Woman, aged 69, raped by a 29-year-old man.
We often read this sort of headline in newspapers. But where do we pause? At rape, or at 69 and 29?
South Korean writer-director Lim Sun-ae’s film An Old Lady asks that question, and then she wants us to consider this: Is there an age limit to being raped?
An Old Lady, which is playing at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), opens to a black screen. We hear two people talking. It seems one is a nursing assistant, and he is with a female patient who has come for physiotherapy. She has a frozen shoulder.
“No one would guess your age,” he says. “Do you swim? Your legs… You don’t look old at all.”
He puts an infrared lamp on. “How long will it take?” she asks.
The screen lights up and we stare at a row of curtained cubicles. There’s a loud beep and in one of them and the red light goes off.
We are left with the feeling that something has happened. But the patient, Hyo-jeong (Ye Su-jeong, known for her role in Train To Busan), seems normal as she chats and gently jokes with Mr Nam (Ki Joo-bong), who has come to pick her up.
He owns a small book store, and she works for him. He’s published a book of poetry and she was once his nurse.
At home, Hyo rubs her wrist. He notices a bruise on her arm. The nursing assistant was clumsy with the needle, she says. Later she says to him, “I should report it to the police.”
An Old Lady is framed in a way that everything seems to be against the woman who claims she was raped by the handsome nursing assistant, Lee Joong-ho.
Also, he’s 29 and she’s is in a live-in relationship. That makes the young cops snigger.
It was not rape. It was consensual sex, Lee tells the cops.
Though Hyo’s polygraph tells them that she may be telling the truth, and she has proof — the clothes she wore that day — old people, you know, they forget. They mix-up things.
And in any case, he says he didn’t do it. He’s 29. Handsome.
The burden of proof on Hyo keeps mounting. She must convince the cops first, to even attempt a proper investigation. She must herself prove that it was rape and not consensual sex. She must prove that she didn’t meet him once, earlier, at a supermarket. And that she didn’t follow him to the clinic. She must produce a witness, the person who sent her to the clinic.
But that was so long ago. She can’t recall. She’s forgetting things. Maybe, dementia is setting in.
But those flashes keep interrupting, disturbing her. The wrist mark is fading, but it still aches.
A woman’s age, class, social status, caste, clothes, marital status, lifestyle, behaviour — all these immediately come into question the moment she makes an accusation against a man. And the questions that follow are, “Why would he? He could get anyone. Why would he need to rape? And why her?”
As if women in burqas and long ghunghats are not raped. As if rich, upper caste men rape only according to their status. As if men only rape women their age. As if only women who smoke and drink get raped. As if women who quietly go about their business, with heads bowed, are never raped. As if rape were about sexual attraction, and not a violent crime.
As if rape was about how “sexy” a woman is and not about the perpetrator’s feeling of inadequacy, the desire to dominant, to exert power, to leave their mark of control and capability on another.
As if rape were about women, and not men.
Director Lim Sun-ae has said that she was riled up to make An Old Lady by a real-life case in which the warrant dismissal letter said, “There is not much reason for a young man to rape an old woman.”
An Old Lady ends on an empowering note, with a nod to the #MeToo movement. But it leaves you wondering how many women must still be keeping their sexual assault, rape a secret because they are scared they’ll be asked, “Who will rape an old lady?”