An Old Lady (69세, Lim Sun-ae, 2019)

“Would you say I’m safe in these clothes?” the 69-year-old heroine of Lim Sun-ae’s An Old Lady (69세, 69-Se) asks of a now sympathetic police officer who has just, perhaps slightly inappropriately, complemented her on her always elegant dress sense little knowing it’s little more than ineffectual armour designed to help her feel not just less vulnerable but less culpable in the eyes of those who tell her that she is to blame for her sexual assault at the hands of a healthcare professional. 

Lim opens with a lengthy period of darkness in which we only hear the dialogue between Hyo-jeong (Ye Soo-Jung), an elderly woman receiving her final physiotherapy treatment following a knee operation, and 29-year-old nurse Joong-ho (Kim Joon-Kyung). We can hear Hyo-jeong’s discomfort in her muted replies to Joong-ho’s increasingly inappropriate comments on the beauty of her legs and youthful appearance and though we don’t see what happened next, we’ve heard enough to believe that what she says is true and that she has been assaulted by someone who was supposed to be a position of utmost trust. Though she doesn’t quite explain why, Hyo-jeong asks her live-in partner, Dong-in (Ki Joo-bong) to accompany her to the police station certain that she should report the crime but fearful and needlessly ashamed. The police, however, are not originally sympathetic, giggling slightly when they realise Joong-ho is a handsome 29-year-old man, stunned into disbelief that anyone would rape a 69-year-old let alone someone 40 years their junior. “We won’t make a scene, it’s not a murder” the lead investigator insensitively adds as a means of assuring them he’ll be discreet in his investigations. 

As a counsellor later points out, rape victims are forced to prove the accusation even when there is clear video evidence. The problems Hyo-jeong faces are the same as any other woman, but they are compounded by her age and most particularly by the spectre of dementia which is both wielded as a weapon by Joong-ho who admits to the sex but claims it was consensual, and by the police who must proceed as if her testimony may not be reliable. Hyo-jeong didn’t known Joong-ho’s name to report it and claims not to have known him previously, but he tells investigators he met her at a Christmas market and in fact recommended his hospital to her. In many senses, this is irrelevant. Meeting someone once and taking them up on a recommendation does not amount to consenting to a sexual relationship and there’s no evidence of their meeting on any subsequent occasion, but the inability to remember it clouds Hyo-jeong’s mind leaving her wondering if she really could have known him and begun some kind of romance and then simply forgotten about it. 

Dementia is a key tool in the gaslighting of the elderly who, when they ask legitimate questions about their healthcare or financial circumstances are simply told that their memory is faulty and everyone believes it because they’re old. Ageism is something both Hyo-jeong and Dong-in are repeatedly forced to face, berated by the young for being slow or in the way and watching as others seem to step in and assume authority over them as if they were children who can’t look after themselves. Hyo-jeong bears her troubles with quiet grace, but Joong-ho’s abuse of his position is all the more egregious because it leaves her afraid to seek medical treatment despite being in great pain. The police struggle to believe a young man would rape an old woman, but fail to spot that a predator has most likely installed himself in a line of work in which he is likely to meet vulnerable people who cannot fight back because of the physical impairments they are receiving treatment for, knowing that should they complain he can easily dismiss their claims as a figment of an elderly imagination. Hyo-jeong is only able to force him to admit inappropriate sexual contact because she preserved material evidence in not wanting to deal with her soiled hospital gown. 

“It drowns you little by little, life is really stubborn” she later tells an unrepentant Joong-ho complaining about having his life “ruined” by her desire for justice, and we can see that she has also had tragedy in her life that perhaps prevents her from asserting herself. Though living with Dong-in and working in his shop, she stubbornly continues to call him “Mr. Nam”, and the situation is indeed complicated by the irony that the pair met when she was his care nurse while he was recuperating in a hospital. The police didn’t quite like it that these two elderly people live together but aren’t married, and there are obviously problems with Dong-in’s resentful lawyer son (Kim Tae-hoon) who declares that it’s fine for his widowed father to live with a woman but he doesn’t see why he should take an interest in her private life. Nevertheless he later comes up with a legal tip that they should be prosecuting Joong-ho on a charge of assaulting someone with an age-related disability which might make it easier to get through the courts. Hyo-jeong doubts herself and backs off, Dong-in uncomfortably shifting into a mild chauvinism as he tries his best to protect her while outraged that someone like Joong-ho can just carry on living his life after what it is he’s done, continuing to provide medical care to other vulnerable women. 

Yet through her ordeal Hyo-jeong perhaps finds the strength to step into her self. “Telling my story isn’t easy. But this is me taking a step into the sun”, she says now more grounded and less minded to run away, ready to face the past as well as the future in having accepted herself for all that she is. A fierce condemnation of an ageist, patriarchal society, An Old Lady eventually allows its oppressed heroine to free herself not through revenge but through the simple act of refusing to be silent in the face of injustice. 


