[Guest Film Review] "The Bacchus Lady"
By Panos Kotzathanasis | Published on
The title refers to a rather sad aspect of S. Korean society, the "Bacchus Ladies", elderly Korean prostitutes who solicit in parks and plazas in Seoul for sex in nearby motels. Their name derives from the popular Bacchus energy drink that they are selling in parks where elderly men gather. The women are in their 50s, 60, even their 80s.The price of selling sex is about 20,000 to 30,000 won ($18-26) or even less if the man is a regular client. In a testimony, about 400 women work in Jongmyo Park in Seoul. The younger men in their 20s to 40s are also becoming their clients.
The reason for this fact, which is also mentioned in the film, is that despite S.Korea being the 11th economy in the world, there is no welfare system regarding elderly women, who end up having no savings, no real pension, and no family to rely on. The poverty rate of women aged over 65 in South Korea is 47.2%, the highest among the OECD countries. This figure rises to 76.6% if they are single. (Source: Wikipedia)
The film revolves around one of those women, named So-yeong, who is 65-years old. In her rather sad life, she lives in a small complex along with a transvestite and a young man with one leg, and she tries to make ends meet by prostituting herself in parks, chiefly to elderly men. The story starts with her in a clinic where she is diagnosed with gonorrhea, in a sequence that, unexpectedly, ends up with her taking care of a little boy, whose mother is in jail for stabbing the doctor of the clinic. The situation becomes more complicated, as the boy is Philippino and cannot speak Korean, and So-yeong has to occasionally take him with her when she is working.
The film follows So-yeong in her interactions, mostly with men, that include a young man who wants to shoot a documentary about the "Bacchus Ladies", a very sick man in a hospital who desperately searches for a way to die, and another one who asks her to be with him as he commits suicide.
Lee Jae-yong pens and directs a film, which, at least in the beginning, is very hard to watch. Apart from the whole concept of the elderly prostitute, which is not very easy to witness (at least to my eyes), there are also some sex scenes between elderly, which, although feature almost no nudity, are rather graphic, with the realistic sound making them quite difficult to stand. However, as the story progresses, the film becomes more subtle, after having presented realistically, the actual work conditions of these women. After that point, Lee retains a somewhat relaxed rhythm, although the utterly sad ending sets things straight, regarding the reality of So-yeong's life.
Realism is the key word here, as Lee examines many aspects of the life of the elderly in the country. In that fashion, and apart from the obvious issue of the Bacchus Ladies, he also deals with solitude and euthanasia, as he exemplifies the fact that the elderly also have sexual needs.
Technically, the film moves according to the general aesthetics and in distinct indie fashion, retaining a slow pace, with almost no exaltations, and subtle music. Kim Young-ro's cinematography is a point of excellence, as he presents wonderful and realistic images of the poor neighborhoods in Seoul.
Yoon Yeo-jong is the definite star of the film as So-yeong, to the point that I do not think there is even a scene in thewhere she is not present. Her portrayal of a feisty woman who retains her dignity and pride, despite her profession, but due to the fact that she manages to make a living by herself, is the film's biggest asset. The scene where she exclaims "Don't call me Granny, my vagina is still young" and the one where she fights with another Bacchus Lady are the most entertaining in the film.
"The Bacchus Lady" is a sad, but realistic film, that is difficult to watch, but definitely deserves a look, as it depicts a very serious, and not well known, aspect of modern S. Korean society.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.