Youn Yuh-jung made history earlier this year by becoming the first Korean to win an acting Oscar, for her role as the bluff, pro-wrestling-loving grandma in the Korean-American drama Minari. But following a long career break after her boundary-pushing 1960s appearances, she had already built up strong previous form playing other unconventional late-life characters back in Asia. In this 2016 drama, her long face and semaphoric blink are put to strong use playing an elderly prostitute in Seoul – she is a “Bacchus lady”, named for the energy drink the ladies pep their clients up with.
Youn’s character, So-Young, is at a clinic dealing with an occupational hazard – being diagnosed with gonorrhoea – when her doctor is stabbed by his Filipino lover, who claims he is refusing to pay alimony for their child Min-ho (Choi Hyun-jun). After the woman is arrested, So-Young takes it upon herself to look after the child – communicating with the broken English she learned working as a prostitute on US military bases. After this typically Korean pileup of calamity and farce, The Bacchus Lady subsides into something more reflective and mournful. Youn insists that her vagina is “still young” – but her assignments with johns seem to consist as much of consoling them about their fading years as the sex.
In The Bacchus Lady, writer-director E J-yong is clearly going to bat for the country’s disenfranchised and marginalised. (Korea has the highest senior-age poverty rate among OECD countries.) Outside of the protective circle with whom she lives – a bench-pressing amputee (Yoon Kye-sang) and a transgender club singer (An A-zu) – So-Young has to face down demeaning assignments, an exploitative journalist looking to make a documentary and the condescending children of Song, a dying former client she visits in hospitals.
The social satire of the latter scenes is a bit on the nose, showing up E’s sometimes flaky tonal hand; something that becomes more detrimental when Song co-opts So-Young as a reluctant euthaniser. The film arguably has too much going on – including another digression about a long-lost son So-Young had with an American soldier – to let this morbid side meaningfully register, or fully explore its other facets. But it’s still a worthwhile, idiosyncratic film anchored with charismatic resignation by Youn.