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The Bacchus Lady - Interview with E J Yong, Yoon Yeo Jeong & Yoon Kye Sang

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Those who have seen Korean director E J Yong's works would no doubt marvel at his ability to tell very different stories with equal success. Since his 1998 debut feature An Affair about a housewife's secret affair, he has become a regular presence at overseas festivals with a diverse roster of films that includes a Korean-Japanese drama about loneliness and fantasy (Asako in Ruby Shoes), a Joseon-set adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons (Untold Scandal), a teen sex comedy musical (Dasepo Naughty Girls), two mockumentaries lampooning the filmmaking process (The Actresses and Behind the Camera), and a moving family drama about a boy with advanced aging disorder (My Brilliant Life). After premiering at the Berlin Film Festival, E J Yong's latest The Bacchus Lady arrived at the 40th Hong Kong International Film Festival in March 2016 during which the director participated in media interviews along with the film's stars Yoon Yeo Jeong and Yoon Kye Sang.

Bacchus Ladies

The Bacchus Lady is about older Korean women who turn to prostitution. Veteran actress Yoon Yeo Jeong plays So Young who plies her services at Seoul's Tapgol and Jongmyo Parks. Aged prostitutes like So Young are dubbed "Bacchus ladies" in reference to the Bacchus-D energy drink they offer to male patrons along with sexual services. Some 400 women engage in prostitution in Tapgol Park where the film was shot.

In the film, So Young seeks treatment for gonorrhea and by chance witnesses her doctor getting stabbed by his Filipino lover. So Young decides to temporarily take in their illegitimate son Min Ho while his mother is in prison, and enlists her neighbors to help watch over him. As the film gradually reveals the daily comings and goings of So Young and the people around her, the audience also comes to understand the sexual lives and death wishes of the elderly in Korean society.

An Aging Society

In recent years, Korean films on social issues have attracted increasing interest. For example, Korea's highest-grossing documentary of all time My Love, Don't Cross That River not only depicts the love story of an elderly couple, it also reflects the reality of an aging society. E J Yong comments, "Similar to Taiwan and Japan, Korean society is currently faced with a rapidly aging population. East Asian countries that experienced a postwar boom are now all facing the same problem."

He continues, "The most pressing issue is how to reduce the problems of an aging society, but in comparison to progressive European welfare states that have gradually eased into an aged society over a century's time, Korea is employing passive measures, like retirement pensions and medical subsidies, which are too small and too slow to address critical needs." Hoping to use film to respond to this important social issue, E J Yong drew from the phenomenon of Bacchus ladies to create the character of So Young.

As for how he came up with the protagonist's complex situation, E J Yong stated that he did not do much field research or data collection: "Actually many different countries and cities have the problem of aged prostitutes. Collecting information from sex workers involves privacy issues and opens old wounds." He only hopes that The Bacchus Lady prompts audiences and the younger generation to try to understand the stories behind struggling senior citizens.

Elders on the Edge

In regards to casting, E J Yong says, "When I was writing the script, I immediately thought of Yoon Yeo Jeong!"

Usually films with a socially conscious message have a somber and serious tone, but The Bacchus Lady, on the contrary, is shot in a down-to-earth manner, and Yoon Yeo Jeong's portrayal of an aged prostitute does not come across too downcast or desperate. As written by E J Yong, the hardy So Young never despairs despite her difficult living conditions. Instead, she goes with the flow and carries forth on her own terms, which brings a sense of freedom to these marginalized elders.

So how did Yoon Yeo Jeong get into the character and handle the film's sexual scenes? "I'm also an elderly person," the 68-year-old actress responds with a smile. She also frankly notes that it is difficult to sustain life after retirement if one relies solely on national pension payments.

"I trusted the director and completely did not ask to modify anything. I believe that an actor is like a prop that must play the character according to the director's vision." Yoon smilingly reveals, however, that as the director did not guide her during shooting, she could only drink to alleviate the pressure. From Kim Ki Young's Woman of Fire and The Insect Woman in the seventies to the more recent The Taste of Money, Yoon has appeared in various sexually provocative films over the years, and her performance this time is natural and assured.

The Choice of Death

Besides prostitution, Bacchus Lady touches on another heavily debated topic affecting elderly people – euthanasia. While euthanasia has become increasingly accepted and legalized in some European states, Korea has yet to open discussion on the matter. As the film's screenwriter, E J Yong pondered the moral and legal implications of euthanasia, and naturally projected his questions onto So Young's character. How do people confront death? What is the best way to end life? And what if for various reasons, something goes wrong during the euthanasia process and the patient expresses pain or changes their mind? Whenever he thinks of this question, E J Yong realizes that assisted dying really is a matter of grave concern.

In the film, So Young helps people end their lives, a point that Yoon Yeo Jeong also struggled with when analyzing the role. "Legally, euthanasia is wrong. Morally, I can understand the feeling," she says, expressing her agreement with the protagonist's viewpoint of not wanting to see terminal patients continuing to suffer. "My mother, who is over 90 years old, has mobility problems and is beginning to experience dementia. This affects me deeply. If I can only rely on a ventilator to survive, then I am no longer Yoon Yeon Jeong. At that time, I would hope someone could end my life for me."

In portraying the helplessness and gratitude of the elderly who seek death and the courage and moral dilemma behind So Young's decision to assist her patrons with their final wishes, E J Yong hopes to inspire audiences to reflect on the meaning of life.

Invisible and Marginalized

Nearly 70 years of age, So Young sits in the park, wearing bright makeup that contrasts strongly with her wrinkled face. By her side is a constant stream of patrons and old acquaintances. Of these elderly men and women, some do not receive enough financial support, some suffer from terminal illness, and some have no family to rely on. In a society that does not help them enough, it is like they have become invisible people.

Through So Young's efforts to provide for herself and Min Ho, the untold stories of other marginalized peoples also rise to the surface. To help Min Ho, So Young comes into contact with his mother and other members of the Filipino community. So Young's neighbors and friends, a crippled man played by Yoon Kye Sang and a transgender woman played by Ahn Ah Joo, also represent disadvantaged and discriminated groups on the edge of society.

Working with E J Yong for the first time, Yoon Kye Sang expresses that it was difficult playing a character with a prosthetic leg, but fortunately he had the help of the director and computer effects. Though a member of the pop group g.o.d, Yoon Kye Sang has focused on acting in recent years, and he hopes to challenge himself with different types of films. Yoon Yeo Jeong also commended him for his willingness to completely discard his idol image when acting.

The Bacchus Lady brings out the sorrow and helplessness of those on the margin, as well as the difficulties of both living and dying for those left behind by modern society. Consistent with his directing and storytelling style, E J Yong approaches the controversial topics of prostitution and euthanasia in a calm and matter-of-fact manner, showing both the tenacious spirit and the grinding struggles of the protagonist's life in a city cast with loneliness and sadness.

Text by Garden
Translated by Sanwei

Special thanks to the Hong Kong International Film Festival

Published April 21, 2016

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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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