“Is it a crime to be old?” a middle-aged woman asks after finding herself the centre of scandal in Jeong Ji-hye’s timely drama, Jeong-sun (정순). Surrounded by an ageist and misogynistic society, Jeong-sun has always bided her time and played by the rules but is acutely aware of her predicament as an older woman knowing that if she loses her factory job no one else will hire her and therefore submits herself to all the petty microaggressions of life on the margins.
Chief among them would be her obnoxious floor manager Do-yun, little more than a teenager with a clipboard and an inflated sense of his own importance. She and the other women gossip about Do-yun’s dubious love life which partially relies on abusing his authority to date factory girls whom he gives preferential treatment and then discards once he’s bored. There’s also a rumour going around that the managers plan to fire some of the older workers like Jeong-sun after hiring permanent employees while a generational divide is developing between the full timers and the college students who turn up for the summer and secretly think they’re better than this. Jeong-sun accidentally offends one of them by playfully making fun of her putting on makeup in the changing room given that they’re all about to put on identical white uniforms and go through decontamination to head to the factory floor.
The irony is that she begins to bond with new employee Yeong-su out of their shared sense of alienation as marginalised middle-aged people. Around her age, Yeong-su previously worked casual jobs in construction but has switched to the factory because of knee damage caused by years of manual labour. His physical injury has further damaged his sense of masculinity leaving him deeply insecure and desperate for approval from other men including that from the continually obnoxious Do-yun. When Do-yun asks him if he has a girlfriend, Yeong-su sheepishly replies that he’s too old for all that only for Do-yun to insultingly add that he doubts he has the time or money considering he just works on the shop floor. When Jeong-su’s daughter Yu-jin (Yoon Geumseona) and her fiancé ask her if she might have a boyfriend, Jeong-sun gives a similar reply seemingly feeling a degree of shame about being an older woman daring to date. She tells Yeong-su that they should slow down because she’s embarrassed to hear the other workers gossiping about them, but Yeong-su takes it the wrong away assuming that she too looks down on him for being a penniless factory worker with not much to his name.
It’s this combination of ageism and sexism that gradually destroys their relationship. Mocked by Do-yun who calls him a “naive” man, Yeong-su shows him a video Jeong-sun had allowed him to take of her singing in her underwear in a moment of empowerment. Soon, it’s leaked online and Jeong-sun becomes the talk of the town, a figure of fun just for being a middle-aged woman embracing her sexuality. While the younger women laugh at her, Jeong-sun’s daughter and friends are universally sympathetic as is the policeman Yu-jin reports the incident to, but she later finds that not even the police really take the case seriously despite Jeong-sun’s increasingly precarious mental state. “I’m sorry to say this, but younger females are usually the victim” the policeman adds as they push Jeong-sun to settle, implying that no one’s all that interested in Jeong-su’s video and the taboo incident is somewhat embarrassing even to him. Yeong-su meanwhile offers a pleading “apology” before trying to convince Jeong-sun not to press charges because he’ll never work again with bad knees and a criminal record.
Yeong-su said he’d move away and that it would all blow over, but Jeong-sun later catches sight of him laughing and joking with Do-yun and the other guys from the factory very much one of the boys. Her life has been ruined, but they’ve got off scot free. “Why should I stay put?” Jeong-sun finally asks in directly standing up to Do-yun who is after all a cowardly boy who bullies other men to bolster his fragile sense of masculinity. He responds by calling her a “crazy bitch” while she destroys his false authority and plays him at his own game, somehow taking something back if only in a moment of self-destruction. Where she finds herself is literally in the driving seat of her own life, seizing the opportunity for freedom and independence that comes with age but also the breaking of a spell that had been designed to keep her in her place.
Jeong-sun screened as part of this year’s Red Lotus Asian Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)