The first time we see Do-hee, the ‘girl’ in July Jung’s A Girl at my Door, she is holding a frog while a ladybird crawls across her other hand. At first it looks like she is innocently interacting with nature. A second later, we realise that she is offering the ladybird to the frog as a sacrifice. Like everything else that Do-hee does in the course of the film, what appears to be innocent on the surface conceals a darker intent.
Do-hee (Sae-ron Kim) is the first person that new Police Chief Lee Young-nam (Doona Bae) encounters when she arrives at the small village to which she has been posted. Young-nam’s transfer from Seoul to the back of beyond is the result of some kind of scandal which requires her to keep her head down for a bit.
The village whose tiny police force she will be heading up, is a barely-surviving seaside community dependent on its dwindling fishing industry. It’s populated by a seemingly quirky bunch of characters. As the older police captain drives Young-nam around her new home, we are quickly introduced to Park Jum Soon (Kim Jin-gu) a mad, drunk old woman on a rickety looking scooter/trailer contraption. “I told you not to ride that thing! Or at least ride it sober.” shouts the police officer. The cantankerous old woman shrugs off the policeman’s concerns “Buy me a bottle of wine if you’re going to lecture me!”
Shortly afterwards, we encounter Park Yong Ha (Sae-byeok Song), the biggest employer in the village who is bringing in more workers to fish for oysters. “Hey, tell your mother to stop riding that thing” says the Police captain. Although, it’s clear by this point that the Park family are too important and too crucial for the town to have to conform to the rules if they don’t feel like it.
Yong Ha is Do-hee’s stepfather who we are told ‘raised the girl as his own’. We don’t know what happened to the girl’s mother beyond everyone’s assertion that she abandoned her child. The resentment and hatred towards the absent woman by both Yong Ha and his mother are evident. However, given that the pair of them are clearly incredibly nasty and abusive people, it is fairly likely that whatever view they have of Do-hee’s mother isn’t a balanced one.
The fact that Do-hee is being severely abused by her ‘family’ is evident to the newcomer. The rest of the neighbours’ determination to normalise the mistreatment of the child, fuels Young-nam’s determination to help her. It’s a difficult film to watch. Child abuse is never comfortable viewing material. The rampant alcoholism within the community serves as a trigger in the abuse meted out to Do-hee by the people who are supposedly meant to be taking care of her.
Do-hee turns up on Young-nam’s doorstep for protection after escaping from her grandmother. A chase which resulted in fatal consequences. Despite questioning the girl’s involvement in her grandmother’s ‘accident’ (“She just fell into the sea” says Do-hee, repeatedly), Young-nam allows her to come and live in her home. This development causes consternation in the community which is already mistrustful of the new outsider Police Chief.
Young-nam’s motivations for allowing the young girl into her home and her life are entirely understandable. However, they may not be entirely wise. Young-nam has plenty of demons of her own. Not only is there the frequently hinted at “scandal” which led to her to removal from her job in Seoul but, like most of the adults in Do-hee’s life, Young-nam is also battling alcohol addiction. She arrives at her new home with dozens of bottles of mineral water, prompting her landlady to grumble that the new big city police captain clearly doesn’t even think it is possible to buy water outside the big cities. The bottles don’t actually contain water, though. Young-nam has carefully decanted the spirit, ‘soju’ into water bottles in order to keep her cupboards stocked with a hefty supply of alcohol that she claims she needs to “help her sleep”.
Discovering her mentor’s secret drinking habit doesn’t seem to diminish Do-hee’s evident admiration for her saviour. Her absolute adoration for Young-nam shines through in every scene as she shares her fears and tries to emulate the Police Captain by wearing her uniform and changing her appearance to mirror hers. Whether Do-hee’s feelings go further than that are left ambiguous. There are frequent hints that she may want something more romantic from their relationship. Do-hee is a child but only just. She is growing into a woman and it is never clear when she does something like stripping off and joining Young-nam in the bath that her intentions are entirely innocent.
Young-nam certainly doesn’t do enough to ensure that there are boundaries. She’s a police officer who already has a history of scandal, so you’d think she would be a bit more careful. Her care of Do-hee is often inappropriately close and then distant to the point of emotional neglect. She may be a better carer than the abusive Parks were but it still doesn’t feel right. A girl as clearly disturbed as Do-hee, who has suffered a lifetime of physical and mental abuse, needs a lot more careful handling than a troubled, introverted, functioning alcoholic can possibly provide.
Young-nam raises more hackles in the insular community by uncovering the exploitation and abuse of illegal immigrants in the oyster farming businesses run by Yong Ha, the girl’s step father. Even the other police officers are quick to defend Yong Ha, claiming that his business is essential for the town and that illegal immigrant labour is the only way to make it profitable. Yong Ha, along with most of the community, deeply resents the Big City Policewoman who seems determined to destroy their traditional village ways of people trafficking and turning a blind eye to abused children.
Allegations and attempts at retribution continue to intensify as the film takes an even nastier turn. The two main leads – Doona Bae as Young-nam and Sae-ron Kim as Do-hee are both excellent. Bae portrays a character who is fragile and slightly broken while maintaining a tough exterior to the rest of the world. Kim’s portrayal of the girl at the centre of the film is beautifully pitched. Her face breaks into a radiant childlike smile the moment that Young-nam does anything even slightly nice for her, suggesting that kindness and consideration are not things she has had much experience of so far in her life. The darkness is always below the surface, however. Director July Jung doesn’t over-egg the ‘darker’ side of Do-hee’s nature. At no point does the film threaten to slip into horror. The dangers here are all too prosaic and real for that.
It’s not an easy film to watch. The themes of abuse and self-loathing don’t get happily resolved. If you took the simplistic view then, sure, the bad guys get what’s coming to them and the good guys discover the true meaning of friendship. But this isn’t a film which encourages its audience to take a simplistic view of anything. Life is unfair and brutal and just getting through it can be pretty grim.
When Young-nam first takes Do-hee into her home, she is shocked by the lattice of scars and cane marks on her back. As the story unfolds, it is clear that the girl has far, far deeper scars than those. And while the film may end on a seemingly positive note, the audience is given no reassurance that those scars will ever heal.