Fisherman’s Fire (漁火 / 어화, Ahn Cheol-young, 1939)

vlcsnap-2019-02-18-01h49m56s589Late into the colonial era, Korean Cinema became heavily invested in selling the “one nation” idea. Signs of “Koreanness” such as language, dress, and customs were actively discouraged if not directly suppressed while censorship regulations prevented any negative comment on the Japanese empire. Back in Japan, however, there was an appetite for an exoticised view of the colonial landscape which in part played into the idea of Korea as a “backward” land in need of Japanese sophistication. 1939’s Fisherman’s Fire (漁火 / 어화, Eohwa) was directed in Korea by Ahn Cheol-young as a collaborative project between the studio he had co-founded, Keuk-gang Film Company, and the well established Japanese studio Shochiku where it is was “supervised” by Yasujiro Shimazu who prepared the film for Japanese audiences.

Like many Japanese films of the 1930s, Fisherman’s Fire revolves round a young woman from the country who is mis-sold dreams of freedom and urban sophistication only to be misused and betrayed by unscrupulous men. In-soon (Park Rho-kyeong), a fisherman’s daughter, is in love with local boy Chun-seok (Park Hak) but her family is poor and her father has taken on a huge debt from the local lord, Mr. Jang. In-soon longs to follow her friend Ok-boon (Jeon Hyo-bong) to Seoul where she might be able to earn money to help repay the debt but her family aren’t keen for her to go and even though Ok-boon has apparently been able to make an honest life for herself other girls gossip about those who went to the city with big dreams but ended up pressed into sex work.

When her father is lost at sea in a storm, Mr. Jang pressures In-soon’s mother to give him In-soon as a concubine in exchange for the debt. Horrified, In-soon doesn’t know what to do but is unexpectedly saved by Jang’s son Cheol-soo (Na Woong) who gives her mother the money to cancel the arrangement. In-soon ends up going to Seoul, where she has arranged to meet Ok-boon, with Cheol-soo but when she gets there discovers that he has ulterior motives. He traps her in his apartment for 10 days while claiming he has been unable to contact Ok-boon, eventually taking advantage of her before she is able to (temporarily) escape.

In-soon’s sorry tale is one familiar from Japanese cinema of the 1930s – that of a young woman who has been betrayed by an inconsistent level of modernity from which she receives only the dangers and none of the benefits. Then again, her village home was not so innocent – she was after all about to be sold as a concubine to a lecherous old man, meaning that this isn’t simply tale of the pastoral innocence versus urban sophistication. As we discover, Ok-boon found herself in a similar situation to In-soon but was able to escape it and not only that, she has also become “financially independent” which is what she encourages In-soon to become as the only way of freeing herself from the clutches of cads like Cheol-soo who press their patriarchal privileges in order to take advantage of naive girls like In-soon who haven’t been made aware they have the power to refuse.

Unlike the heroine of Sweet Dream whose desires of leading a more fulfilling life eventually lead to nothing but a dead end, In-soon is in a sense allowed to leave her disappointments behind in the city and, as Ok-boon surprisingly advises her, forget about what happened with Cheol-soo and live her life. Traumatised and shamed by her experience, In-soon eventually ends up in sex work, attempting suicide when confronted by a leering Cheol-soo, but discovers that her friends and family have not changed their opinion of her and though she may be looking at it with new eyes, her village is still as beautiful as it has always been.

The village’s visual beauty is, in a sense, the point in that the film was quite obviously made to showcase the idyllic country landscapes of the colonial territories along with the charming local customs which is perhaps why the film is bookended with documentary-style scenes of the fishing community singing and dancing to folksongs as well as including minor details like a shrine visit. Indeed, some Japanese critics felt the film had “failed” in its aims precisely because of In-soon’s eventual journey to the city which loses the feeling of local flavour they regarded as its selling point. What the Japanese audience craved was an exoticised vision of ultra-Koreanness that was in fact entirely created in Japan – something many felt the film did not sufficiently offer which is why it did not prove popular with audiences or critics. Supervised and prepared in Japan for Japanese audiences by Shochiku’s Yasujiro Shimazu, edited by Kozaburo Yoshimura, featuring music by the Ofuna Orchestra (repurposing a traditional Korean tune), and utilising a narrative familiar from domestic films, Fisherman’s Fire is an attempt to sell a manufactured vision of Korea as charmingly unsophisticated and rooted within the romantic pastoral past.

