Running Turtle (거북이 달린다, Lee Yeon-woo, 2009)

running turtle posterOne has to wonder why anyone becomes a policeman in Korea, or at least in the world of Korean movies. A policeman’s work is never done, yet they rarely prosper and often succeed in making themselves look ridiculous. The hero of Running Turtle (거북이 달린다, Geobuki Dalinda), played by The Chaser’s Kim Yoon-seok, is a case in point. Unlike Joong-ho, Pil-seung is still on the force (for the time being) but even for a small town beat cop he’s pushing his luck. It’s not surprising then that he gets himself all fired up when he comes into contact with a notorious fugitive from justice.

Pil-seung (Kim Yoon-seok) is among the least well-respected on a small team of police officers nominally upholding justice in a tiny fishing village. Mostly his day job involves harassing local sex workers which he mostly does by means of entrapment whilst hanging out with petty crooks like local loser gangster Yong-bae (Shin Jung-geun). Looked down on at work, things don’t improve much for Pil-seung at home where, despite the admiration he receives from the older of his two daughters, Pil-seung fails to pull his weight leaving his wife to supplement the family income by running a moribund manwha cafe whilst reduced to folding socks for the extra pennies. Then again, home is a place Pil-seung rarely goes, preferring to waste his life drinking and gambling.

On a rare occasion of busting his gut for justice, Pil-seung takes things too far with a pimp who’s a little on the heavier side and ends up almost dying after an “undue force” provoked heart attack. Suspended, Pil-seung has another set of problems in being without money for three months and being too afraid to tell his wife the truth. Stealing her savings and betting them on a local bull-fight Pil-seung’s luck comes up only to go down again when escaped fugitive and martial arts expert Gi-tae (Jung Kyung-ho) pinches the money off Yong-bae in payback for Yong-bae getting fresh with his girl (to be fair, Yong-bae had it coming).

What follows is a locking of horns as filled with macho posturing as the central bullfight between the “Bear” and “Typhoon”, though possibly not as elegant. Gi-tae, softly spoken and melancholy, has returned to an old love and means to leave the scenes of his crimes behind him for good. This whole thing with Pil-seung is a major irritation but he has no especial interest in the portly policeman other than needing to get rid of him long enough to escape with his patient lady-love.

Pil-seung’s motivations are different. Yes, he’s originally pissed off and wants his money back, but Gi-tae also represents an opportunity for him prove himself as everything he’s hitherto failed to be – a success, a strong man, someone worthy of respect. Sadly, Pil-seung will have to work quite hard to convince himself he can be any of these things, let alone convince anyone else. Trapped in his tiny rural town, Pil-seung has long felt impotent and oppressed. He can’t provide for his wife whose lack of respect for him is real enough, though noticing the holes in her underwear as he goes in for a not altogether romantic overture reminds Pil-seung that perhaps he needs to shape up and make something of himself before it’s too late. Generally he eases his feelings of inadequacy and existential despair through alcohol, gambling, and being the big guy around petty gangsters to whom he is useful but again, not a figure to be feared, loved, or respected.

Going up against a top criminal like Gi-tae all alone is a fairly stupid proposition in the first place, one only someone as deliberately pig-headed as Pil-seung would ever attempt. It’s his particular quality of bloodymindedness which becomes Pil-seung’s trademark as he absolutely refuses to give up on clawing his way back into the hearts of his wife and family through an act of officially recognised heroism though it’s true enough that if he’s going beat a man like Gi-tae (who often seems the unfair target of Pil-seung’s petty quest) he’ll need to reawaken some of those little grey cells to do it. The turtle of the title, Pil-seung chases his hare with furious, if plodding, determination only to see victory within his grasp through no fault of his own. It just goes to show, slow and steady wins the race but obsessive hard headedness doesn’t hurt either.


