In one sense we’ve never been more connected to one another, but our tendency to remain inside our own solipsistic bubbles has never been higher. We ignore those in need, confident that “someone” will do something, that it isn’t our responsibility. Then again perhaps we don’t even notice. It’s freezing cold in director Lee Ji-won’s debut feature Miss Baek (미쓰백) and a little girl is sitting outside in her nightie. No one takes very much interest her even though it’s far too late for a child to be out alone. That is, until the titular Miss Baek (Han Ji-min) overcomes her own sense of alienation and decides to look back.
Now in her mid-30s, Baek Sang-ah is an aloof, near silent woman who ekes out a living through a series of casual jobs from car washing to massage. She is in a kind of relationship with a kindly policeman, Jang-sub (Lee Hee-joon), who wants to marry her, but Sang-ah has long ago ruled out the idea of marriage and family. She never wanted to be someone’s wife or mother. Sang-ah says this not (entirely) because she values her independence, but because of a legacy of trauma and abandonment born of the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother who fell into depression and alcoholism following the loss of her husband. Fearing becoming another link in a long chain of abuse passed from parent to child, Sang-ha has kept herself isolated, avoiding all intimate relationships and vowing to continue on alone causing harm to no one.
One winter day, however, she can’t walk past the girl in the nightie anymore. Taking her to a nearby food stall, Sang-ha finds out the girl’s name is Ji-eun (Kim Si-a) and she’s nine years old. Just as Sang-ha is beginning to ask about the cuts and bruises on Ji-eun’s hands and feet, a well dressed woman who turns out to be her father’s girlfriend arrives and whisks the girl away. Sang-ha tries to forget about her and go on with her life, but she can’t seem to do it. Buying Ji-eun some proper winter wear, she resolves to try and help the girl the way that no one tried to help her.
There is something particularly insidious in the continuous stream of injustice and mistreatment Sang-ha and Ji-eun find themselves subject to precisely because of their lack of social power. Children, most obviously, have no mechanism to defend themselves besides their parents and should they try to speak out against them, they may not be listened to. Managing to escape, Ji-eun tried to tell the police what her parents were doing to her but they sent her home with only a mild warning to her smirking step-mother that she’d best ease back on the “discipline”. Understandably, Ji-eun doesn’t have much faith in the authorities as a source of salvation. Sang-ha experienced much the same but her oppression continued on into adulthood when she was arrested for violently defending herself against a would-be-rapist who happened to be the son of a wealthy and connected man who used his status to do as he pleased while Sang-ah went to jail. Sang-ha’s prison record comes back to bite her again when she tries to talk to the police on Ji-eun’s behalf only for them to lay into her when they eventually run her file.
Meanwhile, Ji-eun’s step-mother Mi-kyung (Kwon So-hyun) is well turned out and scrupulously polite. She has a plausible answer for everything and a talent for middle-class respectability, even crying during church services. Her father Il-gon (Baek Soo-jang), by contrast, is addicted to video games and rarely leaves the house while little Ji-eun is often locked in the bathroom where she cowers under the sink, or cast out onto the balcony in the mild hope that she’ll freeze to death. The only reason Mi-kyung has been keeping her around is the welfare payments, but they’re about to stop. Both “parents” project all of their personal resentments onto the face of a nine year old girl whom they beat, starve, and torture for no discernible reason other than they don’t know any other way to behave.
Ji-eun’s father was also beaten as a child. He wonders where the police were then and what sort of life they think Ji-eun is going to have when she too grew up like this. Sang-ah’s desire to save Ji-eun is also a desire to save herself as she contemplates maternity from both sides in revisiting the complicated relationship with her own mother while wondering if she is a fit person to care for a child with such poor models to follow. She doubts she can break the chain and free Ji-eun from a seemingly inescapable system of abuse and violence but through her deepening attachment to the little girl Sang-ha begins to find a way through her inertia and fear of intimacy to a deeper and more positive connection. A gritty yet always open and empathetic look at an all too often hidden social problem, Miss Baek is a promising and important debut from Lee Ji-won which refuses to look away from the dark and unpalatable but finds hope in the power of simple human kindness against cruelty and indifference.
Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.
Original trailer (no subtitles)