The Bacchus Lady (Jug-yeo-ju-neun Yeo-ja)
Korea (2016) Dir. E J-yong
The original Korean title for this poignant and rather tragic outing from the enigmatically named E J-yong is The Killer Woman, a deceptive and less poetic title than the one used for its international release, which tells those of us outside of Korea very little of what the story entails, making the experience a rewarding mystery for that reason.
It might help to learn first what a “Bacchus Lady” is: it is a woman in her fifties and over working as a prostitute for senior gentlemen who can’t afford the younger working girls. Their coded method of introduction is selling a bottle of “Bacchus” energy drink as a prelude to getting jiggy with it.
65 year-old So-Young (Youn Yuh-Jung) – a wonderfully ironic name if there ever was one – earns her living as a Bacchus Lady and is popular among the male seniors through word of mouth (insert your own smutty joke here). Whilst getting treatment for an STD, So-Young witnesses the stabbing of her doctor by his Filipino lover over their young Kopino (half Korean) son Min-Ho (Choi Hyun-jun).
Min-Ho runs away from the scene as his mother is being arrested and is nearly run over, so So-Young takes him home with her to the small apartment block she lives at with transgender landlady Tina (An A-zu) and amputee ceramic statue maker Do-hoon (Yoon Kye-sang). With so many of So-Young’s regular clients getting older, they seek her company one last time but want an entirely different service from her.
Anyone feeling uncomfortable at the idea of elderly people getting their rocks off can breathe easy – E J-yong hasn’t made a film about the sex lives of Korean OAPs. In fact, there is no nudity at all and any prurient activity is mostly obfuscated by sensitive camera angle, bar one scene that still shows nothing of any erotic value. The story driving The Bacchus Lady gradually reveals itself as a commentary on the lost generation in Korean society: the elderly with no family to rely on.
In many Asian countries it is generally accepted that once parents retire, their children look after them, I suppose akin to repaying them for bringing them up ahead of their adult lives. But those seniors with no children or immediate relatives are forced to rely on their own mettle to survive hence the cult of the Bacchus Lady in helping the women stay afloat financially.
One of So-Young’s more dapper and affluent clients known as Savile Row Song is now bedridden in a hospice and his family are self-absorbed yuppies who find his existence a nuisance. The only person he can open up to is So-Young and he expresses a desire to escape from the pain and the loneliness, so she quietly obliges, helping him imbibe some pesticide.
So-Young naturally hates herself for doing it but she sympathises with her old friend and knows that she has fulfilled his last wish and let him die with some dignity. J-yong uses this scenario to point out that taking care of elderly relatives is not always viable for the younger modern families whilst some also see it as a burden and not a filial duty. That is not to say the elderly should be condemned to die but each circumstance is different at the system should recognise this.
Meanwhile So-young finds it hard to continue working with Min-Ho around, and having Tina or Do-hoon babysit isn’t always the best solution either. In a lighter yet awkward scene, So-Young is forced to take the boy with her to work, leaving with the receptionist at her regular dingy motel whilst she sees a client! Luckily, having Min-ho helps So-Young out of a potentially sticky situation.
E J-yong hasn’t made this film to justify or denigrate the Bacchus Ladies, nor is he ridiculing their situations despite some parallels with (for wanting a better term) “regular” prostitution – vis-à-vis So-Young getting into a cat fight with another working granny and dealing with demanding and kinky clients. The mutual benefits of the service make sense but the reality is that it shouldn’t have to come to this.
In one scene, So-Young sees woman older than her with a cart loaded with empty bottles and cardboard – which one of the two has hit the lowest ebb? Neither has any real dignity and So-Young may earn more (not much) but why are those people of her generation left out of society’s comfort zone to fend for themselves via such desperate methods?
After Savile Row Song, So-Young finds herself in demand as a proponent of euthanasia since she can empathise with the suffering of her clients and they know her heart is in the right place. Again, regardless of whether the results are justified in humanitarian terms, morally and legally it is black and white yet these are people who have given up on life because life has given up on them.
The success and potency of this film rests on the veteran but still sprightly shoulders of Youn Yuh-Jung as So-Young. Whilst Hollywood perpetuates its “young and beautiful is everything” doctrine Korean cinema boldly says otherwise, and Youn’s heartbreaking yet dignified performance is another example why. She is feisty yet emotional, proud yet unpretentious, honourable yet flawed, all conveyed with a subtle warmth and awareness.
As a director, E J-yong has a varied oeuvre, from glossy historical melodramas to cult comedies and pseudo documentaries but here we find him in indie drama mode with a cheeky glint in his eye that give this film its naturalistic charm, yet he never loses sight of the message he wants to inculcate or the modern issues he addresses such as the transgender community and interracial relationships.
To that end The Bacchus Lady is a stealthily impactful work of some provocation as a piece of social commentary, and a sublime and touching slice of low key Korean drama, wearing its boldness on its sleeve on both fronts.