Nevertheless, it has its surprising elements such as the startlingly progressive Ok-boon whose independent city life is praised rather than criticised even if In-soon eventually retreats back to her idyllic village home. Cheol-soo, the feckless landlord’s son, gets a comeuppance for his wicked ways in being fired from his job for unreliability and incompetence which stands in for a kind of karmic punishment for his cavalier misuse of In-soon and other women like her in his attempt to assert his feudal entitlement in the improper environment of the modern city. Unlike the conservative Sweet Dream, Fisherman’s Fire finds scope and possibility for the young women of a new society and is prepared to be forgiving of them even when they fail.


Fisherman’s Fire was screened as part of the Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period season currently running at BFI Southbank. It is also available as part of the Korean Film Archive’s The Past Unearthed: the Second Encounter Collection of Chosun Films in the 1930s box set. Not currently available to stream online.

Volunteer (志願兵 / 지 원병, Ahn Seok-yeong, 1941)

volunteer still 1Despite a severe lack of manpower, Japan delayed opening its armies to potential soldiers from outside of the mainland until late in the war. A valuable propaganda tool, Korean cinema had become increasingly invested in the one nation idea, but convincing young men that they should willingly enlist to offer their lives in service of an imperial power was a much bigger ask. 1941’s Volunteer (志願兵 / 지 원병, Jiweonbyeong) was produced as a pure propaganda film designed to raise awareness of the volunteer soldier system the Colonial Government had instituted and thereby help to convince young men who felt oppressed or hopeless that their best chance for advancement lay in embracing rather than opposing the colonial regime.

The hero of the tale, Choon-ho (Choi Woon-bong), is a reluctant farm boy who has inherited his father’s estate and with it his position as the tenant farmer. Choon-ho’s big project is cultivating some land on the side of a hill next to his fields which has previously been left fallow. However, Choon-ho is a poor farmer and woefully inexperienced (a fact which can perhaps be forgiven given his relative youth). He is a constant source of resentment and consternation in the local farming community with many old hands throwing their weight behind his rival, Duk-sam, who has been agitating for the position of tenant farmer since he and Choon-ho’s father were young. Eventually the landlord, Mr. Park, decides to fire Choon-ho and promote Duk-sam, leaving him dejected and hopeless. That is until, of course, he is bitten by the patriotism bug and realises that his demotion is really a good thing because now he can devote himself fully to serving his nation.

Well, perhaps not quite – at this point Korean men are still not permitted to join the army, something which seems to irk Choon-ho, adding to his deep seated sense of personal inadequacy in being deemed not quite a proper citizen and definitely not equal to a man born on the Japanese mainland. Nevertheless, the film opens with a joyous celebration of locals sending off a troop train filled with young men who are able to serve. Flags are flown, chants are shouted, and the men inside the train are feted like heroes as they prepare to defend their country with their lives if necessary.

To Choon-ho, who now feels as if he has failed on almost every level as a man, the army offers a very real opportunity to prove himself someone worthy of respect. Not only has Choon-ho failed at farming, he also risks failure at romance in dallying over his long delayed marriage to beautiful fiancée Boon-ok (Moon Ye-bong) who has been waiting patiently for the last few years. Duk-sam, not content with wrestling the tenancy position away from Choon-ho, is also intent on having Boon-ok marry one of his sons and has a very real chance of breaking the engagement now that Choon-ho is no longer in such a privileged position.

Meanwhile, it also seems that Park’s younger sister Soo-ae, who is now a fancy modern lady living in Seoul, has a soft spot for Choon-ho, arousing a degree of hopeless jealously in Boon-ok who believes she is not really good enough for him owing to her lack of education and unsophisticated country ways. The real drama however occurs as Choon-ho falls out with his best friend when he suspects him of attempting to woo Boon-ok in one of her lowest moments. His friend’s “transgression” not only disrupts their relationship, but further exacerbates Choon-ho’s sense of wounded masculinity as he faces the fact another man might have been about to steal his girl out from under him.

