Bacchus is a popular South Korean energy drink brand that's similar to Red Bull. The term "Bacchus lady," however, carries far more loaded meaning, referring to aged prostitutes who sell the energy drinks along with sexual services. This phenomenon of elderly women who turn to prostitution in order to get by in their latter years, and the lonely clients who seek their company, serves as the subject of E J Yong's remarkable drama The Bacchus Lady
Respect for elders is known to be an important part of Korean culture, and there is still a widespread social expectation that adult children are to provide for their parents in old age. However, in an aging, changing Korea, just social expectations of traditional family structures and filial responsibilities are not enough to meet the financial and emotional needs of the senior population. Thus, we have Bacchus ladies like the film's down-to-earth protagonist So Young, who has no family and gets by through her own means. And we have So Young's customers, elderly men who gather in parks and plazas in search of company and conversation. In one of the film's quietly shocking turns, So Young also begins helping loneliness- and illness-stricken patrons end their own lives.
Though the film's subject matter is somber, Bacchus Lady maintains a level-headed and straightforward tone that makes the film itself surprisingly calm and even lighthearted at times. It's hard to imagine anyone but Yoon Yeo Jeong in the role of So Young, who faces life's difficulties straight on and spends no time feeling sorry for herself. Her hardships and the hardships of her acquaintances are relayed in a sobering and realistic manner, but without any deliberate melodrama or tear-jerking contrivances.
Besides dealing with her and her clients' troubles, So Young takes on the extra responsibility of looking after a half-Filipino boy whose mother is in jail. She enlists the help of her neighbors, a disabled man (Yoon Kye Sang) and a transgender woman (Jeon Moo Song), for babysitting, and soon a makeshift family forms. This bond serves as a welcome beacon of warmth in the film, while also casting light on other marginalized groups.
After the competent but typically commercial My Brilliant Life, E J Yong returns to top form with The Bacchus Lady. The film carries forth a strong social message in its portrayal of the grave problems faced by an elderly population that has been left behind, but it does not proselytize or make overt grabs for sympathy. Instead, the film calmly drives in its message through its frank, empathetic depiction of a marginalized cross-section of society that is so close by, yet so easily overlooked.