Miss Baek (Mi-sseu-baek)

Korea (2018) Dir. Lee Ji-Won

“I’m sorry for being born!”

These words no child should ever have to say to their parents, even if they are abusive monsters. Sadly, this haunting, harrowing drama from Korea is based on real events, and whilst this means not every detail is shared verbatim, it wouldn’t be surprising if the child in question was forced to utter these words at one point in her tragic life.

Yet, the title refers to Baek Sang-Ah (Han Ji-Min), an insular, disaffected young woman with a tragic past of her own living with police officer Jang-Sub (Lee Hee-Joon) who wants to marry Sang-Ah, although as far she is concerned there is no relationship. Sang-Ah works at a car wash and as a masseuse but despite her bedraggled appearance has plenty of money saved away.

One night Sang-Ah spies nine year-old Kim Ji-Eun (Kim Shi-Ah) covered in bruises and dressed in just a flimsy dress, the victim of abuse from her alcoholic father Kim Il-Gon (Baek Soo-Jang) and his self-absorbed girlfriend Joo Mi-Kyung (Kwon So-Hyun). When Sang-Ah informs the police, they ignore her complaint because of her own criminal record, putting Ji-Eun back in danger.

Watching a film like Miss Baek one has to wonder why it was ever made when its subject matter is extremely sensitive and hard to sit through, even in this dramatised form. The truly upsetting physical abuse is largely kept off screen (a strangulation scene however might be too graphic for some) but even this makes for uncomfortable viewing. But as the disclaimer at the start informs us, much of what we see here actually happened.

First time director Lee Ji-Won isn’t making this film for kicks or exploitation sake, as the theme of abrogation of responsibility and culpability is a pervasive one in Korean cinema. Here Lee holds the patriarchal, status obsessed authorities up for criticism as much as the abusers, alongside the gnarly issue of systematic abuse as an informal hereditary trait as much as an excuse for such pernicious behaviour.

Lee has gone for a deliberate hard-hitting approach in horrifying the audience with this subject, quite often being blunt to the point of being unflinching, but keeps within the realms of a structured drama enough to create some distance for the easily upset. But the reality is we should be upset by this film, as child abuse is not acceptable or forgivable under any circumstances.  

The moral twist is found in Sang-Ah, the unlikeliest candidate to play Good Samaritan yet ironically the one also best qualified for the role in this instance. Initially painted as a surly, unkempt pauper playing by her own rules, Sang-Ah may look like the archetypal bad seed about to find redemption trope but her reticence in opening up to people has an upsetting origin.

Upon the death of her mother, Sang-Ah is forced to confront her past as an abused child at the hands of her alcoholic parent (Jang Young-Nam in flashbacks) to justify her cold and griefless reaction to her passing. When Jang-Sub brings up the idea of marriage, Sang-Ah snaps at him saying she isn’t fit to be a wife or a mother, which on the surface seems like self-loathing until the truth is revealed.

But the real reason why Sang-Ah’s generosity and affection shown towards Ji-Eun is never taken into consideration is her criminal record. Another flashback details how a teenage Sang-Ah and Jang-Sub first met, at the scene of her castrating a wannabe rapist. But because the man’s father is an influential businessman and Sang-Ah is a care centre child, she gets a six year prison term for attempted murder.

So now we have a screwed up law system that decides a slatternly alcoholic father more interested in his computer games and a vain, demanding, jealous girlfriend who wish Ji-Eun hadn’t been born are preferable guardians because Sang-Ah has a criminal record! Forget that she has rehabilitated herself and is living with a cop, Ji-Eun’s parents don’t have criminal records so all is well.

It is very difficult not to be affected by this film on so many levels when presented with such shameful details, all of which Lee should be applauded for raising awareness of. That is not to say a criminal record or nefarious past should not be dismissed but every story has two sides to it, and the ones with grey areas need the most analysis and scrutiny afforded to them.

Meanwhile, Sang-Ah’s journey is equally frustrating at first in her indifference towards Ji-Eun’s plight, largely because of her own insecurities and indurate heart following her own life. As much as she lavishes Ji-Eun with food, clothes, warmth and attention, Sang-Ah doesn’t want or need the burden of raising a child, but eventually comes through for Ji-Eun. However, she never loses her insecure edge or built-in self-defence mechanism to help her weather the storms that face them.

Lee’s script throws in a few conventional plot beats for added dramatic effect that come with their own niggles – such as Sang-Ah’s epiphany as she and Jang-Sub are heading out of town, so she has him stop the car then runs – in heels – back to Ji-Eun’s house, instead of having Jang-Sub drive her there instead! For that matter, why not ask the cop she is living with for help in the first place?

Han Ji-Min received multiple film awards for her role as the complex and multilayered Sang-Ah, the only adult driven by genuine human emotion, yet continues to be a victim whether right or wrong. Kwon So-Hyun was also recognised for her supporting role as the sociopathic Mi-Kyung, whilst it is a shame juniors aren’t rewarded as Kim Shi-Ah definitely deserves it for the demanding and traumatic role of Ji-Eun.

There is no question Miss Baek is a difficult and upsetting film to watch but its subject matter is too relevant to be ignored. That it‘s story is rooted in truth only strengthens its inherent urgency.