The army has always been a prime path to advancement for young men from disadvantaged backgrounds, offering a steady pay check, career path, and training in valuable skills but ideologically speaking these benefits are unlikely to convince many to risk their lives in service of a colonial power they may privately feel to be oppressive. Then again, the army was not particularly looking for ordinary young men from the fields but for middle-class, well educated ones like Choon-ho. It is therefore doubly interesting that Choon-ho is sold not on the benefits of army, but on his own inadequacy and on militarism as its cure. Watching boys playing soldier, he begins to fantasise about himself as an almost faceless component of a perfectly oiled machine marching relentlessly forward into an ordered future free of the burden of choice or personal responsibility.

When the army opens itself up to Korean men, Choon-ho feels seen and whole, a fully fledged citizen with rights and duties to which he now intends to devote himself entirely. Mr. Park, who demoted him for his failure to make an impact, now suddenly respects him on seeing his name among those of the volunteer soldiers listed in the paper. So that we can be sure that Choon-ho’s decision is not “selfish” or unfilial, Park decides to support his family while he’s away serving so that his mother and sister will be well looked after and he won’t need to worry about them. Meanwhile, Boon-ok, wearing a sash denoting her as a member of the patriotic women’s association, is happy and relieved that Choon-ho has found his purpose, urging him to go on to be a great soldier serving his nation. It’s her face, rather the cheering, flag waving masses, that Ahn leaves us with as she watches the man she loves ride away towards a supposedly brighter future, staring directly into the camera with something that looks like pride mixed with mild accusation.


Volunteer was screened as part of the Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period season currently running at BFI Southbank. It is also available as part of the Korean Film Archive’s The Past Unearthed: the First Encounter box set. Not currently available to stream online.

Sweet Dream (迷夢 / 미몽, Yang Ju-nam, 1936)

Sweet Dream still 2The picture one gets of the 1930s is largely one of fear and oppression, especially in Korea under the increasingly brutal Japanese colonial regime, but then it was also a time of intense social flux in which the continuing influence of Western culture and the effects of the great depression placed the traditional way of life into question. 1936’s Sweet Dream (迷夢 / 미몽, Mimong, lit. “delusion”) is, at the time of writing, the oldest extant sound film, and perhaps attempts to kick back against the “corruptions” of the modern age in telling a tragic story of ruined motherhood in which a young woman’s desire for material wealth and a social freedom eventually draws her to her doom.

Our “heroine” is Ae-soon (Moon Ye-bong), a married wife and mother who resents the restrictive nature of her life and attempts to escape it through embracing the “modern” hobby of shopping – with her husband’s money of course, while neglecting her young daughter Jeong-hee (Yoo Seon-ok) whom she perhaps sees as a symbol of the forces which make her a prisoner of her own home. It’s on a shopping trip that she begins her descent into ruin when she’s spotted by the extremely suspicious-looking Chang-geon (Kim In-gye) who swipes her handbag while she’s busy wrapping up purchases only to give it back to her as a kind of meet cute. Nevertheless, Ae-soon is smitten, especially as she believes that Chang-geon is extremely wealthy. Kicked out by her husband for her increasingly unacceptable behaviour, Ae-soon moves in with Chang-geon at his hotel and embarks on the fun loving and fancy free life of her dreams.

As might be expected, the film does not end there and Ae-soon will pay for her “selfish” choice to pursue pleasure in her own life rather than channelling all of her hopes and desires into her family as a woman is expected to do. Truth be told, Ae-soon is not a particularly sympathetic woman, especially as her husband Seon-yong (Lee Keum-ryong) is portrayed as kind, sensitive, and devoted to his daughter who is clearly his primary point of concern in his dealings with his wife. It is therefore difficult to sympathise with her dissatisfaction in her married life which, externally at least, appears comfortable, stable, and close to the ideal that many young women would hope for in a society which continues to favour arranged marriage.

