Korean Film Festival 2017 Review: The Bacchus Lady (South Korea, 2016)

E-J Yong’s The Bacchus Lady (죽여주는 여자) is an opportunity to provide meaningful insight into the challenges facing South Korea’s senior population, but is ultimately wasted as it tries to tackle an overly large plethora of issues in its 111-minute runtime.

So-young (Youn Yuh-jung) is one of Seoul’s ‘Bacchus ladies’ – elderly women sex workers who approach prospective clients in the city’s busiest central parks, touting Bacchus-F energy drinks by way of solicitation. Her days are uneventful, revolving around her work and punctuated by the antics of her one-legged compound neighbour Do-hoon (Yoon Kye-sang) and transgender landlady Tina (An A-zu). However, her life and profession take a different course when she takes in a ‘Kopino’ (Korean-Filipino) child of a jailed Filipina sex worker seeking a paternity suit, and some of her long-term, aging male clients begin to beg her to help them end their lives.

An East Asian society traditionally governed by Confucian values of filial piety, senior prostitution is probably not the first issue that comes to mind when one thinks of problems within South Korean society. However, it is clear that Korea is no country for old people – nearly half of its senior population is poor, the highest rates of senior poverty out of all developed OECD countries. The state welfare system is limited, and the younger generation are already struggling in a country that they call “Hell Joseon”.

We see snippets of this context throughout the film – husband-less and without children to support her, So-young cannot afford to live in a retirement home. Meanwhile, a fellow Bacchus lady states her refusal to join the army of hunched seniors that sift through rubbish for recyclable goods every day throughout Seoul. Her work is shown to be unpleasant and monotonous, with each client only paying about 30 USD per encounter.

However, the problem with The Bacchus Lady is that we see snippets of so many other societal issues as well. While these are all interesting and pertinent, none are afforded enough depth to provide a comprehensive portrait or critique. There is a fleeting glimpse of the marginalisation of queer people through Tina, and the disabled through Do-hoon. A brief, random encounter with a Korean-American adoptee reminds So-young of her own half-American son, given up for adoption at birth. She interacts with migrants, struggling to assimilate with accented Korean, on the daily in multicultural Itaewon. The undercooked plot device of So-young’s taking in of the Korean-Filipino boy Minho sheds some light on the fates of ‘Kopino’ children, abandoned by Korean men who visit the Philippines for sex tourism.

Unfortunately, this part of the film’s story is unfinished, and results in the feeling that two separate plots have been stitched together in what is ultimately a mismatch. Societal criticism comes in the form of glib lines from minor characters and is clumsily scripted. However, a satirical portrait of the media’s role in the stigmatisation of sex workers, achieved through So-young’s reticent encounter with a documentary maker, is refreshing.

Youn Yuh-jung’s touching performance as So-young is to be commended – indeed, her role won her a prize at the 2016 Asia Pacific Screen Awards. The comedic relief provided by the relationship between clueless Do-hoon and “queen of Itaewon” Tina was also welcome. The film’s cinematography allowed Seoul to shine in all its grittiness, from the snaking streets of the Itaewon hills, to the fall foliage of Namsan Park.

The Bacchus Lady has a fascinating premise, made all the more so by the fact that the issue at its heart is real, and pressing. However, the film is cluttered by E-J Yong’s overly enthusiastic embracing of social problems and remains unfocused – a result almost as bittersweet as So-young’s story itself.

Review Score: TWO AND HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Bacchus Lady is being shown as part of the Korean Film Festival in Australia. It will be screening in Adelaide on 1 September, Perth on 3 September and Melbourne on 12 September.

For more information and to book visit www.koffia.com.au