International trailer (English subtitles)

Hotel by the River (강변 호텔, Hong Sang-soo, 2018)

Hotel by the river posterTaking an extended sojourn in the melancholy world of European gothic, Hong Sang-soo takes Death to task in the Bergmanesque Hotel by the River (강변 호텔, Gangbyun Hotel). Shifting away from formal experimentation to something much more straightforward, even traditional, Hong maintains his love of dualities and unexpected symmetry as he places an elderly poet in the grip of his own mortality side by side with a young woman dealing with the emotional fallout of having been involved with a man whose heart had frozen. Beautiful but barren, the snowbound landscape points to an inner winter where hope of an invincible summer has long since passed, leaving only regret and futility in its place.

Our hero, Younghwan (Ki Joo-bong), is about to do “something foolish” once again. Feeling the icy fingers of Death on his shoulders, he’s invited his two estranged adult sons to visit him in a small hotel where he has been staying at the grace of the management. Meanwhile, he spends his days composing a last poem and gazing idly at the snow-covered vista below which is where he catches sight of a beautiful young woman with a visible wound on her hand. Like Younghwan, the young woman, Sanghee (Kim Min-hee), is here in retreat though hers is of a more immediate kind. Broken hearted over lost love, she’s invited a close friend, Yeonju (Song Seon-mi), to help her through, making a sad vacation of a trying time.

Feeling his mortality, Younghwan’s desire to see his sons is born more of a poetic sensibility and a need to put his affairs in order than it is of any great paternal affection. “Men are incapable of grasping love”, Yeonju intones from two tables over after she and Sanghee accidentally become the only other diners in a quiet eatery not far enough from the depressing hotel. Meanwhile, Younghwan is trying to excuse his decision to walk out on his family when his sons were small through love as a life philosophy, that real love must be pursued at all costs even if it fails. He claims he left the boys’ mother because it would be wrong to stay out of a sense of “guilt” alone, but his lack of remorse for the hurt his individualised actions have wrought makes his justifications hollow.

Hurt is where we find Sanghee whose internalised suffering is neatly externalised in her wounded hand. Literally “burned” in love, she is one woman among many misused by a weak willed and insensitive man much like Younghwan himself. Yet where Younghwan wallows, superficially rejects his responsibility, and frostily tries to reconnect with his sons, Sanghee heals herself with the warmth of friendship, hibernating her way towards wholeness as if waiting for the winter sun. Younghwan sees beauty in the inviolability of snow, but Sanghee sees life even here and she values it. If the magpies can make a nest even in the depths of winter, there must be hope for her too.

Younghwan has no hope, for he knows his days are over. An aesthete, he is captivated by the beauty of the two young women, repeatedly complimenting them on their attractiveness and eventually deciding to dedicate his final poem only to them after doubling back on his distant sons to return for more drinks with softer companionship. The poem is harsh and self lacerating, a confession of sorts but one made to a neutral audience and lamenting the oppressive forces of futility he subconsciously blames for an inability to pursue emotional authenticity.

Even Younghwan’s sons are mere echoes of himself – Byungsoo (Yu Jun-sang), the melancholy artist too afraid to pursue female companionship, and Kyungsoo (Kwon Hae-hyo), a dejected middle-aged salaryman too ashamed to tell his father that his marriage has failed. In a piece of parting advice, Younghwa expounds on the meaning behind Byungsoo’s name – “byung” as in “side by side”, intended not only as a literal hope that the brothers would always be close (something which does not seem to have come to pass), but also to echo Younghwa’s two minds life philosophy. One mind capable of conceiving of heaven, and the other to walk the ground. One mind will try to conquer the other but, Younghwan counsels, you mustn’t let it. His advocacy for balance in all things only further reinforces his failure to achieve it. Younghwan’s former wife describes him as an “absolute monster with no redeeming human features” which seems like a stretch given the broken, lonely old man before us but might well have been true in his youth full of a poet’s fire untempered by age’s regret.

The ironically named “Heimat” hotel is of course a temporary refuge, existing almost out of time with its old fashioned decor and atmosphere of faded grandeur. Younghwan is staying here for free on the invitation of a fan whose ardor eventually fades. A guest who’s outstayed his welcome, Younghwan is resolved to the coming end of his world, anticipating release if not redemption but lingering on until his day is done filled only with regret for life’s futility and its many disappointments. Hotel by the River finds Hong at his most poetic, but also at his most melancholy in a fatalistic reckoning which finds no escape from its eerie snowbound beauty.


Hotel by the River was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)