What Ae-soon wants is something which a woman is not allowed to have – freedom. Then again, the film asks us to set aside the natural desire to be free and see Ae-soon’s refusal to conform as a corruption born of excess modernity. Rather than abandon her home to pursue a career or a dream, Ae-soon leaves in pursuit of a man and even then she pursues him not for reasons of love or desire but greed. No sooner has Ae-soon begun to discover that Chang-geon is not all he claimed to be than she’s planning the next conquest in chasing a famous dancer she quite liked the look of at the theatre the previous evening when Chang-geon skipped out to meet a “business associate” leaving her feeling neglected. Unable to chase material success off her own bat, she chases it through men by using her sexuality which places her at the wrong end of just about every social code going even while she herself continues to abide by the tenets of those social codes by remaining in a monogamous relationship with Chang-geon which is in reality not so different from her marriage save for the absence of her daughter, the fact they live in a serviced hotel, and the illusion of having more money and with it more social power.

Ae-soon is no Nora. Her decision to abandon her daughter isn’t born of a sudden awakening to the destructive effects of patriarchy (which the film otherwise belittles in its casting of Ae-soon’s dissatisfaction as a dislike of housework), but of “mistaken” ambition which, paradoxically, she pursues through trading up her sexual partners in order to increase her material wealth and social standing. Ae-soon rejects her maternity and with it her daughter because she wishes to assert her own identity and finds it impossible to maintain both within the society in which she lives, but allowing a woman to reject the ideas of home and family, as Ibsen had done 50 years previously, is too dangerous an idea for the Korea of 1936 and so Ae-soon’s “sweet dream” is in effect a siren song which will lead her down a dark path towards the only redemption possible for a woman who has betrayed the very idea of what society believes a woman to be.

Strangely enough, Sweet Dream was commissioned as a public information piece sponsored by the Choman Traffic Office as the first “traffic film” intended to increase awareness of traffic safety which is why the subject features so prominently throughout culminating the heavily foreshadowed traffic accident that provokes Ae-soon’s reawakening to her latent maternity. Understandably unhappy, the sponsors requested that the next traffic film be “more cheerful and artistic” yet what could be more symbolic (except perhaps a train) of the dangers of modernity than a speeding motorcar? Ae-soon should perhaps have learned to look both ways and cross when the going’s clear, but then again the film seems to insist that the safest place for her to be is inside the cage, that the only path to “happiness” lies in learning to accommodate oneself within its confines as any attempt to deviate from the accepted course will lead to disaster not only for the individual but for society as a whole.


Sweet Dream was screened as part of the Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period season currently running at BFI Southbank. It is also available as part of the Korean Film Archive’s The Past Unearthed: the Second Encounter Collection of Chosun Films in the 1930s box set, as well as online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.

Angels on the Street (집 없는 천사, Choi In-kyu, 1941)

By 1941, Korea had been under Japanese colonial rule for over 30 years and was subject to the same kinds of increasingly oppressive militarism as Japan itself. This of course included tightly controlled censorship of the arts which eventually edged towards the suppression of all Korean language cinema. Nevertheless, even while superficially obeying censorship directives, conflicted directors were able to subtly undercut the desired effect by foregrounding other concerns. Choi In-kyu’s Angels on the Street (집 없는 천사, Jibeopneun cheonsa) is a case in point in its focus on impoverished children and the Christianising forces which eventually “save” them.

The two youngsters at the centre of the tale, teenage older sister Myeong-ja (Kim Sin-jae) and her little brother Yong-gil (Lee Wuk-ha), seem to be orphans and have been taken in by a street family led by Mr. Kwon who forces them to sell flowers and other small items in return for food and shelter. The kids get into trouble when Yong-gil spends some of the money on sweets rather than bringing it all home for which he is severely punished, leading Mr. Kwon and his wife to further press Myeong-ja to become a bar girl so that her brother won’t be hungry anymore. Hearing Myeong-ja give in, Yong-gil runs away hoping to spare his sister such an unpleasant fate. While he falls in with a troop of street kids and is eventually “rescued” by a socially minded minister, Father Bang (Kim Il-hae), Myeong-ja eventually finds an ally in a drunken doctor who often comes into the bar where she sells flowers and offers to take her in as a trainee nurse.

What is clear is that poverty and its associated problems are rife leading to a large number of orphaned, abandoned, and runaway children living on the streets where they remain extremely vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous adults like Mr. Kwon. Then again, the kindly intentions of Father Bang are in themselves not unproblematic. As in many of these kinds of films, Father Bang is only interested in rescuing boys whom he later sets up in a kind of dorm/commune where he can “reform” them into upstanding, respectable young men filled with Christian virtues. His end goals allow him to overlook that his approach is also exploitative in that he requires the boys to fix up a barn he has borrowed from his embittered brother-in-law Dr. Ahn (Kang jeong-ae) to make it into a place fit for habitation and thereafter expects them to work, in this case making noodles, to provide economic support for the entire enterprise.

