I am a little surprised that this Korean film didn’t get a UK release in 2017 after several major festival appearances. It has re-emerged now with a screening at the London Korean Film Festival and its subsequent appearance on MUBI UK. It seems likely that the reason for renewed interest is the starring role it offers to the acclaimed Korean actor Yoon Yeo-jeong whose big success with the Korean-American film Minari (2020) won her the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. She also plays a supporting role in Lucky Chan-sil (South Korea 2019) also in the current MUBI season. But in The Bacchus Lady she has the lead role and she is in virtually every scene. She is excellent in the film but she isn’t the only attraction. It is well directed with interesting and at times quite beautiful cinematography, a plaintive and effective music score as well as strong performances from supporting players.
It is quite difficult to comment on the film without spoiling the narrative development of the last third of the film in particular. I’ll try to avoid too much plot description. The ‘Bacchus’ of the title refers to an energy drink available in South Korea and So-young (Yoon Yeo-jeong) plays a sex worker in her late 60s whose opening gambit when she accosts older men in one of the large parks in Seoul is to offer to sell them a bottle of Bacchus. Her other seemingly innocuous chat-up line is “Would you like a date?” I understand that the Bacchus ladies and the whole phenomenon of older sex workers (i.e. of pensionable age) is a social issue in South Korea. It appears that South Korea has not developed proper social welfare policies for older people, if women like So-young don’t have family or an occupational pension, they must keep working. She suggests it is better than cleaning the streets and collecting refuse.
The ‘inciting incident’ of the narrative occurs right at the beginning of the film. So-young has contracted gonorrhoea and when at the doctor’s surgery she witnesses an attack by an English-speaking young woman on a Korean doctor. She had noticed a small boy waiting outside the surgery and when the screaming woman cries out to the boy to ‘run!’, So-young to her own amazement runs after him. She knows the city well and eventually she finds him hiding in an alley and takes him to her home. Why does she do this? A possible answer will emerge later. For now all we need to know is that So-young’s room is in a building with two other residents, a glamorous transgender landlady/landlord and a young amputee who seems to make a living painting small model figures of celebrities/film characters. In some ways this going to become a familiar ‘family’ of misfits. The boy doesn’t speak much Korean, only a few words of English and his own language, but somehow they will get by. It’s a feature of the film that looking after the boy is only one part of So-young’s busy life. She appears to owe money that she is paying off in instalments depending on the trade she can drum up in the parks.
If the surrogate ‘family’ seems a quite conventional device, there is also another familiar character in the form of a documentary filmmaker who wants to record an interview with So-young – prostitution is illegal in South Korea, though seemingly not very strictly enforced despite occasional ‘sweeps’ by the local police. Director Lee Je-yong has been criticised by some commentators for cramming too many stories and too many themes into his film. I don’t really agree with this. Lee seems very much in control of the narrative, though in the last third it does change a little, becoming focused on a set of key decisions that So-young takes that will ultimately determine her fate. One of the interesting aspects of the narrative for me is the impact of the American occupation of the country, which lasted much longer than the occupation of Japan, and how it eventually led in turn to both Korean migration to the US but also the creation of a Korean-American (including a Korean-African-American) minority following the local relationships involving American servicemen. This matches similar Vietnamese experiences, but more recently Koreans themselves have created their own mixed families during time spent on overseas visits for education or business in other parts of Asia. We learn eventually that the boy So-young has been looking after speaks Tagalog. Later she meets an American soldier in a fast food restaurant who is the son of an African-American father and Korean mother. Towards the end of the film So-young and her surrogate family visit a theme park in the north of the country, from where they can view the border, and we learn that she originally came from the North as a baby during the war in 1950.
The Bacchus Lady could be seen as a form of social melodrama, driven by its concern about social issues with the most emphasis on the fate of the elderly in a society which has not yet worked out how to implement welfare policies (whereas the UK had them but is in danger of losing them). Or it could be simply So-young’s story. Either way it is certainly helped by Yoon Yeo-jeong’s irresistible performance. I’m intrigued by Lee Je-yong who seems to have changed his name to ‘E J-yong’. I realise now that he was the director of Untold Scandal (South Korea 2003), which was one of the ‘wave’ of Korean films that arrived in UK cinemas in the early 2000s and announced a new power in global cinema. I remember being impressed by a period drama with a contemporary feel, but the director has only made a total of eight features since his first in 1998. I hope he makes more. The Bacchus Lady is not a Friday night crowd pleaser and some audiences might find it disturbing, but I would very much recommend it. Although we do see So-young with her clients, there is no exploitation feel to these scenes which are sensitively handled. Here is a short trailer that doesn’t give away too much: