“Gull,” Kim Mi-jo’s poignant South Korean drama, follows a woman whose life becomes increasingly difficult when she seeks justice against the man who raped her.
The 61-year-old O-bok works as a seafood vendor in a Seoul street market that has been slated for redevelopment. One evening, after drinks with her colleagues, she is raped by Gi-taek, a fellow vendor and the powerful chairman of the redevelopment committee. After initially pretending that nothing happened, O-bok finally confides to her daughter and reports the assault to the police, resulting in an investigation that disrupts both her work and family life.
“Gull,” which won the Grand Prize for the Korean Competition at the recent Jeonju Film Festival, unspools in San Sebastian’s New Directors sidebar.
Speaking to Variety, Kim says she came up with the idea of the film after witnessing a young man and an older woman.
“One day, I was walking along the riverside at midday when I saw a young man closely following a middle-aged woman, who resembled my mother. I somehow felt anxious and kept an eye on them for a while. This experience inspired me immediately.”
While she initially conceived the plot from the point of view of the woman’s daughter, she eventually made O-bok the main character, played by Jeong Aehwa.
Jeong brought the right mix of vulnerability and toughness needed for the headstrong O-bok, Kim explained.
“I didn’t regard O-bok simply just as a victim, but rather I think she is more of a person who is aggressive and belligerent, like a fighter. There’s a saying in Korea that a ‘small pepper is much spicier.’ Ms. Jeong is really petite, but I love the high spirit and energy coming out of her.”
“Gull” critically examines aspects of South Korean society that are still common, Kim adds. O-bok is a victim who is forced to hide while making a sacrifice for the greater cause of the market and the good of the community. “Recently in Korea, it is commonly seen, not just in sexual assault cases, that assailants change into victims, or do not have to pay the price they deserve and live just like before. There are countless cases like this.”
Nevertheless, like in other parts of the world, sexual assault against women is being increasingly addressed, Kim points out. “In recent years, it has been more actively discussed following the MeToo movement. I’m gladly on board with pushfully bringing this issue to the table compared to the past. Also, more people are starting to be aware that sexual assault cannot be justified, whatsoever. Nevertheless, deep down, prejudice against victims of sexual violence still lingers around.”
She adds, “Seeing the woman as a contributor in sexual assault, or a bias that older women can’t be a target of sex crimes – these are typical examples.” In her research for the film, Kim came across manuals for parents of sexual assault victims or to help women in their 20s and 30s cope with sexual assault, but she adds that sex crimes against the middle-aged were not properly discussed.
That chauvinistic attitudes persist is made clear in the film by a main character who blames rape on the victim, saying that it could not happen unless the woman wanted it.
“I’ve actually heard that in real life,” Kim says. “I was awfully shocked at the time, so I used that line in my scenario. It is hard to say that these kinds of thoughts were not general until just a few years ago. However, as previously mentioned, Korean society is beginning to react sensitively to sexual abuse issues. Also, the social atmosphere in which these cases can’t be simply hushed up is gradually being established.”
While Kim says she didn’t set out to examine class differences in Korean society, she notes that “sadly this is what I have seen ever since I was little, so I think it just happened to be reflected in the movie. Classes exist everywhere, so I don’t regard it as a peculiar characteristic of Korean society. Of course, there are exceptions, but it is very easy to find powerless people’s voices being ignored when you look around a bit. So, it was rather natural to have those aspects in the film.”
That O-bok wants to fly away from her horrible situation but has to remain grounded in reality, like a seagull that flies high and far but ultimately cannot leave land, was one of the reasons behind the film’s title, Kim explains. “I didn’t want to simply narrate a sex crime victim’s story through this film. I wanted O-bok, a middle-aged woman, a mother and a breadwinner, to stand firmly with both feet and eventually survive and live here on land when her dignity had been infringed.”
Another reason was her love of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull”: “I wanted to title my first feature film with this work someday.”
For her next project, Kim is planning a mother and daughter revenge story. “I’m expecting to make a Korean-style film, a mixture of action, thriller and comedy.”