Father Bang seems to have spent at least some time in Germany, as has his brother-in-law, and has a deep seated protestant work ethic that perhaps leads him to feel that “hard work” is the best way of reforming these otherwise feral children whom he sees as lazy and selfish. Nevertheless, he is profiting directly from their labour in much the same way as Kwon even if his end goals are different. Like Dr. Ahn, who seems to have become cynical and embittered after losing his wife in believing that the children are beyond saving and all Bang’s efforts merely futile, Father Bang has committed wholly to protestantism in so far as giving both his children European Christian names while his wife has also taken the name of Maria (Moon Ye-bong). This seems like a fairly controversial step when many Koreans are being encouraged to abandon their birth names in favour of adopting new Japanese ones, let alone that militarists might not be keen on the introduction of religious themes which, sometimes but not exclusively, conflict with their prevailing ideology.

That aside, Bang appears to align himself with the colonial elite rather than native Korean nationalism. When introducing Yong-gil to his new “brothers”, he points out the smallest one as a promising bugler who will one day make a fine volunteer soldier. Later the same boy is pictured blowing his bugle with the Japanese flag flying somewhat heroically above him, while the boys who generally speak Korean with one another freely reel off the Imperial Rescript with relative ease. Choi subtly undercuts the essential propaganda effects of including the pledge in having Bang add a post-script of his own credo which is essentially repackaged Christian virtues but allows the implication to remain that Bang is preparing these young men to become muscle for an imperial power even if inculcating in them a notion of moral goodness (indeed, there is also perhaps the implication that these boys stand in for a “Korea” in need of moral education which can be earned through exerting themselves to become more “Japanese” as in Ahn’s final assurance that they will become “excellent people” “of great service to our country” if they continue to heed Bang’s teachings).

“Goodness” however seems to win out as even the villainous Kwon is made to renounce his life of exploitative criminality and Dr. Ahn’s sense of social justice is reawakened on seeing the effect Bang has had on the previously directionless boys. After completing Angels on the Street, Choi would refuse to make any more pro-Japanese films for the next three years before being convinced to return by committed rightist Han Hyung-mo, filming a trilogy of similarly compromised dramas before doing a complete about face in 1946 by directing the very first post-liberation film Hurrah! For Freedom which, ironically enough, celebrated the activities of the Resistance during the final days of occupation.


Angels on the Street was screened at the Korean Cultural Centre in conjunction with the Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period season currently running at the BFI Southbank. It is also available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s The Past Unearthed box set (currently OOP). Not available to stream online.

Short scene from the end of the film featuring the Imperialist Rescript (Japanese with Korean subtitles )

The Hand of Fate (運命의 손 / 운명의 손, Han Hyung-mo, 1954)

Hand of fate poster 2The kinds of directors who tend to garner retrospectives and reappraisals are perhaps those who lean closer to our own ideological biases. Even in the tightening censorship of the 1960s, Korean directors like Kim Soo-yong and Lee Man-hee were able to subtly undercut the prevailing conservatism of their times. Director Han Hyung-mo, by contrast, was a committed rightist whose films express a distinct intolerance towards liberalism, women’s rights, and the Communist North. Han, like many directors of his generation, studied filmmaking in Japan near the end of the Colonial era and began his career as a cinematographer. His first film, Breaking the Wall released in 1949, is sometimes described as the first Korean anti-communist film. Returning to narrative filmmaking after serving as a documentarian during the Korean War, Han’s Hand of Fate (運命의 손 / 운명의 손, Unmyeong-ui Son, AKA Hand of Destiny) released in 1954 is not perhaps as rabidly anti-communist as might be expected but makes clear that there can be no redemption for an ideologically compromised woman.

