Director – Lee Je-Yong – 2016 – South Korea – 111m
After visiting the doctor to discover, not entirely unexpectedly, that she has gonorrhea, elderly woman So-young (Youn Yuh-jung) witnesses his being stabbed by a woman claiming he’s her child’s father. In the ensuing chaos as the woman is taken away by police, she tells her son Min-ho (Choi Hyun-jun) to get away. Taking pity on him, So-young helps the boy evade the police and decides to look after him.
Her condition directly affects her work: prostitution. As she cheerfully tells upstairs landlady Tina (An A-zu), “no work today – the product is out of order.” However, that doesn’t stop her soliciting for blow jobs. The Bacchus of the title refers to an energy supplement, the supply of which is her cover for working at the oldest profession.
What does get in the way, though, is having to look after Min-ho. Sometimes she can get Tina to babysit, sometimes fellow tenant Do-Hoon (Yoon Kye-Sang), sometimes she must take him with her, leaving him on street corners or cheap hotel lobbies while she entertains clients. On one occasion this pays unexpected dividends: during a police raid, she must sneak out of the hotel and when she leaves the lobby holding a child’s hand, the undercover operators assume she’s not a prostitute and let the pair pass.
After one of her competitors exposes her medical condition, she moves to a different park where she runs into an old client, the lonely widower Jae-woo (Chon Moon-song from Finding Angel, Kim Seong-jun, 2021; Crocodile, Kim Ki-duk, 1996; The Woman Of FIre ’82, Kim Ki-young, 1982) who she hasn’t seen for a while. He’s lost his sex drive and seems to be glad of her company (although it later transpires his situation is slightly more complex than that) and he fills her in on other clients with whom she’s lost touch.
There’s the dapper gentleman who had a good pension and always treated her well, now unable to perform even the most basic function and confined to a bad in a care home. There’s the man who these days never goes out because he has dementia. Both are ready to die, with the former bemoaning the fact that he can’t even die without help, let alone do anything else while the latter begs them to kindly finish him off when his faculties have clearly deteriorated. Witnessing how badly his Americanised family are treating the care home resident, So-young helps him on his way with weed poison by mouth, while the dementia sufferer is pushed off a cliff. Jae-woo confides that he’d like her by his side when he takes an overdoes, and she obliges.
Youn Yuh-jung plays So-young as a woman trying to do the right thing, whether that’s looking after the child of a mother in dire straits or or helping people who want to end their lives do so (even if pushing someone off a cliff doesn’t seem that humane a way of administering a mercy killing). As a prostitute she’s used to living outside the law, so these other acts don’t appear a big deal. The cinema is full of people bumping off others for all manner of dubious reasons (for instance to get their money) but the character here is genuinely attempting to help others.
The film suffers from running two parallel plots – looking after the child, euthanasia of those ready to die – which in the case of the child plot means having to tie up all the loose ends generated. She even has an encounter with a documentary film maker. Its real concern through is the plight of the elderly in Korea – women soliciting or collecting rubbish to make ends meet, men who’ve lost any desire to carry on living. One the one hand, it’s worth seeing for its leading lady’s compelling character study and a clutch of striking supporting performances; on the other, it touches on the question of euthanasia while irritatingly failing to explore it at any real depth.
LKFF 2021 Trailer:
Youn Yuh-jung films currently or recently available…
Korean Film Archive YouTube Channel (free): Insect Woman (Kim Ki-young, 1972)
BFI Player: The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo, 2010)
Curzon Home Cinema: Beasts Clawing At Straws (Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)
LKFF (London Korean Film Festival) 2021 (Thursday, November 4th to Friday, November 19th): a strand of films celebrating actress Youn Yuh-jung (Best Supporting Actress, Minari)