I haven’t seen Han Jae-rim’s 2007 film The Show Must Go On, so far be it for me to weigh in with any pretenses on the work of its co-writer, Lee Ji-won. Therein, however, lies the added bonus of only just now getting to sample his work as I did this week with his feature directing debut, Miss Baek, a film that rightly validates the ceremony that’s been much ado at festivals of late in Korea, Tokyo, the UK and as of last week, right here in New York City.
Opening the New York Asian Film Festival’s inaugural Winter Showcase last week, the emotional journey Miss Baek takes you on is one that so fittingly tackles some important themes and issues regarding poverty and the 99% among which our own Baek Sang-ah (Han Ji-min) is a part of. Abandoned by her abusive mother at a young age and ostracized by the system, Sang-ah now lives out her rocky relationship with her boyfriend Jang-sub (Lee Hee-joon), a detective who took her in after she served time for killing her would-be rapist.
Sang-ah’s trauma is the foundation of her angst and reluctance to care much else about others, a fact she conveys consistently through her callous, wry veneer. Before long, her emotional barriers endure their biggest test yet when she decides to share a meal with Ji-eun (Kim Shi-ah), a disheveled hungry 9-year old girl she spots standing alone in the cold, dead of night and wearing not much else but lots of bruises.
When Mi-kyung (Kwon So-hyun), a woman believed to be Ji-eun’s stepmother arrives and picks her up, Sang-ah is clearly aware of its troublesome air. Nonetheless, she remains only as receptive as she can allow herself to be given the circumstances, on top of her emotions now mixing over the fact that she rather prefers to look after herself at this point.
Still, the unsure feeling this chance meeting produces is enough to warrant caution for Sang-ah, bookended by repeated sightings of Ji-eun in the street which spark her increasing involvement and sense of urgency. Things reach a boiling point when she is brought face to face in front of law enforcement with Ji-eun’s visibly abusive father, Il-gong (Baek Soo-jang) and his insidious, malevolent girfriend revealed to be Mi-kyung.
Despite her best efforts and as much as Mi-kyung attempts at trying to frame Sang-ah as a child kidnapper, the bureaucracy of filing a police report and the ever-present and conciliatory police inaction become quite clear. Instead, what follows, in perhaps one of the film’s most stunning and powerful moments, ultimately brings Sang-ah to unearth her maternal instincts and find the courage to act on Ji-eun’s faint, desperate cries for help before it’s too late.
Miss Baek prefaces itself as a film based on a true story adapted for the screen with certain changes. It’s an understandable concept that such a story as this one warrants that kind of disclaimer drawn from its attention toward the chilling nature of the very real subject matter the film centers on.
By spotlighting the all-too familiar consequences faced by children who are mistreated and left nowhere to turn, Lee masterfully crafts the omnious parallel between Sang-ah and Ji-eun that drives the story with such stimulus and pathos. Lee further builds on this element through pertinent flashbacks to Sang-ah’s tainted, foreboding youth with her mother, played by actress Jang Young-nam, and the film’s grisly opener is a testament to how this pans out.
Miss Baek takes vast, compelling shape with its gripping performances and dialogue, and an enthralling score from composers Lee Eun-joo and MOWG that lends a more-than-discernible impression on its audience. Exemplary of this is what we see well into the first-half of the film between Ji-eun’s burgeoning bond with Sang-ah, and her haunting, oppressed and shackeled existence at home where it then seems her days are evermore numbered than before.
A subversive, smartly-shot and executed indie drama, Miss Baek doesn’t hold back. Characteristic of any notable drama of its kind, Miss Baek hands you a cinematic experience that lays the poignant, arresting groundwork for a triumphant, signature finish in Lee’s winning debut. Han Ji-min’s starring performance is one of the most stellar you’ll ever see in film, and her shared time on screen with Kim Shi-ah’s moving recital as Ji-eun will leave your heart melting through as the end credits roll.