How much do you understand Miss Baek?

Suffering through a rude theatergoer’s thoughts during the credits

Park Ju-yeon 2020-05-06

“Ah, [expletive], they call this a movie?” The comment hit me like a slap to the back of the head. I was watching the ending credits of Miss Baek and trying to compose myself before I left the theater. I turned around and looked at the voice’s owner. It was a middle-aged man. Was it three seconds, maybe, that I stared at him? My expression must not have been pleasant. He shot back, “What?” in an irritated tone. I didn’t say a word as I turned back around, got up, and left.


Should I have said something? I had turned away thinking it wasn’t worth it to get into it with people like that, but honestly, I was also scared. Taking on a middle-aged man alone, in a theater that had already emptied—it wouldn’t have been a good idea.  That’s a kind of “wisdom” that I’ve acquired as a woman, and there’s no reason he would’ve known that.


He also wouldn’t have known that this movie that made him angry actually seemed like more than a movie to me, that it had both made me sad and given me strength. In this article, I want to explain what I couldn’t say to him—why this movie is important.


▲ Miss Baek (2018; directed by Lee Ji-won) Sang-ah (Han Ji-min)   ©Little Big Pictures

The story of two women


Miss Baek (2018; directed by Lee Ji-won) is the story of Baek Sang-ah (Han Ji-min), a person who is alone in the world and asks others to call her “Miss[Partly because of its historical use to address women working in sex-industry businesses, the English title “Miss” has a negative connotation in Korean. Most women would not want to be addressed that way.] Baek”, one day meeting Kim Ji-eun (Kim Shi-ah), a little girl who is just like Sang-ah as a child, on a cold street, and the two characters healing each other’s wounds.


Sang-ah is an ex-con who was sent to prison as a schoolgirl for attempted murder after she stabbed a man who was trying to sexually assault her. Her mother is an alcoholic who neglected and ultimately abandoned her. Deeply scarred, Sang-ah as “Miss Baek” works several unstable jobs at places like a car wash and a massage parlor, and lives cut off from the “normal” world.


Then one day, she comes across a little girl, who seems around elementary school age, in the street. The girl’s thin dress is dirty, and her long, tangled hair hides her facial expression and her bruises, but anyone who looks at her closely will quickly see what bad shape she’s in. This is Ji-eun.


Sang-ah passes by Ji-eun at first, but can’t help but turn back and look at her. She ends up buying the girl some food and herself some alcohol at a food cart. When Ji-eun’s father’s girlfriend, Ju Mi-gyeong, shows up and Ji-eun grabs Sang-ah’s hand to stop her from sending her away with Mi-gyeong, Sang-ah understands the situation immediately.


▲ The poster for Miss Baek (2018; directed by Lee Ji-won). Tagline: “I’ll be by your side. I’ll protect you.”   ©Little Big Pictures

One thing I liked about this movie is that it doesn’t set up the “adult” Sang-ah as the one-way protector of the “child” Ji-eun. On the surface, their relationship looks like that of an adult and a child, but actually, they both help and protect each other. It’s not a one-way relationship but one of mutual need. And it’s not that they lean on each other, but that they each lead the other to grow. Through each other, Sang-ah and Ji-eun break down their own walls and gain the courage to begin healing their wounds and facing their fears.


Diverse women’s faces and desires


There are more than a few touching scenes between Sang-ah and Ji-eun, but the one that made me cry the hardest actually features Sang-ah’s mother, Jeong Myeong-suk. An alcoholic single mom who didn’t properly look after her child, she is exactly the kind of person the world loves to criticize. But watching her story reminded me of many other women who have failed countless times in their role as mother.


I don’t want to debate whether Myeong-suk made the right choice by giving up her child. I think one of the messages of this movie is that we should think about how many women have found themselves considering or being forced to make that choice even though they want to fulfil their role as mothers. I also liked that it showed Myeong-suk trying to be a mother in her own way until the very end. 


The movie doesn’t justify the pain that Myeong-suk caused Sang-ah, but it does suggest that Myeong-suk has her own story, that she’s not just a cold-hearted mother but a woman whose life has been too much for her to handle. I appreciated this additional female narrative.