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Netflix.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー, Ken Ninomiya, 2017)

the limit of sleeping beauty posterCan you escape the past by evading it? The heroine of Ken Ninomiya’s The Limit of Sleeping Beauty (リミット・オブ・スリーピング・ビューティー) does her best to find out as she approaches the point at which she can no longer bear the weight of all her sorrows. A rising star of the Japanese indie scene, Ken Ninomiya had some minor festival exposure with his first film, post-apocalyptic cyberpunk drama Slum-polis, back in 2015 before making a complete about turn in releasing a terse mockumentary about a resilient actor hammering on the door of Japanese show business. Sleeping Beauty was, apparently, originally conceived as a mid-length picture before producers suggested expanding it into a full length feature and in many ways marries the twin concerns of Ninomiya’s earlier films in its high concept examination of a fracturing psyche unable to let the past go and move on from trauma and disappointment.

At 19, Aki (Yuki Sakurai) ran away from a bad family situation and ended up in Tokyo with the hope of becoming an actress. With nowhere else to go she wandered into a random bar which is where she met the love of her life, Kaito (Issey Takahashi) – a melancholy photographer and owner of cabaret club Aurora. Kaito takes her in and she begins working at Aurora as a magician’s assistant but ten years pass and, as a TV presenter later put it, it’s unheard of for a Japanese actress to make it in her 30s.

Her mind fracturing, Aki is often accompanied by “Butch” (Nino Furuhata), a strange clown with a scary white face who appears alternately supportive and enabling. Complaining that she feels unstuck in time, Butch reminds her that the idea of time as linear flow is a misconception and that all moments are indeed one moment which is one reason Aki never quite knows “when” she is. Accepting this fact she asks to be taken to the time at which she was happiest, only to be told that emotional time is not necessarily in sync with one’s perception of temporality. Nevertheless, her mind flies back to her first meeting with Kaito who we later surmise is no longer in her life but continues to define it all the same.

The picture we get of Aki is of a woman attempting to bury herself and her disappointments by revelling in a pleasant memory and then using it as raw material to read herself into an idealised version of her current life only one which is still marred by the tragedy of losing Kaito. Ninomiya opens with an orgy in dingy sex club where everyone is wearing creepy carnival masks and the older Aki is sporting a nasty bruise on her chin. The bruise, we later discover, was earned in a nasty encounter with a lascivious producer engineered by a soulless manager who promised her a career but in effect sold her to a man who assaulted and humiliated her. This final humiliation is only one of many acts of degradation that Aki suffers in her quest to make it as an actress – one of only two things Kaito urged her to do before disappearing from her life forever.

Unable to cope with the weight of lost love, defeated dreams, and a wasted youth Aki’s mind splinters into fragments, creating the strange entity known as Butch whom she seems to want to get rid of but cannot bear to be without. Aki’s quest is one of reintegration in which she must find the strength to put herself back together again and finally set light to the past, waking up from her self imposed slumber.

Kaito wants her to know the world is still wonderful, but his message seems curiously perverse considering his final course of action and Aki’s continuing descent into a spiral of depression, exploitation, and mental instability. Fantasy and reality remain hopelessly blurred, only gradually separating and becoming distinct as Aki begins to put herself back together. Ninomiya improves on Slum-Polis with similarly detailed production design and world building but occasionally allows his taste for music video aesthetics to slide into the indulgent with the success of such sequences depending on the viewer’s taste for the overused main titles song, Hummingbird by Kyla La Grange. Nevertheless there’s no disputing Ninomiya’s ambition and originality even if there is something unsettling in his urgency to inhabit the world he seems to be critiquing.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Garden of Women (女の園, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1954)

garden of women still 1Things changed after the war, but not as much as some might have hoped. Sadly still topical, Keisuke Kinoshita’s Garden of Women (女の園, Onna no Sono) takes aim both at persistent and oppressive patriarchal social structures and at a compromised educational system which, intentionally or otherwise, systematically stifles attempts at progressive social change. A short few years before student protests would plunge education into crisis, Kinoshita’s film asks why it is that the establishment finds itself in conflict with the prevailing moods of the time and discovers that youth intends to have its brighter future even if it has to fight for it all the way.

