E J-yong’s latest film addresses quite possibly every other marginalised community/identity and taboo yet pressing social issues that exist in contemporary South Korea. He accesses these identities and issues through a frank portrait of a woman in her mid-sixties, So-yeong, who is a prostitute; the only kind of profession that she knows and one that could generate the kind of money she needs to get by. Played by veteran actress Yoon Yeo-jeong in a flawlessly pitched performance, So-yeong is a steely character, unfazed by anything; the only exception seems to be disgusted annoyance when she finds that she has contracted gonorrhea from one of her clients at the start of the film. So-yeong’s wry, practical attitude towards life is echoed by the film’s own overall approach to presenting So-yeong, her lifestyle, her community of friends, and the unexpected situations in which she finds herself. E J-yong never anthem-izes any or all of the figures/issues that we meet or come into contact with through So-yeong, least of all her. Instead, he simply presents them living (and surviving) as best they can, given their distinct experiences and perspectives, and occasionally have fun. He allows for emotional moments to surface for his characters, but he also opts for a primarily detached tone that prevents the film from easily appealing for viewer sympathy, pity, judgment, or action, without diluting his representation of So-yeong, the socioeconomic circles in/through which she moves, and an underlying critique of society and state’s indifference.
So-yeong herself is emblematic of the fact that, despite South Korea’s high ranking as an OECD country, state care for its elderly population is dreadfully woeful. The poverty rate among senior citizens is increasingly high, and even more so for single elderly women like So-yeong, so that a substantial number of elderly prostitutes working in Seoul is very much a reality. The film itself does not preach this information; rather, it comes from one of So-yeong’s potential younger clients. Once in a motel room, a young man reveals himself to be a filmmaker covertly conducting research and asks So-yeong if he could interview her for a documentary project. After an initial refusal, the two bump into each other again at Jongmyo Park (where ‘bacchus ladies’ usually hang out to solicit men) and she concedes.
Yet most revealing about So-yeong is when she takes on an unofficial role of an interviewer. In a scene earlier in the film before she participates in the interview as an interviewee, she goes to a fast food place for take-away. As she waits for her order, a military man catches her attention and she strikes up a conversation with him in English. Filmed mainly with the man speaking to So-yeong onscreen in a medium close-up while So-yeong’s voice is heard offscreen, he shares quite openly, calmly, how he is biracial: born from a Korean mother and a black (American soldier) father but given up for adoption. Why So-yeong should be so immediately curious about and affected by this young man even after he leaves the premises is at the heart of her matter-of-fact attitude and complex past. Perhaps just as importantly, this scene tips the film from fiction to documentary, or somewhere in between, an ambiguous space with which E J-yong is familiar; again, not to anthem-ize but just to represent.
This documentary-like interview insert is also connected to the film’s other major narrative thread: Min-ho (Ha Jeong-hoon), a Korean-Philippine boy born from a liaison when his (married) Korean father traveled to the Philippines and met his mother. At the film’s beginning, in a clinic where So-yeong has an appointment regarding her STD, she is witness to this man and woman’s non-traditional family crisis, finds Min-ho, connects the dots, and instinctively takes him home without notifying anyone about it. Min-ho moves from one non-traditional familial unit to another, as he temporarily forms a bond with So-yeong; even more so when So-yeong takes Min-ho back to her apartment complex and we are introduced to her transgender landlady Tina (An A-zu), who is also a prostitute, and fellow tenant Do-hoon (Yoon Kye-sang), an amputee.
As the film settles into this situation of a temporary misfit family unit, So-yeong, Tina, and Do-hoon take turns looking after Min-ho, whose (familial) fate remains uncertain, because So-yeong must continue to work. And through her work we also come into contact with men of her age, who long for companionship and pleasure, as well as death. When confronted with such a desire for death, So-yeong is taken back but never so rattled that she retires to a dark corner and rejects the world. Quite the opposite. Whatever comes her way, born from her own experiences as well as those of others, she faces it with a practicality that is astonishing. As if taking her cue, the film itself never resorts to the melodramatic or stylised in showing the range of situations that befall So-yeong. Even when she is servicing her clients with a handjob or blowjob, neither she nor the film eroticises or sensationalises the act; on the contrary, it is routine, even mundane. Because that is how things have been for her, past and present. Not that she is resigned with her decisions and ‘fate’ to the point of passivity but rather resolute in what needs to be done regardless of her decisions and ‘fate.’ And Yoon Yeo-jeong gives flesh to this character in such a respectful, amiable, and stunning way.