The Bacchus Lady requires a bit of context for a Toronto audience. A bacchus lady, typically an older woman in her 50s and 60s, and even up into her 80s, frequents parks where elderly men gather to socialize and play chess. There, the bacchus ladies sell men bacchus, a Korean energy drink, and typically also offer sexual favours for a price. In traditional Korean society, families readily embraced the responsibility of caring for their elderly parents, but because of the rapid modernization in Korea in recent decades, the Korean welfare system has failed to effectively embrace the care of elderly people, who now face the highest rates of poverty in the OECD. Elderly Korean women are acutely effected: roughly three quarters live in dire poverty.
The Bacchus Lady follows Youn So-young (Youn Yuh-jung), a woman in her 60s who works as a bacchus lady. She spends her days trolling parks for prospective clients, often servicing them in cheap motels or, quite often, in the parks themselves. She lives in a small, worn-down apartment; her closest neighbours include a young transgender woman and a young man with a prosthetic leg. A side story involves Youn taking in the young boy of a Filipino woman who accuses a Korean doctor of being her son’s father.
The film is a slow-paced, seemingly randomly episodic narrative that involves Youn encountering clients, other sex workers, and the families of long-time clients. But the payback is sitting through the entire film, for it is actually a meditation of loneliness, death, relationships and sacrifice. Youn, who gave up her family early in life, has deep, meaningful physical and emotional connections with her regular clients; in some cases, Youn sacrifices at great cost to herself to help these elderly men find happiness.
It’s a sad story, so prepare for it. It’s a film that will leave you haunted.