The setting is an exclusive private woman’s university in the elegant historical city of Kyoto. The ladies who attend this establishment are mostly from very wealthy families who have decided to educate their daughters at the college precisely because of its image of properness. As one student will later put it, there are two kinds of girls at the school – those who genuinely want to study in order to make an independent life for themselves and intend to look for work after graduation, and those who are merely adding to their accomplishments in order to hook a better class of husband. Everyone, however, is subject to a stringent set of rules which revolves around the formation of the ideal Japanese woman through strictly enforced “moral education” which runs to opening the girls’ private letters and informing their families of any “untoward” content, and requiring that permission be sought should the girls wish to attend “dances” or anything of that nature.

As might be expected, not all of the girls are fully compliant even if they superficially conform to the school’s rigid social code. Scolded for her “gaudy” hair ribbon on the first day of school, Tomiko (Keiko Kishi) rolls her eyes at the over the top regulations and enlists the aid of the other girls to cover for her when she stays out late with friends but her resistance is only passive and she has no real ideological objection towards the ethos of the school other than annoyance in being inconvenienced. Tomiko is therefore mildly irritated by the presence of the melancholy Yoshie (Hideko Takamine). Three years older, she’s come to college late and is struggling to keep up with classes but is, ironically enough, prevented from studying by the same school rules which insist she go to bed early.

Meanwhile, dorm mate Akiko (Yoshiko Kuga), from an extraordinarily wealthy and well connected family, is becoming increasingly opposed to the oppressive atmosphere at the school. However, as another already politically active student points out, Akiko’s background means there are absolutely no stakes for her in this fight. She has never suffered, and likely never will, because she always has been and always will be protected by her privilege. Fumie (Kazuko Yamamoto), a hardline socialist, doubts Akiko’s commitment to the cause, worrying that in the end she is only staging a minor protest against her family and will eventually drift away back to her world of ski lodges and summer houses. Despite her ardour, Akiko finds it hard to entirely dispute Fumie’s reasoning and is at constant battle with herself over her true feelings about the state of the modern world as it relates to herself individually and for women in general.

This is certainly a fiercely patriarchal society. Even though these women are in higher education, they are mostly there to perfect the feminine arts which are, in the main, domestic. They are not being prepared for the world of work or to become influential people in their own right, but merely to support husbands and sons as pillars of the rapidly declining social order that those who sent them there are desperate to preserve. For many of the girls, however, times are changing though more for some than others. Tomiko rolls her eyes and does as she pleases, within reason, and even if she eventually wants to see things change at the school it is mostly for her own benefit. She sees no sense in Akiko’s desire for reform as a stepping stone to wider social change, and perhaps even fears the kinds of changes that Akiko and Fumie are seeking.

Akiko and Fumie, and to an extent, Tomiko, seem to have a degree of agency that others do not as seen in the tragic story of Yoshie whose life has been largely ruined thanks to the selfish and heartless actions of her father. From a comparatively less wealthy family, Yoshie worked in a bank for three years during which time she met and fell in love with an earnest young man named Shimoda (Takahiro Tamura). However, her father, having become moderately successful, developed an appetite for social climbing and is determined she marry “well” to increase his own sense of superiority as a fully fledged member of the middle classes. He sees his daughter as nothing more than a tool or extension of himself and cares nothing for her thoughts or feelings. In order to resist his demands for an arranged marriage, Yoshie enrolled in school and is desperate to stay long enough for Shimoda to finish his education so they can marry.

Yoshie is trapped at every turn – she cannot rely on her family, she cannot simply leave them, she cannot yet marry, if she leaves the school she will be reliant on a man who effectively intends to sell her, but her life here is miserable and there is no one who can help her. All she receives from the educational establishment is censure and the instruction to buck up or get kicked out. She feels herself a burden to the other girls who regard her as dim and out of place thanks to their relatively minor age gap and cannot fully comprehend her sense of anxiety and frustration.

