Ji-na (played by Lee Ji-eun-I) is a prostitute. Not one of those totally destroyed by life prostitutes, or a hooker with a heart of gold, or a callgirl who considers selling her body for sex to be a magical empowering experience. No, Ji-na's just a prostitute, in the same way most people just work retail. The work is degrading and unpleasant, it makes a mockery of her personal autonomy, and the pay's not that great. But Ji-na's used enough to the indignity by now that she doesn't mind all that much. Besides, it's not like there's anything else she can do with her work experience at this point.
"Birdcage Inn" takes a look at Ji-na's living situation in the larger context. She's moved in to a new house with people who clearly look down on her while at the same time they profit by Ji-na's work. This is especially true for Hye-mi (played by Lee Hye-eun). The daughter of the family, she's gaining an education that will presumably allow her to escape from poverty. More than anyone else, Hye-mi resents the knowledge that in order to become a successful modern woman, she has to rely on the services of a prostitute- a person who by definition confirms that women have value primarily as sex objects.
A more politically minded film would try to reframe prostitution in more sex positive terms, but director Kim Ki-duk makes the brilliant move of instead having us identify with Ji-na, as a person, who happens to be a prostitute, and holds no particular pretensions about it. Ji-na deserves our respect because she, like everyone else in the world, is a human being. She's had a rough time, but the last thing Ji-na wants is for anyone to act weird about it.
Lee Ji-eun-I gives an excellent performance here as a person who's not a martyr, she just tries to be kind because in Ji-na's worst moments, that's all she really wants- for the johns to be considerate. Ji-na feels like she has to act nice in order to really deserve kindness, which results in some of the film's sweetest scenes. My favorite one is where another character inadvertently offends Ji-na, and her immediate response makes a swift change once she realizes the man's feelings have been seriously hurt.
This is followed up later on with a surprisingly apt exploration on what exactly the act of sex means for a prostitute compared to everyone else. The world portrayed in "Birdcage Inn" is a surprisingly broad place where sex is allowed to mean very different things for very different people. It's not an act with magical mystical inherent meaning- the feeling behind the sentiment is what matters. Or doesn't, as shared culpability takes on a greater role as the film goes on.
There are no life-changing discoveries throughout "Birdcage Inn"- the little plot progression we get is just an exploration of mutual empathy. Consequently, the message comes off as far stronger and more universal than if the movie had instead made an overt effort to humanize the act of prostitution. It's unpleasant, and the world would probably be better off without it. But given that it's here, really, the best course of action may well be to meaningfully acknowledge the practice without actually talking about it.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Birdcage Inn""
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