'An Old Lady' ('69 Sae'): Film Review | Busan 2019

Busan International Film Festival
Believe her.

Korean industry bit player Ye Su-jeong makes a bid for stardom as an elderly rape victim in Lim Sun-ae’s sensitively observed debut.

When a woman reports a sexual assault, the first questions from most corners — chiefly law enforcement — are what was she wearing, and what was she drinking? Things become even more dismissive when the woman falls outside the parameters of young and pretty. That’s the deadly cocktail of sexism and ageism that powers An Old Lady, the clear standout among the films premiering in the New Currents section at the Busan International Film Festival this year. Writer-director Lim Sun-ae’s understated but effective drama quietly challenges our disbelieving prejudices, which, despite our better, intellectual judgment, still linger with regards to rape and our stuttering response to it.

The pic is about as current as one could ask for, and so An Old Lady will have a long life on the international festival circuit. The images are clear and unequivocal, making the film a great fit for streaming, where it could find its widest, wholly deserved audience.

Star Ye Su-jeong (Along With the Gods, Train to Busan) got a late career start and has made a name for herself in supporting roles, usually as “Grandmother,” “Neighbor Wife” and such, but in her first true leading role she proves she deserves much more, much meatier work. As the central rape victim, Hyo-jeong, Ye is pitch-perfect in her physical and visual demonstration of shame, quiet fury, relief (at finding a sympathetic ear in a widowed poet), resignation and finally defiance in the face of her rapist. It’s a moving, dignified performance that shines a light on an underreported and marginalized crime.

Lim begins the film with an uncomfortable black screen masking the central assault. All that’s heard is what is clearly an older woman, Shim Hyo-jeong (Ye), seeing a much younger male therapist, Lee Joong-ho (Kim Jung-yeong), about a bum knee. Hyo-jeong’s speech becomes increasingly awkward and hesitant as Lee’s fritters out and stops. It’s distasteful and entirely effective. The first time we see Hyo-jeong, she is with a poet and bookseller friend, Nam Dong-in (Ki Joo-bong), helping out at his shop. Her body language says all that needs to be said. Finally confiding in Dong-in, she’s comforted by his support and the two head to the police. At the precinct, the detective assigned to her case raises an eyebrow at the ages of the accused and accuser —29 and 69 — and the tone is set for how much weight the police will be putting on Hyo-jeong’s complaint.

From there An Old Lady focuses less on legal justice and more on Hyo-jeong’s efforts to move on and deal with her trauma. All the usual, infuriating elements are presented: the clinic Lee worked at stonewalls both Hyo-jeong and the investigation; the depth and breadth of cultural sexism is on display via a support group where victims (symbolically) range from 9 to 90; constantly second-guessing Hyo-jeong’s story because she might be getting “forgetful.”

If there is are a flaw in the otherwise respectful and sensitive An Old Lady, it’s a third-act turn that sees the story suddenly become about Dong-in and his quest for justice that is not his to get. As Hyo-jeong looks into her past and retraces her steps as a way to make sense of what’s happened, Dong-in seems a step or two ahead of her, on his own mission to force Lee to take responsibility for his crime. Whether Lim wanted to demonstrate how quickly and easily privilege and position can cross the line from alliance to appropriation is arguable, but if that were the case, she did so a touch clumsily. As the perpetrator, Kim is suitably entitled, and if Lim doesn’t quite stick the landing (the closing frames play too close to misplaced thriller compared to all that preceded it), it’s not so far off the mark as to detract from a quietly affecting feminist statement from a filmmaker to watch.

Production company: Kirin Productions
Cast: Ye Su-jeong, Ki Joo-bong, Kim Jung-yeong, Kim Joong-ki, Kim Tae-hun
Director-screenwriter: Lim Sun-ae
Producers: Park Kwan-su, Lee Seung-bok
Director of photography: Rodrigo Park
Production designer: Kim Ji-min
Editor: Lee Young-lim
Music: Kang Min-kook
Venue: Busan International Film Festival

In Korean
100 minutes