In a small South Korean town alongside the demilitarized zone, an entire local economy of bars, clubs and brothels has built up around the ever-present American soldiers. Sang-kook (Kim Dan-yool) works dutifully in his father’s photography studio, taking ID pictures for the local sex workers’ health cards. He also moonlights as a purveyor of pornography, developing photographs of naked women and selling them to the local school bullies. When the sex worker Young-lim (Lim Chae-yeong) enters the studio for an ID picture, it sparks off a romantic obsession in Sang-kook – one with unintended consequences for them both.
With South Korean entertainment making unprecedented inroads onto a global stage, it is worth considering that the country has not always been the way it is today. From 1960 it operated under a succession of dictatorships that lasted almost 30 years, backed up by the United States’ constant post-war military presence. It is in this pre-revolutionary period that writer/director Keon Soo-il sets his small-scale and uncompromising drama America Town. With the American army based along the border between South and North Korea, numerous communities were built to cater to the sudden and insatiable market for alcohol to drink and women to buy. There is a core story to America Town, but in many respects that story exists to remind its audience of one of the nastier elements of Korea’s 20th century history.
Young-lim has come to “America Town” after fleeing an abusive step-father but is now trapped in perpetual debt to a local pimp. Alongside a group of young women in similar states of captivity, she is forced to offer herself to visiting soldiers for sex. The local Korean government actively administers this arrangement, so long as the women are tested twice-weekly for sexually transmitted infections. Women who test positive are forcibly removed by the local police.
Despite her situation, Young-lim keeps up an optimistic and bright-faced outlook, and it is this upbeat nature that attracts the attention of Sang-kook. America Town is a poor place for a teenage boy to grow up, and in Young-lim he clearly sees some form of way out. Kim Dan-yool plays Sang-kook very well: it’s a complex character who is being pulled in multiple directions by his father’s expectations, his mother’s absence – an element the film gestures towards, but does not fully reveal, his growing rage, and the expected teenage hormones. Much of the weight of the film’s first two-thirds fall on his shoulders, and he gives an engaging and sympathetic performance out of a character that does not always behave in the most respectable of ways.
Lim Chae-yeong’s performance as Young-lim dominates the film’s final act, and the focus on her character draws out a similarly powerful performance. Her more charming demeanour of the film’s earlier acts only make the shift in her personality more moving.
The film is handsomely shot, particularly during the film’s night scenes. The stark contrast of gaudy entertainment lights and decrepit, cheaply constructed buildings make a powerful impression – as does the constant stream of crass, drunken Americans eager to have sex with any woman that is financially available. There is obviously an extent to which America Town indulges in familiar clichés – the ‘teenage boy meets a hooker with a heart of gold’ stereotype is remarkably well-worn – but the historical context and intelligent treatment of the social issues involved go a long way to lift the film above the crowd. It can be depressing stuff, but it also feels most worthy.
This review was originally published at FilmInk.