Finally standing up to the uncomfortably fascistic school board the girls band together to demand freedoms both academic and social, insisting that there can be no education without liberty, but the old ways die hard as they discover most care only for appearances, neatly shifting the blame onto others in order to support their cause. “Why must we suffer so?” Yoshie decries at a particularly low point as she laments her impossible circumstances. Why indeed. The oppressive stricture of the old regime may eventually cause its demise but it intends to fight back by doubling down and the fight for freedom will be a long one even if youth intends to stand firm.


Titles and opening scene (no subtitles)

Manta Ray (กระเบนราหู, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, 2018)

manta ray posterManta Ray (กระเบนราหู, Kraben Rahu), the directorial debut from Thai cinematographer Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, begins with a dedication to the Rohingya – a group some have described as the most persecuted on Earth, rendered technically stateless and brutally oppressed in their homeland of Myanmar. Many have attempted to escape, often to Thailand, but rarely find safe harbour instead becoming victims of governmental persecution or vicious human traffickers. Manta Ray is a poetic mediation on displacement and identity, but also on the various ways in which neglect of the other is also neglect of the self.

A young fisherman (Wanlop Rungkamjad) with a shock of blond hair gets up to some shady business in a forest but later turns humanitarian when he discovers a badly wounded man lying by the riverside. Discovering the man is still alive, the fisherman takes him to a backstreet doctor and then to his home where he nurses him back to health. As the man cannot speak and possibility does not understand what is being said to him, the fisherman rechristens him Thongchai (Aphisit Hama) after a classic Thai pop star. Despite the absence of verbal communication, the two men begin to bond and the fisherman teaches Thongchai how to live a life like his – how to fish, how to dive, how to find colourful stones in the forest and how to use them to call the manta rays which shelter in a nearby cove after a storm and are soon on their way once the storm has passed. Their peaceful co-existence is soon ruptured when the fisherman fails to return home, leaving Thongchai alone to inherit his life, slipping accidentally into the now vacant space the fisherman left behind.

The film’s earliest stretches serve as a beautiful tale of wordless connection in which the fisherman, perhaps in contrast to what we might expect given the darkness of his activities as glimpsed in the opening scenes, decides to be kind and rescues a man near death, literally giving him a new life and a place in his home for as long as he wants or needs it. Thongchai says nothing, perhaps he cannot speak in any language and probably does not understand the meaning of the fisherman’s words but seems to understand him all the same. Gradually the fisherman brings Thonghcai back to life through passing bits of his own back to him, relating his sad life story of the wife who left him for another man but himself remaining silent about whatever it is he does with the shady crew of a fishing boat out at sea. It is perhaps his sense of compassion which spells his doom – when he tells his “boss” that he doesn’t want to do “that” any more, the fisherman “mysteriously” goes missing at sea.

Thongchai does not steal the fisherman’s identity, but merely inherits a space which had been left vacant by another recently displaced person. He stays in the house and waits for his friend’s return, takes up his friend’s job, and then eventually begins living with the fisherman’s pregnant ex-wife (Rasmee Wayrana) who completes his transformation by dressing him in the fisherman’s clothes and dying his hair a bright gold that shines just like the stones in the forest. The fisherman and Thongchai merge and become one, sharing a single identity until the fisherman himself washes up, injured and bearing the scars of his long journey home.

Yet the forest is always there, waiting, and all roads lead back to it in Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s elliptical tale. Thongchai digs but finds only death and emptiness, the colourful lights he softly danced to with the fisherman eerily echoed by the forest’s grim ghostliness and the glittery horror that stalks its natural beauty. Like the manta ray, Thongchai – a man without a name or a language, may be destined to a life of lonely floating broken by brief periods shelter and connection, always waiting for the storm to pass. Poetic and filled with images of extreme beauty, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s melancholy debut is a poetic meditation on identity and dislocation, arguing strongly for empathy and human warmth over fear and self-interest in an often cruel existence.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Actress vs. Greedy Sharks (小判鮫 お役者仁義, Tadashi Sawashima, 1966)

