What you need to know
‘Jeong-sun’, co-winner of the 2022 Golden Horse Asian Cinema Observer Recommendation Prize, is a masterful work of social realism that brings us into the life of a woman with magnanimous compassion.
Each year, film festival notices rave about exciting, flashy, and formally daring work. A quiet tale told well can easily slip under the radar. This year’s jury wanted to make sure that doesn’t happen with Jeong-sun, the feature debut of writer-director Jeong Ji-hye, the only woman director competing for the 2022 Golden Horse NETPAC Award and, by extension, the Asian Cinema Observer Recommendation Prize.
Jeong-sun isn’t the only film in competition to center an older woman’s experiences (the other one is Ajoomma), but it is the only one to observe the titular protagonist’s world with magnanimous compassion and grant her an astounding depth.
Jeong-sun’s (Kim Geum-soon) feisty daughter, Yu-jin (Yoon Geumseon-ah), is getting married, and though they’re not rich, he’s a good man. Every morning on her way to work at a scrapyard, Yu-jin drops her mother off at the food factory where she works on the packaging line. Jeong-sun is a single woman of a certain age with no driver’s license, and all her friends are coworkers. One day, a new guy shows up: Yeong-su (Jo Hyun-wu), an older man from out of town. Soon, Jeong-sun switches to the early night shift to spend the second half of the night in his bed.
From early on, the film tees up Korean patriarchal values as one of its targets. During a meal with coworkers, a man teases a woman with what to us may sound like acerbic language, but she (and the women around her) brush him off as just another joker. Do-yeon (Kim-Choi Yong-joon), Jeong-sun’s handsome but tyrannical young line supervisor, is notorious for hooking up with his younger subordinates and then hanging them out to dry. Even Yeong-su comes across as demanding when he flirts.
It’s the inferiority complex behind his demanding love that starts the ball rolling. When Jeong-sun tells him she wants to stay low key to avoid gossip, he takes it to mean that she’s ashamed of him. In apology, she lets him use his phone to film her in bed half naked doing a sultry song and dance number.
You can probably guess what happens next, yet even here the film provides Yeong-su with some social pressure motivation. Do-yeon jokes around with some friends on a smoke break, and they pressure Yeong-su into revealing the video. This is one of the film’s two missteps, as up to that point we’ve had no intimation that Yeong-su sees another side of his boss every day. It makes sense; it just lacks context. (The other misstep is having two false ending fadeouts where one would’ve been just fine.)
As often happens with gossip, the whole factory, and everyone who works at Yu-jin’s scrapyard to boot, sees the video before Jeong-sun and Yu-jin do. Its virality sits at the intersection of sexism and ageism in that the sex life of an older woman is seen as such a novelty. Since we see Jeong-sun’s initial performance, our response as viewers is implicated, too. Do we find it funny? sexy? shameful? repulsive? boring? or something else altogether? And what does that say about our own aesthetic and voyeuristic prejudices?
When mother and daughter finally find out, they have diametrically opposite responses: Jeong-sun goes catatonic, while Yu-jin methodically goes to the police. There’s a scene in (2019) where the director asks Nina to rehearse an orgy scene, and despite everyone being very professional and clinical about it, the whole setup reeks of exploitation and trauma. Yu-jin’s interview with the police feels like that, as the officer tells her that she has to submit a list of every single website where the video has been shared in order to get it scrubbed.
In addition to Yu-jin, Jeong-sun’s support network includes some close women colleagues at work, who in her hour of need frequently stop by her place with food, tea, and conversation. In the face of uncaring and retraumatizing social institutions, the solidarity of sisterhood feels as heartwarming as the tea.
The women all agree that Jeong-sun should press charges, but the men (including the police) urge her to settle. Lingering mutual feelings make intimate partner abuse a very thorny issue, and Yeong-su himself is devastated. But when he crawls back to apologize, his closing plea is to beg her to think of his future. Either way, justice eludes Jeong-sun, for legal punishment can’t restore her reputation.
I’ll leave you to discover what Jeong-sun decides to do; her choice is bound up with her agency (or lack thereof) within her social and family circles. In a sense, the film is a late-blooming bildungsroman.
Jeong-sun is a masterful work of social realism that brings us fully into the protagonist’s life and crisis. The symbolism is rare, so it hits harder when it does appear. At the height of an argument with Yu-jin, Jeong-sun breaks down and cries for her own mother — a brilliant piece of improvisation by Kim Geum-soon. There’s a shot of Jeong-sun, in the throes of despair, rising from her bed at the summons of the doorbell; shot against the light by cinematographer Jeong Jin-hyeok, it gives her an exhausted, royal melancholia. And the divisive climax is a masterful portrayal of Lacanian jouissance, or excessive, transgressive, even weaponized pleasure.
The right and the wrong are seldom in doubt here; the film merely asks us to understand and empathize.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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- Korean films
- CJ Sheu
- Asian Cinema Observer Recommendation Prize
- 2022 Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival
- 2022 Golden Horse NETPAC Award
- Jeong Ji-hye
- Kim Geum-soon
- Yoon Geumseon-ah
- Jo Hyun-wu
- Kim-Choi Yong-joon
- Nina Wu (2019)