Cinema is no stranger to sexual violence. Famously, Laura Mulvey suggested that classical cinema was in fact driven by sexual violence, both overt and covert. Last year’s festival featured Kim Ki-young’s Ieoh Island (1977), a film noted for a graphic rape early on that determines the unfolding of the plot. Even a film as austere as Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (2010) has a brutal group sexual assault at its heart.
The films in this year’s Women’s Voices strand say #MeToo – and, unusually, they say it in solidarity with _Poetry_’s elderly lead, Yang Mi-ja. Recent American films that have responded to the #MeToo movement, including indie debuts such as The Assistant (2019, Kitty Green) and Promising Young Woman (2020, Emerald Fennell), place conventionally attractive young middle-class white women at the centres of their narratives. By contrast, Kim Mi-jo’s Gull (2020) and Im Sun-ae’s An Old Lady (2019) ask what happens with sexual assault on working-class women, and when #MeToo meets ageing bodies and minds.
_Gull_’s O-bok, played by Jeong Ae-hwa, is a menopausal mother of three, stuck in a sweaty, small Seoul apartment by night, and selling fish by day at a rundown market that is fighting off developers. Her oldest daughter is marrying a middle-class boy whose parents look down on her, and on the night of the engagement dinner, she is raped by a fellow trader. Initially unable to explain her bleeding to her daughters, once she starts telling her story, she refuses to stop. Despite discouragement from a dismissive police officer – even after she goes back to the scene and finds a pubic hair, a harrowing detail from Kim – O-bok will not be silenced or fobbed off. The release of her rage, including a screaming fight in public with a female trader who defends the rapist, makes her closer to her daughters and stronger herself.
Hyo-jeong, the titular old lady of Lim’s film, may seem more fragile than O-bok, physically and mentally, but she too is a precarious worker, an agency caregiver. It’s all the more cruel, then, that she is assaulted by a fellow care worker. Hyo-jeong, played by Ye Su Jeong, faces the same barriers to being believed as O-bok: she’s an older working-class woman. Additionally, she has some symptoms of dementia that initially cause even her partner Dong-in (Ki Joo Bong) to doubt her, and influence the film’s more elliptical narrative style. Although Dong-in proves loyal, the film shows that Hyo-jeong, like O-bok, has to stand alone and find her voice – once again, outside the criminal justice system.
Both films reveal unjustified values and taboos present in contemporary Korean society – and in fact most places where extractive capitalism is a modus operandi. Contempt for the working class and the elderly is ingrained in the world where O-bok and Hye-jeong exist; it is reiterated every day of their lives, in such seemingly trivial moments as when O-bok is given no privacy when filling in forms at the gynecological clinic, or when strangers in a swimming pool openly comment on Hye-jeong’s slender figure. This of course happens to young women too, however in the case of older women society callously refuses to acknowledge the harm caused by their grinding repetition. Older bodies are often invisible as victims, whilst at the same time hypervisible as burdens on society. When an older woman is violated, undesirability is mobilised against her – so she must fight not only for justice against the perpetrator, but also against the brutal misconceptions which society holds against the elderly. Does she have to shout to be heard over the deafening prejudice at work? Here O-bok and Hye-jeong find their own tactics of resistance and work to undo our misbelief, and the filmmakers find ways to represent them that mediate between invisibility and hypervisibility: Im attends, in close-up, to the grace and carefulness of Hyo-jeong’s comportment and clothing, in small, almost balletic moments that convey her dignity; while Kim uses judicious, loving long takes of O-bok seeking rest in order to regain her mindbody as her own.
Neither Gull nor An Old Lady is a thriller, but both in their own way ratchet up the tension, not – as Mulvey argued in 1975 – through depicting or inferring sexual violence, but through the confrontation between the patriarchal system of rape culture, and people who are too often, and too easily, overlooked. O-bok and Hyo-jeong demand all our attention: Kim’s and Lim’s very different filmmaking compels it. In the current political climate where we dream for another possible future grounded in care and solidarity, we must insist on a cinema whose powerful yet nuanced visions are brought to life through and for the agency of older women.
Dr So Mayer (Film journalist, film lecturer, poet and activist) and Hyun Jin Cho (Film Programmer, London Film Festival & London Korean Film Festival)