What happens to the marginalised in times of trouble? Nothing good, might be the answer. To exist outside of the group, to be in some way other, is to be rendered vulnerable but there can also be a kind of strength in involuntary independence. Like the Japanese Ballad of Narayama, Kim Ki-young’s Goryeojang (고려장) envisages a world in which the old are expected to sacrifice themselves for the young, but unlike either Keisuke Kinoshita or the later Shohei Imamura, Kim struggles to find nobility in adherence to such a cruel and inhuman tradition.
Kim opens with a contemporary TV panel discussion on overpopulation (a key concern of the day) which strays uncomfortably into comparison with vermin, leading one expert to contribute that when short of food rats eat each other in order to survive so perhaps people should too. Moving swiftly on, the host turns to a historian who explains that in the distant past during times of war or famine, there was a tradition of abandoning the over-70s on mountains to reduce the burden on the rest of society.
Kim then shifts to the main narrative which takes place in the feudal “Goryeo” era. During a time of scarcity, a lord married four times already scorns the local shamaness to marry a young and beautiful widow with a young son. The shamaness claims that the lord’s 10 sons from his previous marriages are to blame for the failure of the relationship and vows revenge on the entire family. Meanwhile, new wife Keum (Ju Jeung-ryu) struggles to adjust herself to the household and is warned that none of the previous wives managed to endure it very long. Though the lord accepts her son Guryong as his own and tries to integrate him with his 10 new brothers, the boys fiercely reject him, especially when they hear about the shamaness’ curse which states that he is destined to kill them at some unspecified point in the future. The abuse culminates in an attempt to assassinate Guryong with a snake bite. He survives but is left with a lame leg. Keum realises she cannot stay in the lord’s house, and so he gives her a small plot of land and some money to support herself and her son.
20 years pass, during which time Guryong (Kim Jin-kyu) has managed to make a life for himself but the brothers are still obsessed with getting back the land that was given to him. When they find out that Guryong has amassed enough resources to consider marrying despite the fact that he is disabled and therefore considered undesirable, their rage intensifies. Guryong meanwhile has been trying to keep to himself, but is brokenhearted in unrequited love for a woman, Gannan (Kim Bo-ae), who rejects him because of his disability. He is eventually married off to a woman who is mute, considered a socially acceptable match for both, but the brothers kidnap and rape her in an attempt to extort Guryong for the deeds to the land. Unable to tell anyone what’s happened, she murders her attacker. Faced again with cruel tradition, Guryong does not resist.
After that, he goes back to minding his own business, but there are customs he will not follow including that of abandoning his mother on the mountain. 15 years later, drought and famine strike again. Keum worries that she is the cause and Guryong’s refusal to take her to the mountain has angered the gods. As supplies dwindle, the brothers make the most of their feudal powers, restricting access to the local well which is technically on their land, exchanging water for potatoes which are the only available source of food. Guryong, meanwhile, has spent the last few years quietly working away and has quite a sizeable crop of his own which makes him a rather wealthy and powerful figure, once again irritating the brothers. It’s at this point that a starving Gannan, now the mother of nine children, reappears and is forced to throw herself on Guryong’s mercy.
Marginalised because of his disability and fatherless status, Guryong has had to learn to survive alone and has prospered because of it, yet others regard him as a potential drain on their resources, an ill omen or harbinger of doom forever associated with the shamaness’ curse. With little to eat, people are forced to put their prejudices to one side but do so superficially. Gannan’s husband, dying of hunger, urges her to seduce Guryong and if possible marry him before he dies so that she won’t have to obey the custom of waiting three years in mourning before marrying again. Gannan is minded to sell her body, if that’s what it takes, but still reluctant to sell it to Guryong. In another case of socially acceptable partnering, she eventually sells one of her children to Keum to raise as a ward – Yeon, who is “imperfect” because of her pockmarked face.
Like Guryong, Yeon is brave and defiant, in some senses emboldened by her difference. She volunteers to go to Guryong because her siblings bully her over her face, but thinks nothing of cheerfully mocking Guryong’s limp or of talking back while playing the part of a servile daughter-in-law. She does, however, remain loyal to Gannan, stealing potatoes to sneak back to her family. The arrangement fails only when Keum decides it’s time to absent herself, that her presence is preventing Guryong uniting with Gannan and her children, but Guryong refuses to swap a mother for a wife and angrily rejects Gannan, beating her and the child believing them to have orchestrated a plot to get rid of Keum.
With the brothers hoarding food and Guryong keeping well out of it, the only solution proposed by the villagers involves the human sacrifice of a child. Guryong struggles to believe that they would really go that far, but finds himself again in the firing line when the brothers frame him for a murder and leave him at the mercy of the shamaness and her sacred tree. Spared only on the condition that he give in and take Keum to the mountain where she will pray for rain, he is forced into complicity with the cruelty of his times but his rage on his return knows no bounds. Realising he has been betrayed once again, he fulfils the shamaness’ prophecy, but is shaken by the words of one of the 10 as he attempts to stay his violence, insisting that they are not bad people and must embrace each other as brothers. He blames everything on the shamaness and her curse, which is of course a matter of a woman scorned. Guryong doesn’t quite buy that, the brothers were cruel to him because they could be even if the root cause was their father’s moral transgressions in his many marriages. He does, however, awaken to the inherent corruption of the world in which he lives embodied by the tyrannical authority of the shamaness and “Divine Spirit” manifested as the tree from which transgressors are hanged.
Kim never closes his framing sequence, the dark humour of the contemporary opening merely an introduction, but obliquely references the April Revolution of 1960 as Guryong takes an axe to the tree and frees himself from the shamaness’ control. According to Guryong, the tree kept the small evil out, but let the big one in. Taking the children by the hand, he leaves. “If there is someone to teach us, we can grow anything”, he tells them, it’s time to plant some seeds. Claiming his own freedom and rejecting his marginalisation, he steps forward into a better world out of the mountain’s shadow and free from the terrible tyranny of “tradition”.