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Bacchus Lady, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Far from bacchanalian - sobering, in fact."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There's a moment toward the start of "The Bacchus Lady" where writer/director E J-Yong goes just a bit overboard in making the intentions behind making the movie clear as a character who also makes films spells out how, while South Korea is one of the world's most productive economies, it has one of the worst rates of the elderly living in poverty among developed nations. So, get ready; this is not going to be cheerful story even if it is one heck of a heartfelt one.

How bad is it? Well, Youn So-young (Yoon Yeo-jeong) is going down to the park to turn tricks every afternoon in her mid-sixties, although she'll have to reduce the services offered thanks to the gonorrhea one of her elderly clients saddled her with. While at the clinic getting it diagnosed, she witnesses a panicking Filipino woman stab her doctor and yell at her son Min-ho (Choi Hyun-jun) to run. A kid who can't speak Korean or English is not the sort of extra burden So-yeong needs, but she takes him in anyway, although she'll often ask her neighbors to watch him while she works. Soon, she meets old acquaintance Yong-su (Jeon Moo-song), and his news about many of their contemporaries is not good.

The title of the film refers to how selling a "Bacchus drink" (a local brand) is code for solicitation, and the prostitution angle has been played up some in the descriptions, and it is certainly jarring to not just see someone the age of the ironically named So-young in the world's oldest profession, but relatively casual about it, standing in a line-up of other grannies, seeming more annoyed than frightened in the clinic, calmly telling a john what to do when the police conduct a periodic sweep of the hotel that rents by the hour. At times, the casual way E J-Yong establishes So-young's world gives it the feel of something marginalized but viable, akin to her neighbors (her landlady Tina is trans, another neighbor is disabled, and immigrants abound), and that's likely very deliberate: E is giving the audience a taste of how these people are outsiders but aren't exactly harmful or dangerous.

Still, it's growing old - and more specifically growing old alone - that is the focus of this film, and as it goes on, E is unwavering in both having characters tell their stories and showing just how one's later years can be a horror show only made worse by how so few lack the courage and ability to escape when it becomes unbearable. It's perhaps best shown in a scene where So-young visits an old client - called "Saville Row" Song for what a snazzy dresser he was back in the day - in the hospital after a stroke and comes upon his family who openly admit that they likely won't see him for another year and don't even look unnerved by what he's been reduced to. There is very little yelling in this movie - the people involved don't have anyone to yell at - just a lot of chilling quiet in which to ponder the situation.

Just as important, there's a terrific performance by Yoon Yeo-jeong at the center. So-young is a stoic elder much of the time, so E has Yoon give more voice to momentary frustrations than larger worries, but we never see her so sour that her basically generous nature is put to question. The character hates being called "granny" but that's what she is in the interactions with Min-ho, albeit the grandmother who never figured on growing conventionally old. Yoon plays very well off the rest of the characters, whether An Ah-ju and Yoon Kye-sang as the neighbors or, especially, Jeon Moo-song as an old lover who can't be that any more but still recognizes So-young as extraordinary even beyond her sexual prowess and faded beauty.

To a certain extent, the storyline with Min-ho sometimes seems to be killing time until E has So-young confront her contemporaries who have had enough of living; the film sometimes loses track of him until it needs a scene where the audience sees that, at least temporarily, she has built a makeshift family out of spare parts. Getting to know So-young before people start asking the impossible of her is important, though, because even as it seems to send the fim off in another direction, it's also fascinating to watch Yoon present So-young facing the true terrors of getting old that are just around the corner even if she does still get by and wear the same sort of flower-embroidered jeans she would have in her teens. The legitimate horror on her face as she gets involved in desperate situations even as she fully understands them is wrenching, and her final dialog, where a tiny bit of difference could have made So-young into a monster rather than someone calmly accepting an ironic resolution for what it is because, as much as she's sentimental when she can be, she is always practical.

There's one more stinging moment after that, as effective a jab as a film can end with and one that doesn't blink from the premise laid out toward the beginning: Being old in South Korea can be rough enough that things one tried to avoid can become a blessing. That's probably true everywhere, and this film's look at a not-uncommon situation drives it home in a way that should stick with its audience.

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originally posted: 07/20/16 02:15:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  J-Yong E

Written by
  J-Yong E

  Yeo-jeong Yoon
  Kye-sang Yoon
  Mu-song Jeon

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