“I Wanted to Criticize Myself”: Director E J-yong on South Korea’s Prostitution Problem and People on the Edge in ‘The Bacchus Lady’

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The Bacchus Lady, E J-yong’s bittersweet tale about a marginalized generation facing abject poverty and abandonment, makes its New York Asian Film Festival debut on July 1. The South Korean filmmaker — who previously directed a Dangerous Liaisons adaptation set in 18th-century Korea and the manga-inspired, button-pushing Dasepo Naughty Girls — examines the plight of Korea’s seniors and the country’s shifting social dynamic in a drama about “bacchus lady” So-young (the phenomenal Yoon Yeo-jeong). The film is based on the real-life elderly woman in South Korea who prostitute themselves in public parks, signaled by hawking Bacchus energy drinks. The Bacchus Lady is befitting of E J-yong’s interest in characters on the fringe, misfit families, and transgressive humor. But the director ultimately undermines The Bacchus Lady’s seemingly racy premise and treats the controversial subject with the frankness and respect it deserves, sans sensationalism. Flavorwire spoke to E J-yong via email about his new film and the social issues prevalent in contemporary Korean society.

‘The Bacchus Lady’

Flavorwire: In Bacchus Lady, you portray the traditional family in contemporary Korean society as a thing of the past. You show that there is no room for the elderly, as in the case of So-young’s former client, whose family can’t be bothered to care of him and leave him alone in a hospital to die. Why has the Korean nuclear family and its hierarchy broken down in this way?

E J-yong: In the 1950s during the Korean War, many of the values of Korean society were destroyed. Another effect of the war is that it made Korea one of the poorest countries in the world. But in the last few decades, South Korea has developed very quickly, and the economy has grown to the to be the 13th largest economy in the world [the CIA currently lists it as 14th]. This rapid development of Korean society makes traditional values disappear in the same way as well; one of them being the strong family devotion that used to prevail in Korean society.

Nowadays, young people are more poor than their parents. Parents spent all for their kids, but the children are not yet financially stable, so they can’t take care of their parents. And on top of that, even state welfare doesn’t really work well either. The numbers of people of the older generation who are financially weak are rapidly increasing while Korean society as a whole is aging.

The suicide rate in Korea is [one of the] highest in the world, particularly amongst the elderly. Korea also happens to have some of the lowest birth rates in the world. These statistics point to economic pressures, but there’s also a sense that there is a major existential crisis at play, which you touch upon in Bacchus Lady. Is it considered risky or taboo for a Korean filmmaker to discuss subjects like suicide? And is it difficult to find actors who want to portray these issues in movies?

Of course, it’s very hard to make this kind of story, because many movies are made with the purpose of becoming a commercial success. This film is dealing with a hard-to-tell story in Korean society, but I could make it happen because the actress Yoon Yeo-jeong, who has worked with me on a few film projects, encouraged me to do it.

Bacchus Lady makes an interesting link between sex and death, two subjects that have a longstanding intimate connection. Can you share your feelings about the relationship between sex and death?

In fact, Bacchus lady is the one who makes the old men feel alive and satisfies some of their desires in life, but also assists them with their death. She decides to help end their lives, because she believes that it is her way of helping them put an end to their suffering. In this film, the Bacchus lady is the figure that represents both Eros and Thanatos.

In Bacchus Lady, you create some normalcy around the desire for death as a mirror to the real-life plight older citizens face. How have Korean audiences responded to this portrayal?

The Bacchus Lady will be released in October, so we didn’t see yet how Korean people will react to this story. Through this film, I just want to open a space to discuss what Korean society is preparing for the older citizens who are in peril on many levels (physically, economically, and mentally), instead of giving a simple conclusion.

The film is full of characters who have been left behind by society. I wondered if you had a fascination with the outsider for personal reasons?

I am a person who has more concerns for people on the edge of society, and I think a healthy society is a society in which these people can live without prejudice or without being neglected.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of attention paid to older actresses in Korea, so the casting of Yoon Yeo-jeong in such a complex and provocative lead role is rather exciting and empowering. Can you talk about working with Yoon Yeo-jeong and offer some insight as to how Korean audiences view actresses of a certain age?

There are not many film projects for senior actresses for commercial reasons and because of financial caution. Fortunately, we were able to make this film without money from a major studio. I wanted to describe a Bacchus lady with a modern character played by actress Yoon Yeo-jeong, who is more than a typical Bacchus Lady. “Bacchus” is the name of an energy drink that has been sold in South Korea for over 50 years. And we call “Bacchus ladies” the old ladies who are approaching old men with Bacchus drinks to provide them sexual services.

Your meta-films like Actresses and Behind the Camera contain a lot of self-aware references. So I wondered if you viewed the documentary filmmaker in Bacchus Lady as an avatar for yourself? If so, can you talk about your intentions behind that decision?

That seems very correct. Mostly filmmakers live more comfortable lives than Bacchus ladies. Committing something to film without a real understanding of what their lives and pains are like is quite pretentious and superficial. So, I wanted to criticize myself by turning this story into a film.

Director E J-yong

You seem interested in the dark side of characters’ lives or personalities, even if you don’t necessarily portray things in an extremely dark way. In Untold Scandal, for example, you look at the cynical nature of love, but the setting is very bucolic. Do you have any interest in making an outright horror film?

To make a genre film like horror, thriller, and so on, I think there are some conventions and standards to follow. But watching classical genre films, I cannot yet approach the idea of making that kind of genre film.

You’ve experimented a lot in terms of genre. In your mind, what is the narrative or thematic thread that ties your body of work together?

I am more interested in a project that tells stories that have not been tried before, or in telling them in an unconventional style. I think I put more passion into making films in a different style, films that differ from conventional or commercial films. And personally, I am more interested in the psychological path of individuals than in large-scale epics.