Movie Review | A Girl at My Door (Lights, Camera, Action!)

By Adam Riley 21.09.2015

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A Girl at My Door (UK Rating: 18)

Over the years, Korean cinematic pieces have built up a reputation for being slightly edgier than their Western counterparts. Be it spine-chilling horror masterpieces, such as Phone, The Red Shoes, Apartment or Into the Mirror, hard-hitting dramas like The Chaser or The Man from Nowhere, or some disturbingly dark stories that most would never dare to touch, with I Saw the Devil, Bedevilled, or most of Kim Ki-Duk's releases in general springing to mind, there is always something that appeals to 'foreign audiences.' That sense of intrigue and shock, or even wonderment, at subjects barely/rarely approached. Old Boy is renowned for being so extreme in parts, for instance, that it is the jaw-dropping effect that leaves audiences gasping for more, despite not quite understanding what just went on before their eyes. There is a certain magic that is never quite recreated in any Western remakes.
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The next epic to (finally) filter across from the Republic of Korea - A Girl at My Door, on limited release across the UK from 18th September - is a feature directorial debut from a lady called July Jung (also the writer in this case), starring 15-year-old Sae-ron Kim (of the aforementioned The Man from Nowhere fame) as a little girl subject to constant abuse from her drunkard of a stepfather (Sae Byuk Song, who starred in 2009's moving drama, Mother) and equally inebriated grandmother, and (hot off the back of her TV role as Sun in The Wachowski's Sense8 on Netflix - not every Korean has to be called 'Sun' because of Lost! - and her bounty-hunting escapades in the same sibling's movie, Jupiter Ascending) Doona Bae, as a police officer relocated to the far reaches of the Korean countryside for reasons initially unknown, but slowly revealed as the complicated plot starts to cleverly unravel itself. The original name of this movie in Korea was Doheeya, after the young child's name of 'Dohee,' with the 'ya' part added in the common context of calling out someone's name to get their attention. For its Western debut, the more suitable A Girl at my Door was chosen, as invariably throughout the gripping experience the poor youngster finds herself at the door of the compassionate Officer Lee.

At its core, this is a despairing tale of a young girl excluded from a peaceful-looking-but-actually-backwards community, abandoned by her mother, and beaten regularly by the father and his mother. In steps the heroine to rescue Dohee from the cold, hard grip of torture and care for her as any lawful figure would be prone to do. In true Korean fashion, however, there is a twist in that Young-nam Lee herself is not the squeaky clean policewoman people believe her to be, having been transferred to the long-forgotten coastal area because of her own past transgressions; shunted out of the limelight of her previous city-based position to let the dust settle. Suddenly, the stand-in father figure decides he wants his daughter back after witnessing the growing mother-child bond building up rapidly over the summer holiday break from school during which Dohee is being cared for by Bae's Officer Lee, but he has no leg to stand on because of his drunken and disorderly behaviour...that is until one night he witnesses something that gives him the upper hand in this custodial battle. Thus, the back-and-forth nature of this undulating story kicks in.


 
Sae-ron Kim was adorable in The Man from Nowhere, relying on a random "ajeossi" ("mister") to help her, but back then she was a mere 10 years old and anything she did was endearing by default. Now, five years on, she has an added maturity, but still that cutie face can joyously grin and warm hearts. Equally, however, she can switch to anime-esque tears welling up in her big eyes to tug at the heart-strings. She plays the role of the confused and mentally broken youth perfectly - standing at Officer Lee's doorway, dripping wet from the rain, looking miserable after another beating from her brutal stepdad - and then smoothly transforms into a little bundle of joy, sun shining from her bright smile - normally shortly after her temporary motherly substitute/authority figure tends to her in a way she probably could only have dreamed of. For child actor, the twisting and turning in the role is remarkable, with her never missing a beat, drawing in onlookers with the greatest of ease.

Just as accomplished, though, is the performance of Doona Bae as the officer trying to escape from her torrid past, only for it to catch up with her and drag her down despite best efforts to pour out her heart, doing the right thing and showing kindness and compassion for a distressed child. Rejected almost immediately by the locals who have lived their way for...pretty much forever, certainly not appreciating her above-board, by-the-books style, victimised by Dohee's parental guardian who loathes seeing his responsibility being taken away (no matter how badly he had treated her), and scrutinised by a police force around her who seemingly pass their time in uniform to keep up appearances rather than abide by the letter of the law, she is constantly fighting an uphill battle, oft-turning to water bottles filled to the brim with soju (Korean alcohol) for comfort and to actually sleep. Despite that, though, she is able to convey motherly warmth whenever little Dohee looks at her with those doe-eyes and the waterworks commence once more. Quietly spoken for the most part, Bae gives off a strength of character that shows the character of Lee has an inner power and sense of 'right' that has merely been pressed down due to recent events. Her mastery of such a complex role is wondrous to behold, and the interchanges between Dohee and Officer Lee never grow tiresome.

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Attempting to second-guess the ending or figure out the various twists and turns meticulously woven into this expertly written yarn is part of the fun, and A Girl at My Door does very well to indeed keep viewers on their toes for the near-enough two-hour extent. Confined to South Korea since its release in May 2014, thankfully Peccadillo Pictures has given the UK public the opportunity to view this striking film, albeit in a short window of time - so act quick! There is good reason why this has already won numerous awards, and to miss it now would be a crime.

9/10
Rated 9 out of 10

Exceptional - Gold Award

Rated 9 out of 10
Gripping, moving, frustrating, upsetting, disturbing, shocking - a rollercoaster ride of feelings are stirred up throughout the duration of A Girl at My Door. Touching upon somewhat taboo subject matter in places, the tale is carefully told and spotlessly acted out, never straying too far across the line, and instead delivering a poignant piece of cinematic delight that eventually leaves an overwhelming sense of sympathy for the traumatised child lead, Dohee, and the sympathetic Officer Lee. Tears will be shed. On limited release across the UK now, this is not one to be missed.

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