Child abuse is a serious problem in South Korea, where the Western trend of permissive education and upbringing never made an entirely successful landing, and where (light) corporal punishment will still hardly draw the attention of authorities, which has lead to horrific numbers of child abuse cases that have been growing at an alarming rate. According to Korea Herald, there was an 18,7 percent increase in the number of child abuse cases in the first half of 2017; there were 10,647 reported cases, compared to the 8,972 cases in the first half of 2016, and nearly 72 percent of the offenders were parents. And yet, little seems to have been done to deal with the growing issue. It still seems to be under wraps and far from being in the public spotlight, a fact that South Korean director Lee Ji-won hopes to change with her debut feature that she both wrote and directed, and which she based on a true story – Miss Baek.
The titular Miss Baek – Baek Sang-ah (Han Ji-min) is a bit of an antihero. She is an ex-convict, rough at and below the edges, who works as a car washer and a masseuse and who seems to have given up on being happy in any sense of the word. She is in a relationship with a detective, Jang-sup (Lee Hee-joon), but seems to be less than invested in it, despite his persistent marriage proposals. The first shock to her half-life comes when her boyfriend brings her to the morgue for her to identify a decomposed corpse – the mother who abandoned Sang-ah after abusing her as a child. Through flashbacks, we learn that after being sent to an orphanage, Sang-ah was almost raped by a son of a rich businessman, but defended herself by killing him, which led to her being convicted and forced to spend years in prison.
Convinced that she does not deserve any kind of happiness, may it be her letting go of the past, getting married to the man who loves her or becoming a mother, Sang-ah runs from the world and her own history until she finds herself face-to-face with another victim of abuse – Ji-eun (Kim Si-ah), who is wandering the streets covered in more bruises than clothes, in the dead of winter. Sang-ah is unable to walk away; she feeds the girl and puts some clothes on her, but at first still refuses to let herself get involved any further – until she realizes the extent of abuse Ji-eun suffers at the hands of her two-faced stepmother (Kim Si-ah) and her video-game addict of a father, Il-gon (Baek Soo-jang). Unable to stand by and let the girl suffer what she herself did, Sang-ah begins to fight for Ji-eun’s life.
Han Ji-min puts on an incredible performance as Baek Sang-ah, first channeling the suppressed emotions and then releasing all of the pent-up anger and stress in a tigress-like fashion. Like-wise, Kim Si-ah seems to be possessed with Ji-eun’s character, a girl who is almost broken and willing to let go of life itself, but still dares to hope, and reach out. Their interaction is on point as the two tentatively let themselves grow close. Besides the two, Lee Ji-won firmly put the entire film into a mostly female perspective by providing both the female chief villain (Kwon So-hyun) and a female character that provides brief moments of comic relief to the story (Kim Sun-young), directing the male cast to do a solid job with their support from the sidelines.
Miss Baek is a film that is, in its very core, designed to evoke emotions and force the viewers to look into the eyes of a familiar beast, prompting them to take some kind – any kind – of action. Avoiding the trap of being too deliberate and granting its story a natural flow, the feature succeeds to do it all – it moves, it tortures by being relentless in its realistic depiction of the abuse and its victims in a vicious cycle that is sometimes destined to repeat itself, and delivers it all on all possible points. It is a film with a purpose, and it packages and serves it with the highest grade.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © Little Big Pictures