Interview: July Jung, ‘A Girl at My Door’

The Un Certain Regard section was where the debut feature, A Girl at My Door (2014) from South Korean director July Jung unspooled to insidious acclaim by those who saw it. Following this auspicious beginning it played London Film Festival twelve months ago and now finally returns to cinemas as the always inventive Peccadillo Pictures release it in cinemas on 18 September. Choice is an imperative that drives the narrative of A Girl at My Door, Young­-Nam (played by Doona Bae) is a Seoul Police Commissioner transferred a small provincial backwater (Yeosu) for the dual crimes of being gay and overindulging in alcohol. There she makes a connection with an abused teenager girl (Do-Hee) who is constantly seeking escape from her father.

From this conventional starting point the film adroitly moves in an enforced rhythmical pattern which opens our twin characters and allows their hidden darkness to weep a long howl of existence. The duality in both characters contradicts both societal and narrative norms which forces a swapped mirroring that culminates in a questioning ending left hanging for audience choice. We sat down with Jung earlier this year in the annals of the cavernous ICA in order to discuss (via translator) her bold cinematic tale that borders ideas of small time life and transgression. We started with an inquiry as to why the Korean title of the film was Dohee-­ya (named after the teenage girl) when in fact the protagonist is Young-Nam. While listening to the translator, Jung slowly nodded and smiled before answering. “The film begins with Do­-Hee’s story, she is in pain and suffering so needs somebody to help her. That person was Young­-Nam. So this is a story about a woman who encounters a girl with a distinctive character.”

The starting point to where the germ of the idea came from and how it become the finished film was almost as interesting as the film itself. “A children’s story. I heard when I was 20 that tells the story of a cat abandoned by his master so he takes a new one. One day the cat deposits a dead rat in the shoe of his master who is angry. The next day, the cat lays another rat but this time flayed the flesh raw. The relationship between the master and the cat festers until it reaches a point of no return. Contrary to what the master thought, the cat just wanted to offer his meals proof of love, then he had removed the rat’s skin to make it easier for his master.” She pauses and allows the quirk bomb to settle.

“For a long time this story stuck in my head. I understood both the behaviour of the cat that the master’s disgusted reaction. How can these two concepts be reconciled? It is from this question that the script originated from.” One of the most interesting conceptions in the film is the dual lines of character traits and sense of ambiguity. Jung retorts, “I wouldn’t describe Do-Hee as a simple victim. She is exposed to violence and it has become her daily life, her existence. When she begins to receive attention and paternal love from Young­-Nam, she abandons it completely. Do-Hee reuses violence as a way out of difficult situations. I wanted to show viewers that a victim could in turn become an aggressor.” She then admits to the ambiguity of the ending, “the whole film tends towards this end. The story is naturally created by writing the relationship between the two characters. The end of the film is also a beginning for Do-Hee and Young-Nam. It may seem like a happy ending but in fact when we imagine life after, it is quite disturbing.” Location and the idea of a small town life is integral to the film was this village always in your mind? “I wanted an isolated place, but not completely closed either, secluded enough for there to be a community with its own rules. The city is called Yeosu, where I grew up and where I also wrote the screenplay”, she confesses to me.

When did she decide to become a filmmaker? “Back when I was in college, my father watched film alone at night. Sometimes when I woke up to use the bathroom, I found him watching films alone. This impressed me and that’s how I became interested in cinema. One day I found the diary I held when I was in my second year of high school on the first page, I wrote: ‘I have become a filmmaker’. I never changed this purpose,” she tells me. But you studied western philosophy at university? “Yes, I did. It helped me build me and shape my vision of the human.” The film was helped into production by Lee Chang Dong (director of Poetry and Sunshine). How did you manage to snag him to produce your first film? “It was at a competition organised at my school where he teaches. We had to pick a scenario to make a film. My scenario was among the five finalists but ultimately was not chosen. Shortly after he called to offer me to produce my film.”

July Jung’s A Girl at My Door is released in UK cinemas on 18 September. You can read our review of the film here.

D.W. Mault | @D_W_Mault