Credit: Film at Lincoln Center
by Christopher Bourne Film

Gull | Kim Mi-jo

May 7, 2021

Kim Mi-jo‘s debut feature, the stark social-realist drama Gull, may be a slight 75 minutes in length, but it packs quite a powerful punch across this brief runtime. The film’s protagonist, O-bok — portrayed with unvarnished intensity by Jeong Ae-hwa — is the prototypical Korean ajumma, the tough, middle-aged woman who often has a fierce, prickly exterior, and whom you mess with at your peril. She works at an outdoor fish market in Seoul, and as the film begins, the middle of her three daughters is about to get married to the son of an affluent government official. O-bok and her fellow merchants, meanwhile, are in the midst of a fight with their landlord over a gentrification plan that threatens to rob them all of their livelihoods. 

O-bok relieves herself of these daily pressures by drinking with her friends and some of the other merchants at the end of her long work day. On one of these nights, she’s sexually assaulted (presumably after getting drunk) by Gi-taek, a merchant who’s the lead organizer of the gentrification fight. This rape happens offscreen, but we see the aftermath effects: O-bok stumbling home afterward, her haunted and ravaged demeanor, the bloodstains that she furiously tries to make disappear. Gull immerses us in the pain, shame, and silence often imposed upon rape victims in the South Korean society Kim depicts. (It goes without saying that these circumstances are by no means limited to this one specific country.) O-bok at first tries to hide what’s happened, but those around her can’t help but notice that something is wrong. Finally, unable to remain silent any longer, she confides to her middle daughter that she’s been raped, but begs her daughter not to tell her husband, and strives to keep this from her future in-laws. O-bok’s daughter convinces her to report her rape to the police, although she’s reluctant at first. 

Gull impresses with its meticulous examination of how rape victims, especially older ones like O-bok, are continually failed by institutions, individuals, and even their closest loved ones. The police are basically useless; they insist that since O-bok has no physical evidence, there’s nothing they can do. The other merchants, including those who were with her on the night of the assault, refuse to help her, and want her to keep quiet, afraid that this will hurt them in their battle against the landlords. O-bok’s husband, having heard about the rape police report, not knowing his own wife was the victim, says that women who claim rape actually really want sex too, eliciting a furious response from O-bok when she hears this. Even her own daughter, in a frustrated moment, blames her mother for getting drunk and putting herself in a position to be raped. The title of this work, obliquely referencing Chekhov’s The Seagull, proves to be bitterly ironic. Unlike that avian creature, O-bok can’t simply fly away from the tragic, isolating, and ostracizing circumstances of her life. Rather, she’s forced to be tethered to the ground, and to become a silent, solitary, sandwich board-wearing protest march of one against both the man who raped her and the society that refuses to heal her pain or even acknowledge that it exists.

Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2021 — Dispatch 3.