Chinese-Korean director Zhang Lu has made a career of exploring the lives of those living on the margins of modern China and most particularly those of the ethnic Korean minority. 2005’s Grain in Ear (芒种, Máng zhòng, 망종, Mang Jong) brings this theme to the fore through the struggles of its stoic heroine who bears all her troubles with quiet fortitude until the weight of her despair threatens an already fragile sense of civility, consistently eroded by multiple betrayals, misuses, and an unforgettable othering. Yet she is not entirely alone in her outsider status even if there is precious little value in solidarity among the powerless in a world of circular oppressions.
32-year-old Cui Shun-ji (Liu Lianji) has moved to a small town with her young son Chang-ho (Jin Bo) following her husband’s conviction of a violent crime. Unable to find work, she ekes out a living illegally selling kimchi from a cart without a permit while Chang-ho busies himself playing with the neighbourhood kids in the rundown industrial town. Isolated not only as a newcomer but as a member of the ethnic Korean minority, Shun-ji keeps herself to herself but can’t help attracting the attentions of the locals some of whom are merely curious about her spicy side dishes while others are intent on helping themselves to things which aren’t actually on sale.
There is something peculiarly perverse about Shun-Ji’s decision to make her living selling kimchi. It is both an act of frustrated patriotism and a kind of commodification of her ethnicity though she seems to have intense pride in her ability to produce her national dish even if there is not often as much calling for it as she would like. Meanwhile, at home, Shun-ji virtually tortures little Chang-ho into trying to learn the Korean alphabet as a way of fastening him closely to his heritage and community, but Chang-ho is a Chinese boy to all intents and purposes. He may understand Korean, but he doesn’t want or need to speak it and resents his mother’s attempts to reinforce his Koreanness.
Meanwhile, despite her aloofness, Shun-ji eventually forms a kind of relationship with a lonely Korean-Chinese man, Mr. Kim (Zhu Guangxuan), who visits her cart. Brought together by a shared sense of loneliness and a connection born only of a mutual ethnicity, the pair drift into an affair but Shun-ji’s dreams of romantic rescue will be short lived. Her lover is a weak willed man married to a feisty Chinese woman who will stop at nothing to recapture her henpecked husband. Cornered, Kim tells his wife it’s not “an affair” because money changed hands, branding Shun-ji a prostitute and getting her arrested by the police to prove his point.
To be fair, Shun-ji’s married lover is another oppressed minority afraid of the consequences of non-compliance, but he’s also just one of the terrible men that Shun-ji will encounter in her quest towards independence and self sufficiency. Her husband killed a man for money and left his family to fend for themselves when he went to prison for it. Her lover called her a whore and left her at the mercy of the police. A man who offered to help with a lucrative kimchi contract turned out to be after another kind of spice, and the kindly policeman who stopped by her cart with tales of his impending marriage turned out not to be so nice after all.
In this fiercely patriarchal world, women like Shun-ji have no one to rely upon but each other. Marginalised by poverty, ethnicity, and unfamiliarity, Shun-ji and Chang-ho live in a small shack behind the railway next to the local sex workers. Chang-ho, too small to understand why everyone calls the women next-door “chickens”, treats them all like big sisters while a kind of solidarity emerges between Shun-ji and the melancholy youngsters from far away towns who’ve travelled to this remote place to ply their trade out of desperation, too ashamed to stay any closer to home. One of the sex workers tries to warn Shun-ji about Kim – men who buy their services are not especially good romantic material, but it’s advice that falls on deaf ears. Shun-ji wants to believe better of her compatriot, but her faith is not repaid.
Zhang, in a familiar motif, foregrounds Li Bai’s famous ode to homesickness, giving it additional weight in the mouth of little Chang-ho whose longing is for another kind of home in contrast to his mother’s continued need to believe in the solidarity of her community. Yet even she eventually loses faith, tearing up Chang-ho’s Hangul cards and finally allowing him to give up on his Koreanness. Having endured so much, Shun-Li’s broken spirit eventually leads her towards an inevitable explosion and a grim, strangely poetic revenge against the society which has so badly wronged her. Only in this final moment of transgression does Shun-ji begin to harvest her own freedom, but escape is still a long way off and her final act of defiance may only further condemn her in world of constant oppressions.
Grain in Ear was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.
Original trailer (Mandarin and Korean with Korean subtitles only)