Veteran actress Yeo-jeong Yoon gives a masterful performance as So-young, an elderly woman who pays her bills as a sex worker. We soon learn that South Korea's lack of job prospects for its elderly citizens has resulted in a boom of elderly prostitutes. That said, the film is hardly judgemental of So-Young's profession, offering an even-handed look at her situation.
Instead, it demonstrates her as a hardened woman willing to do whatever it takes to help those around her to make ends meet. While being treated for gonorrhoea, she witnesses a mother stab her son's estranged father. The mother is arrested, and So-young takes the boy under her wing. He develops a quiet bond with the woman and her flat-mates, including a trans woman and an amputee.
As the story unfolds further, So-young also develops relationships with her clients that go far beyond sex. Eventually, a subplot about the ethics of euthanasia begins to surface.
With so many characters and tangents, The Bacchus Lady occasionally feels like multiple episodes of the same TV show. That said, the film hardly overstays its welcome — each character and subplot is as compelling as the next, offering more insight into the struggles of society's outliers.
Throughout its 110-minute runtime, the film goes far beyond the struggles of a sex worker, instead taking a hard look at what it's like to be transgender, disabled, orphaned, diseased, bed-ridden and desperate to die. There are moments of shocking realism (such as the scene when an elderly stroke victim has his diaper changed) and moments of genuine sweetness (like a pizza party on the roof or a trip to the fair).
The Bacchus Lady's central conceit is about the power of empathy. You should never judge someone for their circumstances because you can never truly know what it's like to be them, and you should always give your elders the respect they deserve.
The film is occasionally a little heavy-handed as it delivers this message, but its expert acting, beautiful cinematography and lovable characters ultimately deliver the message with the utmost class. At once heart-breaking and life-affirming, The Bacchus Lady is an unflinching look at the tragic nature of mortality.
(Korean Academy of Film Arts)