London audiences have been spoiled with some great films in the recent festivals, from the latest blockbusters to indie debut features. Both LEAFF and LKFF included in their programme a debut feature by a female director, focusing on mother-daughter relationships and headlining actors who have not had much screentime in the mainstream.
LEAFF’s selection was The Apartment with Two Women (같은 속옷을 입는 두 여자) written and directed by Kim Se-in, which screened at last year’s Busan festival. LKFF chose Gyeong-ah’s Daughter (경아의 딸), written and directed by Kim Jung-eun. Kim’s previous output consists of three short films, including Night Working (야간근무) that was programmed in the 2017 London Korean Film Festival..
A literal translation of the original Korean title of The Apartment with Two Women is “Two women wearing the same underwear”. Appropriately enough, the opening scene features the two women in the cramped bathroom in their shared apartment. The daughter, Yi-jeong, is washing underwear in the washbasin as her mother unceremoniously tosses her own panties into the wash before taking a phone call organising her social life.
In a telling gesture, as the mother, Soo-kyeong, takes the call standing in the doorway, she rests her hand on the door jamb opposite, imprisoning Yi-jeong in the room to complete her chores. It is clear from the get-go that Yi-jeong is meant to have all our sympathies. Soo-kyeong comes across as only caring about herself, and is violent when challenged – and sometimes for no reason at all. Yi-jeong has had to endure this behaviour all her life, as is made clear by a heart-rending letter that comes to light later in the story, in which a much younger Yi-jeong asks Soo-kyeong to be less random in her beatings so that she knows what she is doing wrong and can avoid punishment in the future.
An early crisis in the movie storyline has Soo-kyeong driving her car at Yi-jeong, causing her to be hospitalised. It seems to be a clear case of intentional assault, though viewers will be aware of the persistent press stories about incidents of self-accelerating cars – particularly Toyota and Hyundai – that leaves room for doubt. Whatever the truth, Soo-kyeong’s heartless attitude after the collision is unapologetic as she tries to get Yi-jeong to sign a disclaimer. For Yi-jeong however the incident is the last straw that makes her want to confront her mother and receive an apology for all her past abuses.
The majority of the film explores the current and past relationship between the two; despite a claustrophobic work environment which is as oppressive as her life at home, Yi-jeong finds a confidante in a work colleague, thus helping us to hear some of her backstory; and we learn more of Soo-kyeong’s character though observing her relationship with her boyfriend, the way she relates with his teenage daughter, and in her interactions with the customers in her traditional medicine pharmacy.
Although the movie is long, at 140 minutes, it never ceases to hold our attention thanks to the intensity of the acting and storyline. The interest lies in wondering whether a reconciliation between mother and daughter will ever be possible; in the meanwhile, paradoxically, not much is actually happening. There is a remarkable scene of knife-edge intensity towards the end of the movie in which the two women are in the apartment together in complete darkness. Viewers can see hardly anything on screen, but somehow we feel that this could be the turning point in the narrative even though what we can just about gather is happening in the apartment is purely mundane, at least on the surface.
In Gyeong-ah’s Daughter, the mother-daughter relationship is initially more harmonious, though Gyeong-ah, a widow who earns a living as a carer for an old man with dementia, is over-protective of her daughter Yeon-soo. This over-protectiveness and over-intrusiveness has led Yeon-soo to keep her boyfriend of two years a secret from her mother.
The incident which propels the film narrative into gear is Yeon-soo’s breaking up with the boyfriend, who retaliates with revenge porn, spitefully distributing a video of the two of them having sex both online and to her mother and other social contacts. The incident destroys Yeon-soo’s work life at school where she is a popular newly-qualified teacher. It also shatters the mother-daughter relationship. At just the time when Yeon-soo needs emotional support, Gyeong-ah, upset at Yeon-soo’s secretiveness, calls her daughter a whore and blames herself as a mother for failing to bring her up properly.
The movie explores how Yeon-soo tries to rebuild her life and deal with her vindictive ex-boyfriend, while also following the separate rocky path of how trust is restored between mother and daughter. There are moments of extreme poignancy which will have the audience tearing up, though the film is never sentimental. Again, the intensity of the acting, particularly that of Kim Jung-young as Gyeong-ah, is totally believable.
Both movies are understated and intimate but nevertheless wholly gripping to the end. As debut features they are remarkable and leave us wanting to see more from these writer-directors, as well as giving us further evidence of the growing strength of the female voice in Korean cinema.
Gyeong-ah’s Daughter has its international premiere today at the London Korean Film Festival. The Apartment with Two Women screened at the London East Asia Film Festival on 28 October.
- Gyeong-ah’s Daughter (경아의 딸), dir Kim Jung-eun (김정은, 2022) Cast: Kim Jung-young (김정영) as Gyeong-ah | Ha Yoon-kyung (하윤경) as Yeon-soo
- The Apartment with Two Women (같은 속옷을 입는 두 여자), Dir Kim Se-in (김세인, 2021). Cast: Yang Mal-bok (양말복) as Soo-kyeong | Lym Ji-ho (임지호) as Yi-jeong