actress vs greedy sharks soundtrack albumA studio director at Toei, Tadashi Sawashima is best remembered for his work in the studio’s ninkyo eiga genre – prewar tales of noble gangsters, and samurai movies but he also made the occasional foray into the world of musical drama, teaming up with top name singing star Hibari Misora on a few of her historical action musicals. In 1966’s Actress vs. Greedy Sharks (小判鮫 お役者仁義, Kobanzame Oyakusha Jingi) Hibari once again plays a dual role though this time her casting is entirely arbitrary and the visual similarity of the legit actress and the acrobatic outlaw is never explicitly remarked upon.

The action opens with Shichi (Hibari Misora), an acrobat and member of a Robin Hood style band of outlaws (they don’t so much give to the poor as “share” with the less fortunate) interrupting the plot of Yamitaro (Yoichi Hayashi) – a nobleman in disguise to pursue revenge against corrupt lord Doi (Eitaro Shindo) who exiled his father to Convict Island when he began to raise questions about judicial corruption. Meanwhile, Yuki (also played by Hibari) is a top stage actress who is plotting against Doi for sending her father to Convict Island 20 years previously on a trumped up charge. Just as the “tomboyish” Shichi is beginning to fall for the mysterious Yamitaro, he teams up with Yuki to pursue their mutual quests for revenge which has Shichi feeling (needlessly, as it turns out) betrayed and vengeful.

Once again, the samurai order is shown to be corrupt beyond redemption. Doi, a greedy lord, is planning to sell off his only daughter, Ran (Yumiko Nogawa), as a concubine to the shogun. Meanwhile, he is also engaging in a rice profiteering scheme in order to bolster his financial resources. He is also still misusing his influence, just as he did when he had Yuki’s father sent to prison and got rid of Yamitaro’s so he couldn’t expose him.

As in her other movies, Hibari cannot allow this corruption to continue and becomes a thorn in the side of authority. However, the situation this time around is further complicated by her double casting in which she plays two visually identical characters who are, nevertheless, entirely unrelated and the resemblance between them entirely unremarked upon. The “tomboyish” Shichi, apparently falling in love for the first time much to the confusion of herself and others who regarded her lack of traditional femininity as a barrier to romance, becomes awkwardly resentful of the graceful Yuki whose charms she assumes will sway the handsome Yamitaro. Shichi does not seem to consider a class barrier between herself and Yamitaro as a problem but fears his natural affinity with a woman she perceives as superior to herself in her refinement, yet Yuki proves herself as staunch a fighter as Shichi and just as feisty. She appears to have little romantic interest in Yamitaro even if she resents Shichi’s rather blunt instructions to back off, and aside from concentrating on her revenge, spends the rest of the film dealing with the rescue of Doi’s daughter Ran who has drawn inspiration from her stage performances to rebel against her cruel fate and father.

Ran is just another symptom of her father’s corruption in his obvious disregard for her feelings as he prepares to send her off as a concubine to buy himself influence with only the mild justification that her ascendence to the imperial court is an honour even if she will never be a wife, only one of many mistresses. Unlike Ran, Yuki and Shichi have managed to seize their own agency, living more or less independently and as freely as possible within the society they inhabit. Experiencing differing kinds of bad luck and betrayal, they find themselves at odds with each other yet on parallel paths despite their obvious dualities.

With less space for song, Hibari’s dual casting does at least offer twice the fight potential as the outlaw and the actress finally find themselves on the same side to tackle the persistent injustice of Edo era society as manifested in the corrupt Doi and his slimy cronies gearing up for the mass brawl finale in which the wronged take their revenge on the wicked lord by proving him a villain in the public square and earning themselves not a little social kudos in the process. All of which makes the strangely melancholy ending exiling one aspect of Hibari to the outer reaches somewhat uncomfortable but then it does provide an excuse for another song.


