Aside from the original 1960 version of The Housemaid (and this perhaps only because of its modern “remake”), mid 20th century Korean Cinema has been severely neglected overseas. Ha Kil-jong’s The March of Fools (바보들의 행진, Babodeul-ui haengjin) is almost unknown abroad but consistently tops Korean lists of the country’s best cinema and has been both enormously influential on later filmmakers and fondly remembered by audiences.
The story centres around two philosophy students, Byeong-tae and Yeong-cheol who are making the most of their youthful freedom. Beginning as a camp comedy, the film follows the pair as they rub up against oppressive squares who take issue with their longish hair (as in one comical sequence where they amusingly escape from a policeman who could do with a trim himself) or berate them for smoking on campus. They’re pretty broke most of the time but they each pay a couple of bucks to go to a mixer to meet girls and they both spend the rest of the movie chasing their respective ladies. Byeong-tae ends up leaving the party to meet his date, Young-ja, outside but she makes him wait for her at a snack stand before flirting with her professor to try and get a better grade. Only partially succeeding, she then asks Byeong-tae to write the paper for her in return for a proper date. Yeong-cheol has much less luck with Young-sook who declares him “boring” and walks out, but the pair meet again a few times later.
Yes, there are drinking parties and sports – the authentic “college” experience, but these are turbulent times and though Ha Kil-jong is prevented from including as much political action as he’d have liked, the subtext of student rebellion hangs in the background. The film caused trouble with the censors at the scripting stage and even once completed was subject to a number of cuts which removed all references to student protests or so called “immoral behaviour”.
The cheerfulness of the early part of the film is there to deepen the despair present in its later moments, though this same despair and desperation were the things the censorship office sought to dampen with their frighteningly effective yet often minimal cuts and changes to the innovative editing structure. All of these young people talk about their dreams for the future and mostly these are small personal things, no one talks about changing the world or getting into politics. However, all are also facing the fact that the dreams they’re chasing are unattainable. They have no positive future or freedom to change their own path – a job, a marriage, children, death. All mapped out already, but if you fall from one of the branches, there’s nowhere to go but down.
Young-ja sort of knows this, she jokes around by saying she wouldn’t marry Byeong-tae because they’re the same age. He’ll be drafted into the army, then have to finish university, so she’ll be “an old maid” before their lives can even get started. She would be better off to find an older man who’s already been through the army, finished his education and has a steady a job. Byeong-tae is also a philosophy student which doesn’t exactly scream employment potential either. Yet, when the couple are to be separated at the end of the film in a scene which has become a landmark in Korean cinema history, she shows her true feelings for the first time as, perhaps, she is about to watch her dream pull away from her.
Yeong-cheol keeps repeating the same strange dream of going whale hunting after he becomes rich. He also always rides a bicycle but every time someone asks him about it he looks confused and says “this is my car”. Yeong-cheol is the weedier of the pair and has failed the military examination which takes place at the beginning of the film because of his poor eye sight. He couldn’t go into the military even if he wanted to and is much less equipt in terms of his personality to cope with the quite turbulent environment of 1970s student radicalism with the constant university shutdowns and pressure from above to conform to the standards of the time.
The “Fools” of the title are the young people like Byeong-tae and Yeong-cheol who know everything is pointless but somehow persist with their ideals and maintain the idea, at least, of a brighter future even if not actively pursuing any kind of “revolution”. Ha Kil-jong was educated in America alongside such contemporaries as Francis Ford Coppola and brought some of that mid 1960s radicalism back with him when he returned to Korea in 1970. Because of the effects of the censorship placed on the film which not only required dialogue to be erased or scenes to be cut entirely but even disrupted the sequence of the editing, the finished film is not necessarily the one which Ha was trying make but does place him among one of the most innovative directors working in the comparatively difficult 1970s Korean Cinema environment. Sadly, after making two sequels to this film Ha Kil-jong died of a stroke at the tragically young age of only 38 robbing us of the masterpieces which would surely have followed. At least with the stunning restoration completed by the Korean film archive which presents the film in the “most complete” form possible, his vision might be more clearly seen by viewers around the world.
The March of Fools is the second film in the Korean Film Archive’s series of blu-ray releases and like the other films in the collection includes English subtitles for the main feature as well as for the commentary track but also features an English language commentary from Korean film expert Darcy Paquet as well as some of the censored footage and comes with a 42 page booklet in both Korean and English.
Unsubtitled extract from towards the end of the film: