Premiering in the Busan International Film Festival’s New Currents competition section, Lim Sun-ae’s An Old Lady touches on the less-commonly addressed issue of elder sexual abuse in South Korea. A 69-year-old lady accuses a nursing assistant of rape at a hospital, but he claims that the sexual intercourse was consensual.
It’s a heavy-sounding subject matter on paper, but Lim has chosen to approach this through a well-paced character-focused narrative instead of one that is overly plot-driven. Beyond serving as a social commentary on elderly discrimination in a nation plagued by an ageing population, An Old Lady emerges secondarily as a moving meditation on ageing, mortality and memory.
The opening sequence of An Old Lady is intriguingly crafted, beginning with a blacked-out screen where the audience is only privy to the uneasy dialogue between Hyo-jeong (Ye Su-jeong), a female patient recovering from knee surgery, and Joong-ho (Kim Jung-yeong), the male nurse on shift in her ward. “You have very pretty legs,” he utters, followed by: “You don’t look old.” Hyo-jeong remarks that her youthful appearance is a lie she always tells her friends. “But it’s not a lie,” Joong-ho calmly insists. We never see the actual crime happen – but we’ve heard enough for us to believe that it could.
Hyo-jeong lives with the poet Dong-in (Ki Joo-bong), a close platonic friend who used to be under her care when she was working as a caregiver. When Hyo-jeong decides to report the assault to the police, the officers have a hard time believing her words, especially after the suspect is revealed to be a young, handsome man who claims during the interrogation that the sex was consensual. Things become complicated when Hyo-jeong’s own memory is called into question, as she struggles to recall crucial details about her own life outside the case that can only heap doubt on the veracity of her rape account.
The investigation proceeds at snail’s pace, the warrant for Joong-ho’s arrest is continually rejected, and somehow the police fail to realise that the case should not be classified as an ordinary rape case because of the victim’s age. These setbacks expose the institutional prejudices against a vulnerable group, the lack of legal support and measures in place to protect them, as well as prevailing cultural sexist stereotypes that someone old is perceived to be less attractive (why would a 69-year-old female, of all people, be a target for a 29-year-old man?), as Hyo-jeong receives the occasional micro-aggression related to her age from strangers on a daily basis. “If the victim was a young woman, would he be in custody now?” she pointedly asks the police officer assigned to her case.
Yet despite the injustice of the circumstances, a glimmer of hope resides in the tender bond shared between Hyo-jeong and Dong-in – a relationship built on mutual respect, trust and care, where both individuals unconditionally place each other above themselves. Actors Ye Su-jeong and Ki Joo-bong put in wonderfully human performances as Hyo-jeong and Dong-in respectively, and Lim has developed two empathetic characters both wrestling with the onslaught of ageing and their resulting biological inadequacies. Striking visuals recur in An Old Lady, an acknowledgement of the hanging cloak of mortality around our characters: a close-up of a frail, wrinkled wrist resting on the edge of a balcony; of an IV drip gently swaying in the open air.
Dong-in is the film’s strongest voice of morality, and his heavy sense of duty to Hyo-jeong drives him to pursue justice for her at no matter the cost. But it’s the stoical Hyo-jeong, her silent courage, and refusal to let her rapist off easy in the aftermath of the assault that is truly heartrending, as she attempts to resume her swimming routine while dealing with an enormous amount of shame. Lim reminds us that age is inconsequential when it concerns sexual violence; that her protagonist is no less any worthy of justice or assistance as we see her trauma manifest through brief flashbacks and a visit to the sexual assault centre.
A cold, muted colour palette is mostly employed throughout the film, though warmer colours fill the scenes where Hyo-jeong attempts to regain her sense of dignity and self by returning to her previous caregiver job. An Old Lady is a quiet revolution on its own, and Lim ensures that the voice of the older generation is not forgotten in a melancholic ending which reinforces a fierce determination to not go gentle into that good night.