'Miss Baek' ('Mi-sseu-baek'): Film Review | Tokyo 2018

'Miss Baek' film still - H
Courtesy of M-Line Distribution
Furious performances in a piece of gritty drama.

Korean director Lee Ji-won’s first feature, which opened at home before bowing in the Tokyo festival’s Asian Futures competition, revolves around a woman’s mission in saving a child from her abusive parents.

A jaded child abuse survivor tries to save a young girl from suffering the same fate in Miss Baek, Lee Ji-won’s first feature, which has been doing brisk business since its domestic release in South Korea on Oct. 11.

With double the box-office gross of A Star Is Born (which bowed two days earlier on just a fraction fewer screens) during both films’ opening weekend in the country, the indie drama is now just a whisker away from overtaking Lee Chang-dong’s much more critically acclaimed Burning in terms of total revenue.

While offering hardly a subversive take on films about child abuse (such as The Silenced) or headstrong female protagonists (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and the more recent The Villainess come to mind), Miss Baek is bolstered by a strong against-type performance from Han Ji-min, whose onscreen persona is drastically different from her more glamorous metier (ranging from her appearances in period dramas and romantic comedies to her role as the compere of the Busan International Film Festival’s opening ceremony on Oct. 4).

The film is making its international premiere in the Tokyo International Film Festival’s Asian Future competition before heading to its first stop beyond Asia in London East Asian Film Festival’s "Story of Women" program.

Miss Baek begins with hard-boiled detective Jang-sup (Lee Hee-joon) navigating Seoul’s sub-zero temperatures and winding streets to find a dilapidated tenement block where his underlings show him a decomposed corpse of an old woman. But the pic is not about crime, cops or men, who appear here mostly as feeble creatures watching the horror and violence unfold from the sidelines. This is, indeed, a story about two women and a girl.

The (anti)hero here, Baek (Han), is a scruffy, foul-mouthed car washer/masseuse who seems to have given up on herself and the world. When Jang-sup, her boyfriend, brings her to the morgue to have a look at the dead body, the reason for her demeanor emerges: Identifying the corpse as that of her mentally ill mother, she is spirited back to the abuse and subsequent abandonment she suffered as a child. Compounded by her spell in jail for killing a rich kid who tried to rape her, all this trauma has led to her thinking she would never make a good mother herself, thus her insistence on being known as "Miss" rather than "Ma'am" (which explains the film’s concise title) and her rugged rebuff of Jang-sup’s affections and marriage proposals.

Her transformation from femme fataliste to furious fighter begins when she meets Ji-eun (Kim Si-ah), a girl she sees wandering around covered in only a few rags but a lot of bruises. After bringing her to a meal at a streetside food stall, the girl’s nicely dressed and seemingly cordial stepmother whizzes in to take her away. Beneath that veneer — we also see her later praying fervently in Sunday mass and acting very courteously with Baek’s colleagues at the massage parlor – Mi-kyung (Kwon So-hyun) is actually a devil in disguise as she beats Ji-eun relentlessly while the father (Baek Soo-jang) numbs himself by gluing himself to his computer and his online games.

Unsurprisingly, the duel begins as Baek tries to save Ji-eun from her misery, while Mi-kyung uses her saintly appearance to tarnish and frame Baek as a child-kidnapper. In what might easily become a watershed for her career, Han delivers a controlled and convincing tour de force as she brings Baek’s suppressed angst, and then exploded fury, vividly to the screen. Kwon, meanwhile, matches her every step of the way as she pushes Mi-kyung’s manipulative mannerisms and psychotic psyche to a credible limit.

Kim's turn as the abused girl is effective — some credit is due to Lee Na-kyun’s production design — but to prove that Miss Baek is all about women, Kim Sun-young’s few scenes as Jang-sup’s diner-owner sister provide humor, which serves as both comic relief and also a glimpse of the gritty working-class universe in which these characters exist.

Captured by Kang Gook-hyun’s gritty camerawork, these performances heighten Lee’s no-nonsense and taut script. Miss Baek provides as much hope for the rookie woman filmmaker in breaking out to the mainstream as it does for its titular protagonist in finding some cathartic closure to her troubled life.

Production company: Bae Pictures in a CJ ENM presentation
Cast: Han Ji-min, Kim Si-ah, Kwon So-hyun, Lee Hee-joon
Director-screenwriter: Lee Ji-won
Producer: Lee Jeong-uk
Executive producers: Cho Dae-hyun, Kim Jong-baek
Director of photography: Kang Gook-hyun
Production designer: Lee Na-kyun
Music: Lee Eun-joo, MOWG
Editors: Han Young-kyu, Heo Sun-mi
Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival (Asian Future)
Sales: M-Line Distribution

In Korean
98 minutes