Hibari’s musical numbers

Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Masahiro Takada, 2006)

honey and clover blu-rayAh youth! Chica Umino’s phenomenally popular manga Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー, Hachimitsu to Clover) is, essentially, a coming of age story in which love, requited and otherwise, plays a significant part. Masahiro Takada’s adaptation is no different in this respect as its central group of friends learn to come into themselves through various different kinds of heart break leading to soul searching and eventual self actualisation. The path to adulthood is rocky and strewn with anxieties, but has its own charms as our self branded Mr. Youth seems to have figured out, romanticising his own adolescence even while he lives it.

The action kicks off at an art college in Tokyo where a circle of friends is temporarily shaken by the arrival of a new student – a distant relative of a popular professor, Hanamoto (Masato Sakai). Our youth loving hero, Takemoto (Sho Sakurai), falls instantly in love with Hagu (Yu Aoi) – a genius self-taught painter with a dreamy, ethereal personality and negligible interpersonal skills. Hagu, however, seems to have developed a strange connection with conceited sculptor Morita (Yusuke Iseya) who continues to struggle with his conflicting interests in art and commerce. Meanwhile, geeky design student Mayama (Ryo Kase) has a problematic crush on his boss, Rika (Naomi Nishida), whose husband went missing some years ago, and has begun semi-stalking her. Unbeknownst to him, Mayama is also being semi-stalked by Yamada (Megumi Seki) – a spiky ceramicist who refuses to give up on her unrequited crush despite being fully aware of his one sided love for a brokenhearted middle-aged woman.

In actuality all of our protagonists are a little older than one might assume – all past the regular age for graduating college and either hanging around after being unable to complete their studies or pursuing additional training in the hope of furthering their art. They are all also hopelessly lost in terms of figuring out who they are – perhaps why they haven’t quite got a handle on their art, either. Hagu, younger than the others, seems to have an additional problem in existing outside of the mainstream, experiencing difficulties with communication and needing some additional help to get into the swing of college life. Perhaps for this reason, maverick professor Hanamoto palms her off on the “least arty” (read “most responsible”) of his students, Takemoto, who is tasked with accompanying her for meals – something for which he is quite grateful given his first brush with love on catching sight of her at her easel.

Hagu is also, however, the most sensitive and perceptive of the students even if she can only truly express herself through canvas. Her most instantaneous connection is with Morita, whose instinctive approach perhaps most closely mirrors her own though where Hagu is quiet and soulful, Morita is loud and impetuous. Watching him creating his centrepiece sculpture, Hagu is honest enough to tell Morita that he’s overdone it. Morita agrees but ends up exhibiting the piece anyway and not only that – he sells it for a serious amount of money despite knowing that it lacks artistic integrity. Hagu is unimpressed and her disapproval only adds to Morita’s sense of self loathing in his ambivalence towards to the fleeting rewards of superficial success versus the creation of artistic truth.

A similar sense of ambivalence imbues the romantic difficulties which neatly divide the group into a series of concentric love triangles. Takemoto, the selfless hero, realises the best thing he can do for Hagu is try to help Morita be less of a self-centred idiot while simultaneously dwelling on his fleeting youth and actively pursuing himself while debating whether or not to hit the road and leave his lovelorn friends to it. Mayama and Yamada, by contrast, are content to dance around each other, understanding the irony of their respective unreturned crushes while not quite bonding over them but both determined not to give up on their dreams (romantic and professional).

Despite the central positioning of our shy hero as he walks towards the end goal of being able to state his feelings plainly, the drama revolves around the enigmatic Hagu whose descent into an intense depression after an ill-advised moment on a beach is only eased by the careful attentions of her new friends finally realising that their artistic souls benefit from compassion for others rather than remaining solipsistically obsessed with their own romantic heartbreak. Despite its noble intentions, Honey and Clover misses the mark in charting the heady days of youth though our confused heroes do eventually manage to find themselves and each other along the road to adulthood as they chase down disappointments romantic and professional and discover what is they really want in the process.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Bell Tower (종각 / 鐘閣, Yang Ju-nam, 1958)

