Notes from a festival: When the victim gets treated as a criminal
In this series of columns, the writer, the entertainment editor of the organisation, will be reflecting on the films being shown at the 51st International Film Festival of India in Goa
Of the films screened on day 3 of the 51st International Film Festival of India, one, in particular, stood out for the universality of its topic and the sensitivity on offer: Lim Sun-Ae’s Korean film, An Old Lady (69 Sae). The opening scene of this film is a chilling conversation between an elderly woman and a young male nurse. The screen remains pitch black and all you can hear is the dialogue between the vulnerable, old woman, who’s the protagonist, and a young hospital worker who makes inappropriate advances and goes on to sexually assault her. You don’t need to see the visuals to be disturbed by the growing discomfort of the old lady. From the very beginning, An Old Lady is a tender film that remains sensitive about the plight of this woman, and one that exercises admirable reluctance in making this story about anybody else other than Shim Hyo-jeong (Ye Su-jeong).
Director Lim captures the traumatic aftermath of sexual abuse in affecting detail. Watch Shim recoil in horror when a boy touches her accidentally in a swimming pool. See how she takes her time before summoning the courage to share her horror story with the world. Like most victims of sexual abuse, she too is worried about the repercussions, about the doubts that will be cast on her and her story, and about all the possible victim-blaming. All her fears come true, as inappropriate comments are made about her choice of clothes (once even by another woman). At one point, even the detective working on her case can't resist making a comment on her looks. Another detective raises questions over the veracity of her story: “It’s unfortunate but victims have to prove that they have been raped.” It’s a film that shows how even the best of men are prey to prejudices and patriarchal conditioning.
It’s bad enough that the victim is a woman in this film, given how unhelpful the justice system seems to be in such matters. That she’s an elderly person makes it a double whammy, and this topic—of how the elderly are mistreated in society—is also handled with great sensitivity by director Lim. At one point, Shim’s live-in partner, Nam Dong-in, attacks an irritable waiter when the latter keeps snapping at him. An irate car driver even goes to the point of asking Shim to ‘get into a coffin’. Shim realises at one point that perhaps, just perhaps, were she a younger victim, justice might have been more forthcoming. It’s such weariness that makes her observe so tragically that her life seems to be quite persistent, even when death seems preferable.
The feminist commentary in this film rings more relevant than ever today. In perhaps the most affecting shot in the film, Shim trudges out of a rehabilitation centre for the sexually abused and notices a young girl being escorted in. That single shot establishes the wide spectrum of women who suffer sexual abuse in silence. The resulting stigma, the victim-blaming, the broken judicial system, the insensitivity of those that carry out such processes… it’s all the same across the world. An Old Lady, despite a misstep or two in a rather underwhelming end, will hit close to home, no matter where it’s watched, no matter by who.