The middle-aged Ji-sook, owner of the Johyang Cafe, visits a licensed job agency, looking for new recruits. The room is filled with young women who are smoking and playing cards, but they fall silent when she walks in. Looking through the group, she chooses three pretty faces, and drives them back to the cafe, where they will prepare for their first day of work.
They are located in a seaside town filled with fishermen. Throughout the day and night, men call the cafe and order coffee, which the women deliver and serve to them in person. But they are selling more than just coffee. The prostitution industry is a booming part of the local economy, and very much above ground.
Ticket is a portrait of five women who make their living in a difficult profession. Several of them are struggling with debt, and have to fend off creditors who come to the cafe looking to get paid. Se-young, the youngest (who is given the nickname “Rookie”), supports her disabled brother and father back home, while trying to find time on the side to see her boyfriend. The women are also vulnerable to getting cheated, though Ji-sook keeps a tight rein on them, and looks after them with a stern maternal eye.
Although shot in the middle of South Korea’s 1980s heyday of softcore erotic films, Ticket mostly avoids sensationalizing its subject, and devotes much of its time to more mundane aspects of the women’s lives. One of the strengths of director Im Kwon-taek, who at this time was being hailed as the “national director,” is a persistent humanism that runs through all of his work. Here he draws sympathetic, three-dimensional portraits of each of his characters, particularly the figure of Ji-sook, brought to life by the legendary veteran actress Kim Ji-mi (who also appears as the lead in Kim Ki-young’s Promise of the Flesh). Although very much a product of its time, decades later Ticket still retains much of its dramatic force.