bell tower newspaper 1Yang Ju-nam directed only five films and spent the bulk of his career, which began in the mid-1930s, working as an editor. Making his directorial debut with Sweet Dream in 1936, Yang would not return to the director’s chair for 21 years, releasing Exorcism of Bae-Baeng-Yi in 1957. In 1958, however, he completed two more, The Bell Tower (종각 / 鐘閣, Jonggak, AKA The Bell Tower: Missing Another Dawn) following on from A Mother’s Love. Adapted from the novel by Kang Ro-hyang, The Bell Tower is a small scale affair starring two actors who would become giants of golden age cinema in a melancholy chamber piece charting the tragic history of mid-century Korea through the life stories of a bell maker and a lonely orphan.

The scene opens with a voice over from Yeong-sil (Moon Jeon-suk) who tells us that she has been staying in this temple for sentimental reasons seeing as she loves the sound of its bell and was once told that her father was a bell maker. Her story quickly gives way to that of the bell maker himself, Seok-sung (Heo Jang-gang), now very elderly and in poor health, who recounts his own sad life story in answer to her question about the bell. As a young man, Seok-sung had been in love with a young woman, Ok-bun, and planned to marry. After she died suddenly, he became a bell maker in honour of a promise he made her but met tragedy again when his mentor died, only latterly finding happiness with a widow who bore him a child only to lose them too.

Of course, we are conditioned to assume that Seok-sung must be Yeong-sil’s long lost father – after all, that’s how these stories go, but Yang keeps wrong footing us, not least through the triple casting of Moon Jeong-suk who plays each of the women Seok-sung meets throughout his life including the tragic Ok-bun, dead of appendicitis at only 19 and around 40 years previously. Then again, our perception of events is that of an old man’s memories – perhaps none of these women truly resembled Yeong-sil and Seok-sung has simply read her into his story as he leads her through the course of his life which eventually led him to creating his masterwork in the beautiful bell which now hangs in the temple.

Tellingly, Heo also turns up in Yeong-sil’s eventual flashback as we come to learn how it was she came to be staying in the temple. Her story and Seok-sung’s occupy differing temporal spaces, seemingly cleaved in two by historical circumstance. Seok-sung is man of Joseon whose long life story takes him into the age of occupation but his troubles are all those of an old world and not the new, until, that is the present day. Yeong-sil is a child of the colonial era whose life has been lived in the shadow of imperial violence though it is men of her own nation who seem to have betrayed her. A lonely orphan she made her way to the city but was tricked by a people trafficker who sold her to a mine as a sex slave. Falling in love with an indentured miner (Chan Min-ho), she managed to escape when the trafficker decided to sell her on a Japanese comfort woman station in China, but lives her life as a fugitive in fear of discovery, hiding from those who would misuse her but longing for her lover to return and a new life to start.

For Seok-sung the bell seems to toll mournfully as if in memory of things past, while for Yeong-sil it rings of determination, as if urging her not to give up rebelling against her fate. Yet the bell itself is doomed by the times of its creation. Now finding itself in the middle of a failing war, the bell is just hollow metal and soon to be melted down for military use. Having poured his heart, soul, suffering, and familial legacy into its creation, Seok-sung can hardly bear to see it put to such a sordid purpose. He would rather destroy his bell or take it with him than allow it to be sullied in such a way, but he is old and his gesture of rebellion futile.

Contrary to expectation, Yang ends on an ambivalent note as if anticipating a kind of limbo in which the present struggles to break free of the past but is, in essence, still waiting for something to begin rather than resolving to begin it. Beautifully framed and told almost entirely in flashback, The Bell Tower is a strangely melancholic meditation on post-war malaise and temporal dissonance as a dislocated father and daughter ponder on past and future while pulling at the threads of their miscommunication.


Available on DVD from the Korean Film Archive accompanied by a bilingual booklet featuring essays by film critics Kim Jong-won and Chung Sung-il, plus a documentary on the career of direct Yang Ju-nam. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.