Jung-ae (Yu In-ja), a North Korean spy posing as a bar girl in the South, enjoys a life of comparative freedom and luxury but remains committed to her mission. When the police bring a wounded student, Yong-chul (Lee Hyang), to her door one day as a possible suspect in a robbery she’d previously reported to them, she takes pity on the man and tells the police to let him go. She brings him into her apartment, treats his wounds, and feeds him. For some reason she develops an attraction for the melancholy student and so when she spots Yong-chul working on a construction site, Jung-ae takes him out on the town, buys him a new suit and shoes, and eventually begins a relationship with him. Professional habits die hard, however, and so when she rifles through his wallet she is disturbed to find his military intelligence ID card and discover he is really a spy catcher.

Released in 1954, Hand of Fate is a product of the immediate post-war era and is in fact one of the very few surviving films from that year. Nevertheless, it takes its cues very much from international cinema and particularly from American and European noir and spy films in its fatalistic trajectories and uncharacteristically murky worldview. Though Han includes mild anti-communist sentiment in Jung-ae’s eventual disillusionment with the “Communist Party’s hackneyed methods”, the fact that she is a spy for the North is almost incidental for much of the film, the conflict being not that she is a Communist and therefore evil but on a much simpler level that she is required to straddle a difficult ideological divide. Of course, the force that shakes her loyalty is love and in this Han reaffirms her womanliness in simultaneously making emotion both her weakness and the best weapon against the rigidity of Communism. Then again, rightists aren’t so keen on emotion either and so romance must fail.

Both Jung-ae and Yong-chul come to the conclusion that their only mistake was falling in love – not so much with an “enemy” but across an impossible border presented by the 38th Parallel. The futility of the love is laid firmly at the feet of a destructive division imposed by outside powers which painfully separates two parts of one whole. “We love each other, why can’t we be together?” Yong-chul asks, still unaware that Jung-ae is the female spy he’s been looking for. “You’re so close to me now”, Jung-ae adds later, “Why have we been so far apart?”, lamenting that the wall which has kept them at a distance from one another has been largely illusionary and has now been destroyed if only in terms of personal ideology. Rather than the demonisation of the North which would define the anti-communist film, it is the pain of the division which is the real enemy though in contrast to other similarly themed films, Han suggests a clean break might be the best solution rather than holding out hope for reunification.

Meanwhile, the pair work at cross purposes in misattributing the suffering of the other to culturally defined, gender-specific stigmas. Yong-chul assumes Jung-ae’s misery is down to being a “fallen woman”, that as a sex worker she worries she has lost the right to love him (he is keen to assure her that she hasn’t and there’s nothing wrong her life choices – a liberality that stands in contrast to the film’s subtle condemnation of Jung-ae on just this fact as a woman who uses her body as a tool of war), when really she is caught in an impossible position in having fallen in love with a man she will probably have to kill. Before discovering his real occupation, Jung-ae assumed Yong-chul’s misery was down to his poverty. She feels the manual job he takes to support himself through college is beneath him, indulging in a stigma towards blue collar workers which seems odd for a committed communist, and wants to “save” him by restoring him to his rightful social class with her money which she earned in a way she fears he may think immoral.

Despite Han’s fierce conservatism, Hand of Fate features the first on screen kiss in Korean cinema history but where it is undoubtedly romantic, it is also dark and fatalist. In keeping with the title and the noirish atmosphere, the narrative trajectory leads only to tragedy in which the division will be maintained with the South in the ascendent. Jung-ae’s ideological fracturing leaves her with nowhere to turn, while Han’s overly conservative viewpoint will not allow her to find peace or resolution not only because of her Communist roots but because of being an “immoral” and “vulgar” woman as she describes herself early on. Described as “An epoch-marking, ambitious work in the history of Korean Cinema”, Hand of Fate is indeed a bold experiment, opening with a tense, dialogue free sequence of spy craft and danger even if it later overdoes the expressionism with climactic thunderstorms and overly literal bombs (not to mention the constant hand imagery), offering a dark and noirish vision of a divided future in which the pain and suffering caused by the division will continue with the only “hope” that the wall will eventually become a fading scar.


The Hand of Fate is available on English subtitled DVD courtesy of the Korean Film Archive which also includes a special documentary, a video essay by film scholar Kim Jong-won, and an interview with art director Non In-taek, as well as a bilingual booklet featuring a brief commentary on the film and an essay by the Korean Film Archive’s Jo Jun-hyung. Also available to view via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Brief clip (dialogue free)

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 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.