Fantasia 2016 Review: The Bacchus Lady (죽여주는 여자)

So-young (Youn Yuh-jung) takes her friends on a day trip to the Demilitarized Zone in this scene from the Korean film The Bacchus Lady.
So-young (Youn Yuh-jung) takes her friends on a day trip to the Demilitarized Zone in this scene from the Korean film The Bacchus Lady.

Bacchus is a Korean drink, originally sold as a general health tonic, but now marketed as an energy drink much like Red Bull or Guru.

So-young (Youn Yuh-jung) the 65-year-old Bacchus Lady of the title, sells the drink to men who gather in Seoul’s parks. If they want sexual services, too, she takes them to a by-the-hour hotel close by. Many of her customers are long-time regulars, friends, really, and want conversation and a cuddle more than sex.

So-young does this work out of economic necessity. There’s no social safety net for her. She doesn’t have a family to help her, she doesn’t have a state pension, nor a company pension. (While she had been a prostitute before, on a U.S. army base, she had also worked in a factory.) The job market is tough for everyone, of all ages, and it seems that the only other work she could get is picking up cardboard for recycling. One woman who is seen doing that work looks very old and very frail. In a better world she would be at home drinking tea with her feet up.

So-young’s life is really hard, but she carries on, as she always has done. The friendship of her landlady and one of the neighbours helps; they are the closest thing she has to family. They share laughs, drinks and some happy times. Her customers seem less resilient, even though they are better off financially. One could assume that these widowers were pampered by their wives all their lives; now they are bored, lonely and don’t know how to look after themselves. In past times, these men could expect to live out their days in the home of their eldest sons, but things have changed and parents and grandparents are no longer given the respect and deference they once had. The children and grandchildren move to other cities, even other countries, to further their careers and they leave their elders behind, seemingly without a thought.

When some of these men can no longer bear to live in this new world, they ask So-young to help them leave it, and this begins another chapter in her life.

The film also looks at other marginalized people in a way that seems relatively natural and uncontrived. So-young’s landlady is a transgender woman and her neighbour is a guy with a prosthetic leg. So-young gives shelter to a young boy who’s half-Filipino, half Korean. Through her efforts to help him, we learn that mixed-race children face discrimination in Korea and their non-Korean mothers are often exploited and unaware of their rights.
The Bacchus Lady is fiction but it is based on reality. Reaction to the film will vary from viewer to viewer but I see it as an excellent argument for better social services and an unconditional basic income for everyone. Basic Income Canada Network and Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) are two websites with articles about that concept.

The Bacchus Lady (죽여주는 여자)
Written and directed by E J-yong
Cast: Youn Yuh-jung, Chon Moo-song, Yoon Kye-sang, An A-zu, Choi Hyun-jun

In Korean with English subtitles, 110 minutes long.

Montrealers can see The Bacchus Lady on Monday, July 25, 2016 at 7:25 p.m., at the J.A. De Seve Theatre of Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W. Visit the Fantasia International Film Festival web site for more information.

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