This Korean movie, directed by July Jung, is challenging but not dark, and never gets bogged down by the hard questions it asks: about justice, about evil, following the law vs doing what’s right, the rights of individuals vs the needs of the group.
Police officer Young-Nam (played by the amazing Doona Bae) has been assigned to be chief of a small fishing town in the country. She used to live in Seoul, but an affair with a woman (or an underage girl? that part is never made clear) led to her superiors getting her out of the way for a bit until things blew over. Young-Nam settles in well enough, though she remains quite distant from the locals, even the local cops, and we learn she drinks like a fish. Seriously, one scene has her buying dozens of bottles of booze which she repeatedly gulps down like it was water.
Soon she gets caught up in the life of Dohee, a local schoolgirl who not only is bullied by her schoolmates, but also beaten by her father and grandmother. Almost every night she runs through the town’s back alleys near Young-Nam’s place, which is how she saw her. The bullying is easy to take care of: a little chat with the culprits while in full uniform is enough to put the fear of God in them, but the abuse is a different story.
After a few days Young-Nam manages to catch the father in the act; she knocks him away from Dohee, and then—while pinning him down and fending off the grandmother’s clumsy attacks—calls in backup. It was a fucking awesome scene. I cheered. The whole audience cheered. But it wasn’t the end. Dohee’s dad still has custody, still drinks, and still threatens to beat her up. On his first night back, Dohee shows up at Young-Nam’s doorstep. Not really having any options, Young-Nam lets her stay the night. This turns into a regular thing; Young-Nam is not happy with her space being invaded like this, and very uncomfortable with her new role of caregiver, but she really wants to help and protect the girl. And so eventually, Dohee wants to stay permanently. The father doesn’t really argue, but Young-Nam at least puts her foot down a little: Dohee will stay for about a month, until the end of summer vacation.
Two problems: first, Dohee has been living with abuse most of her life and while most of the time she’s fine, she tends to act out in very disturbing ways that Young-Nam is absolutely not prepared to deal with. Second, Young-Nam’s ex rolls into town, and they have dinner together. And argue, like they must have argued many times before: about Young-Nam’s drinking, her standoffishness, etc… that still doesn’t keep them from being seen by some locals including Dohee’s father, who puts 2 and 2 together.
Before you know it, Young-Nam is taken in for questioning about having improper relations with Dohee, and it doesn’t look good. Did she ever undress her? Yes (because she was soaking wet from hours in the rain). Did she ever touch her at all? Yes (to comfort her, and feel the nasty bruises on her back). Young-Nam protests that she did nothing wrong, but the other officers retort that her being gay puts a different spin on things. Dohee is also questioned, and it looks even worse: she’s clearly infatuated with Young-Nam, admits to being touched, and even points out where on a doll.
But upon learning that this all means Young-Nam will be taken away, Dohee hatches a plan: she gets her father drunk, and sets things up so the police catches him in the middle of molesting her. Later, after he’s taken away, she “confesses” that he’d made her say all those incriminating things about Young-Nam. Eventually realising that Dohee has nowhere to go except foster care, Young-Nam decides to take her in, and they ride out town together.
Now let’s talk about monsters.
Near the end, a junior police officer told Young-Nam that there was something wrong with Dohee, that she was “a monster” (and then quickly apologised for speaking out of turn). He may be right, but if so, she was made into one, by the constant abuse and bullying she suffered. In turn, was her father a monster? He did physically and emotionally abuse his daughter, and kept the town’s economy going by hiring illegal immigrants that he cheated out of their wages, but I’m willing to bet he suffered similar abuse at the hands of his bigoted mother. And so it goes.
Are the townspeople monsters? They mostly didn’t care about the foreigners’ welfare, only that they kept on catching fish; resident police officers definitely knew the truth and tried to keep Young-Nam from interfering. They felt bad about it, for what that’s worth.
Come to that, is Young-Nam a monster? She is a dedicated officer, who believes in justice and fairness… but some will see her as intrinsically bad just because she’s a lesbian. And what drives her to drink like she does? What pain does she hide? What demons is she trying to suppress?
What I’m getting from this is that no one is born a “monster”, but the potential to hurt others is in everybody, and that can be either nurtured or discouraged. Which is a lifelong process that can go either way. We don’t see Young-Nam drinking any less by the end of the movie, but her relationship with Dohee will hopefully help both of them in the long run. And even if it doesn’t… well, sometimes you just have to do what’s right and hope for the best. Take in the terrified girl at your door, because right this second you’re all she has.
I could talk about justice as well: Young-Nam is a police officer, but most of the plot happens outside her official role. She seems to be the only officer around who really cares about doing good in the community, not just enforcing law, not just about keeping the peace—deceptive peace, when beatings occur in people’s back yards that nobody does anything about. She believes the law is there to help the community as a whole, but not at the expense of individuals’ rights or happiness. Keeping the town’s economy afloat is not worth it if it means enslaving undocumented immigrants, or letting one girl be abused.
And did Dohee find justice in the end? No: getting her father jailed wasn’t justice. Possibly-maybe getting her grandmother killed wasn’t justice either. But it was the closest thing she’ll get get, since the law wouldn’t help her or the only woman who cared about her.
I’m trying to decide if this an idealist movie. Is the moral that we should try to change the world? Is it worth fighting the monsters? Apathetic cops let Dohee’s father’s abuses go for years, and they’re clearly portrayed as wrong. The world is a slightly better place now that her two people are dead or gone. But fighting monsters is hard, and they don’t go down in just one round. Try to change the world, and it’s liable to fuck you right back.
Is it worth the struggle? For Young-Nam, I think it was. I guess we all have to decide for ourselves.