“It’s not your fault. And it’s not mine either.” a young woman declares, finally freeing herself of internalised shame while trying to live under the oppressively patriarchal social codes of contemporary Korea in Kim Jung-eun’s quietly enraged drama, Gyeong-ah’s Daughter (경아의 딸, Gyeongaheui Ddal). As the title implies, the film is as much about parents and children and the various ways the older generation unwittingly fail the younger in mistakingly clinging to the conservative ideas that defined their own youth but bring nothing but misery to all as it is about the pervasive misogyny of the modern society.
Pushed to the edge, Yeon-su (Ha Yoon-Kyung) exclaims that she cannot bear being Gyeong-ah’s (Kim Jung-Young) daughter sick of her overly possessive, controlling parenting along with her initial failure to support her during one of the most miserable moments of her life. As the film opens, Gyeong-ah facetimes her daughter and the pair chat cheerfully for a while even though Gyeong-ah criticises Yeon-su’s new haircut as she shows her around her new apartment showing off the cheerful lights she’s stringed above her bed. But then, the conversation takes a turn for the strange with Gyeong-ah suddenly insisting that Yeon-su prove she is alone, taking the phone to the bathroom to show her there’s no one hiding in there and then even out in the hall in the event that she knew her mother might ask. We can well understand why Yeon-su, who is a grown woman about to start her first job as a high school teacher, might prefer to keep her mother at arm’s length unwilling to take the trouble of sharing her private life with her.
It’s this sense of distance that informs Gyeong-ah’s reaction when she suddenly receives a strange video from an unknown number and realises that it is a sex tape featuring her daughter. First of all she feels betrayed that Gyeong-ah lied to her when she repeatedly, and invasively, asked if she had a boyfriend while otherwise badgering her about not being married. But then she also feels ashamed, horrified, to see her daughter engage in behaviour that she views as somehow sordid. When Gyeong-ah confronts Yeon-su she blames her, disgusted that her adult daughter was sexually active in the first place but doubly so that she allowed herself to be filmed while doing it.
The fact that Yeon-su knew her boyfriend, Sang-hyun (Kim Woo-Kyum), was filming and did not stop him is brought up repeatedly as if this is all her fault for being so stupid or perhaps perverse to have agreed to it. As we discover, Yeon-su broke up with Sang-hyun because he was possessive and controlling a fact he proved by continuing to harass her with relentless text messages and phone calls to which she did not respond. Eventually he turns up at her place of work with flowers and does not take well to Yeon-su’s attempt to explain that his actions are not “romantic” but have actively frightened her. As she gets into a taxi to leave, he further threatens her by giving the cab driver her address reminding her that he knows where she lives while making it clear to him that she’s his woman. “What a reliable boyfriend” the driver quips, chuckling that he probably suspects he might kidnap her. Yeon-su wisely decides to go to her mother’s instead, only to get another earful about the dangers of staying out too late alone.
Sang-hyun’s decision to send the sex tape to all of Yeon-su’s close contacts including Gyeong-ah is another attempt to exercise control over her life as act of revenge in being scorned. A sense of patriarchal entitlement seems to surround her. When a (negative) pregnancy test is found at the school, the principal mutters about conducting some kind of witch hunt on the look out for teenage lovers adding that “girls today are shameless” as if the boy bears no responsibility or else is simply led astray by a “bad” girl who should be taught a lesson in feminine purity. Later in a cafe, Gyeong-ah hears a man remark that he’s “popular with women at work”, when he makes a move they can’t resist him. Unable to cope with rejection, Sang-hyun destroys Yeon-su’s life yet faces no consequences of his own. She can no longer bear to be looked at, distancing herself from her friends and taking a leave of absence from her job barely leaving a tiny one-room apartment and forced to pay exorbitant sums to a data security company to try and erase the video from the internet knowing it will never really be “over” because someone could always just reupload it.
On going to the police she’s again asked if she consented to the video being filmed and told that in practice no one really gets convicted for these crimes because they just say their phone was stolen or that they were hacked. Even Yeon-su’s lawyer later pressures her to settle out of court while she’s further harassed by Sang-hyun’s otherwise well-meaning mother who is forced to realise that she’s raised such a fragile boy. Gyeong-ah in turn is forced to reckon with her maternal failures, that though Yeon-su had supported her through her abusive marriage she was not there when she needed her and in fact tried to reinforce the same oppressive social codes that caused her nothing but misery all through her life. When the report of a woman who had killed her husband after long years abuse being sentenced to a lengthy prison term plays on the television in a cafe, even Gyeong-ah’s best friend exclaims that a woman should stick with her husband no matter what unable to understand what might have motivated the woman’s actions.
Yet Gyeong-ah continues to ask her daughter why she’s not married, forcing her into this selfsame cycle of abuse and control. The old man that Gyeong-ah looks after has several sons, yet they’ve hired a middle-aged woman to look after him while his daughter, a successful lawyer, looks in occasionally and beats herself up that she’s somehow failing in her duty of care. She explains that she didn’t want to get married, but might have liked to have children, eventually sympathising with Gyeong-ah’s dilemma and offering some free life and legal advice to an increasingly depressed Yeon-su, though Gyeong-ah had perhaps judged her implying that she was wrong to choose a career over becoming a wife and mother. Gyeong-ah is beginning to realise the mistake in her complicity, but as Yeon-su says it’s not her fault and nothing good will come of it until each of them learns to stop blaming themselves so they can move on with their lives. When Gyeong-ah finally removes the family portrait from her wall and leaves it out for the bin men, just as Yeon-su had tried to do with the remnants of her relationship with Sang-hyun, it’s as if she’s freeing herself from the outdated patriarchal social codes that convinced her she had no right to resist or claim her own agency over her life. Yeon-su has perhaps taught her a valuable lesson while rediscovering her self-confidence and fighting back against the sheer entitlement of the fragile men that thought it was their right to ruin her life by shaming her into submission.
Gyeong-ah’s Daughter screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)