▲ Sang-ah (Han Ji-min) and Ji-eun (Kim Shi-ah).   ©Little Big Pictures

It was also interesting that the movie focused less on Ji-eun’s abusive father than on his girlfriend, Mi-gyeong. This could make you feel uncomfortable, wondering if the movie was just repeating the “bad stepmother” cliché. But I think that if it had focused more on the father, the overall mood would have felt unbalanced. It would have been scary if Miss Baek had to face off against the father. It seems to me that it’s not that the director was trying to prove the old saying, “Women are women’s worst enemies,” but that she wanted to offer a less hopeless way forward for Sang-ah and Ji-eun.


Mi-gyeong isn’t just a bad guy; she’s a very three-dimensional character with her own desires. She has much more life than the father character, who is lethargic, only plays video games, and has no presence. She goes to church and prays, crying; she calls her dog her “baby” and carries it around. On the surface, she acts like a good, kind woman. At the same time, she expresses her desires instead of hiding them, and she makes all the plans. Sang-ah’s father depends on her and jumps to follow her orders.


If these traits had been given to the father character, Mi-gyeong would have been yet another female victim in the movie—a powerless character who participates in a crime by meekly following orders. That’s why I think the director’s choice to show diversity among women was not bad. After all, it’s wrong to assume that all women are harmless, innocent, and kind. Of course, there’s no reason to become an abuser in order to escape victimhood, but I hope to see diverse analyses of the Mi-gyeong character.


The birth of a family, even if it’s not recognized as such


Many people will see the end of the movie as showing the “birth of a family”. I also saw it that way. But is it strange that I didn’t see Sang-ah as the mother and Ji-eun as the daughter? Instead, it seemed like the union of two people.


Miss Baek doesn’t transform into society’s ideal of a mother; she remains Miss Baek. This was my favorite thing about the movie. In the process of meeting Ji-eun and experiencing growth, Sang-ah doesn’t have some kind of awakening that turns her into a mother, but stays herself and simply continues to spend time with Ji-eun.


It’s unclear whether they’ll form a socially-recognized family and live together under one roof, but I’m sure that they’ll become a family. Even if it is in a form that society doesn’t recognize, their relationship is already familial enough.


The two people who thought of themselves as outsiders meet, give each other strength, and become important to each other. How long will our society toss this away as an unnamable relationship? I think this is the question that Miss Baek’s final scene asks.


▲ Sang-ah and Ji-eun.   ©Little Big Pictures

I’ve focused on the movie’s strengths so far in this article, but that doesn’t mean I thought it was flawless. For example, I thought the behavior of Jang-seob, a detective who has loved and protected Sang-ah since she turned from a victim to a supposed-criminal as a teenager, was a little hard to believe. His abuse of governmental power with the excuse of protecting Sang-ah can’t help but make you uncomfortable, and the thought of being on the other end of that abuse of power is terrifying.


Understanding a story


The movie Vita and Virginia depicts the love story of Virginia Wolf and Vita Sackville-West. In a review written when the movie was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I found a sentence that has really stuck with me:


“Truthfully, I think a lot of straight dudes won’t get Vita and Virginia.” (Kayleigh Donaldson, “‘Vita and Virginia’ is a Striking but Heavily Flawed Biopic of Two Literary Geniuses”, Sept. 12, 2018)


When I thought later of the man angrily complaining after the showing of Miss Baek, this quote came to mind. Yes, some people won’t get this movie—those who’ve never been stigmatized, never been the victim of neglect and abuse, never had to give up something precious to them while suffering.


If you can’t even understand the movie’s message that, if you haven’t experienced these things directly, you should experience and think about them while watching the movie—well, there’s nothing to be done, then. But instead of thinking, “There’s nothing to be done for you,” and giving up on that man, I thought one more time about the valuable points that this movie makes and the messages it has for the audience. Speaking/Writing like this is a result of the courage that Miss Baek gave me to reach out to the world.


By Park Ju-yeon

Published Oct. 29, 2018

Translated by Marilyn Hook


*Original article:


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