean society. Somehow, the writer-director persists in letting things flow. The drunken bouts and screaming matches only provide superficial schisms, while problems and resolutions -- including the jarring climax -- come and go with sketchy convenience.

What exactly is Young-nam paying penance for? Where's Yong-ha's supposedly total sway over his fiefdom? Is Dohee a monster, as someone in the town describes her? All of this would probably involve the interpolations of such inconvenience truth treading amid moral and ideological minefields, something that the film's jarring climax probably runs the risk of doing anyway. While Kim Hyun-seok's camerawork renders some of the bristling tension in the town, the fuzzy responses to these questions swerve the film off-focus. Girl could have been an intense drama or even a thriller of sorts; being neither could certainly provide a new way of breaking norms, but here Jung's reinvention struggles to go through the door.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 19, 2014
Production Companies: Pinehouse Film, Now Films
Cast: Doona Bae, Kim Sae-ron, Song Sae-byuk
Director: July Jung
Screenwriter: July Jung
Producers: Lee Chang-dong, Lee Joon-dong with Kim Ji-yeon
Executive Producer: Simon Lee, Lee Joon-dong
Director of Photography: Kim Hyun-seok
Production Designer: Yoon Sang-yoon
Costume Designer: Kim Ha-kyung
Editor: Lee Young-lim
Music: Jang Young-gyu
Sales: CJ Entertainment
In Korean
No rating; 119 minutes