Rape is never really about sex. It’s an act of violence. When 69-year-old Hyo-jeong, the protagonist in An Old Lady, is raped by her young physical therapist, no one believes her. If rape is about sex, why would an attractive young man rape an elderly woman? But if you recognize rape to be an act of violence, it makes perfect sense. As an older woman Hyo-jeong is vulnerable. Even if her pride allows her to report the incident, no one will believe her. However, the rapist doesn’t really know Hyo-jeong.
Although the character initially feels shame, her essential sense of dignity demands that she seek justice.
Filmmaker Lim Sun-ae was careful not to make her vulnerable protagonist into a stereotypical victim.
“The most impressive thing was that what matters the most to an elderly woman experiencing such a case is the sense of pride, which brings it to violence taking advantage of the victim’s vulnerability,” said Lim, who wrote the screenplay and directed the film.
Before the incident, Hyo-Jeong was a woman gracefully moving into old age. The film’s cinematographer Seh Rodrigo Park deftly captures her grace as she swims nimbly underwater or appreciates the brilliance of the sun through her slender fingers. Hyo-jeong’s dignity is evident in her measured strokes, in her meticulous stylish clothing, and in the quiet way she carries herself. She moves fluidly through her life, even as she must process the crushing weight of what was done to her.
“Hyo-jeong has aged but her thoughts have never gotten old, and she is weak, but at the end she smiles despite everything,” said Lim. “The character of Hyo-jeong was created that way with the help of Ye Su-jeong.”
Actress Ye Su-jeong, who appeared in the films Along with the Gods and Train to Busan and has a small role in the drama The Game: Toward Zero, embodies Hyo-jeong with a natural elegance and sense of self-worth. The character must defend that self-worth by seeking justice, even if she doesn’t get it from the legal system.
Lim was inspired to make her debut film, after reading an article about a real-life case in which a young man sexually abused an elderly woman.
“While reading the column mentioning the case, I was shocked that the prejudice about the elderly woman being asexual became the reason to pick the elderly as victims for predators,” said Lim. “They are using the anxiety of the victims that they will not be believed by society.”
Reporting sexual abuse often inflicts new cruelty on its victims.
“In the warrant dismissal letter of the case,” said Lim, “which was the inspiration to make this film, there was a sentence that says, ‘There is not much reason for a young man to rape an old woman.’ Predators are aware of the prejudice on elderly women as much as they know about the low report ratio which makes a second offense likely to happen.”
In the real-life case, the victim committed suicide.
“At first, I wanted to redeem the victim from the last decision she made,” said Lim. “But in elaborating the scenario, I felt more and more powerless that apart from the legal punishment on the predator, the victim’s pain would never be gone. And the feeling of powerlessness led me to find the reason in making the film.”
It’s not easy for Hyo-Jeong to report the crime, but she gets support from her housemate, Dong-In, played by veteran actor Ki Joo-bong, and ultimately decides to stand up not only for herself, but for other women, including her daughter, with whom she has a less-than-ideal relationship.
“She wouldn’t have wanted any more victims to be made,” said Lim. “Even her daughter, who she cannot meet, could be a victim just like her. For the sake of all, she steps out to do what she meant to do.”
If we do nothing, says Lim, nothing happens. “Constantly bringing up the uncomfortable topic is the only way to change the social perception.”
In graduate school Lim studied screenwriting with noted director Lee Chang-dong, no stranger to uncomfortable film topics. Im worked as a storyboard artist in film before making her directing debut.
“During the time I took a year off from art school, I got to work as a film script supervisor by chance. As an art student, after that, I was offered work as a storyboard artist and while being a storyboard artist in many other films, I started to dream of being a director. Working with directors has taught me in many ways, but the storyboard artist’s work was only for pre-production and that made me crave more.”
Lim does not see An Old Lady as only relevant for the victims of sex crimes.
“We all get to face situations that aren’t a crime but still unreasonable and hopeless,” said Lim. “Even though one film can’t change the world, I still believe it can change one person’s mind.”
The film debuted at the 2019 Busan Film Festival and is currently on the film festival circuit. The cast includes Kim Jung-yeong, Kim Tae-Hun, and Kim Joong-ki. Produced by Kirin Productions, the film is represented by Finecut Co., Ltd. As yet, it has no release date in Korea.
This article was originally published in forbes.com.