Lee Man-hee’s Late Autumn is one of the great lost gems of ‘60s Korean cinema and despite its unavailability has been remade three times in Korea and once in Japan. Kim Ki-young’s version, Promise of the Flesh (肉体의 約束 / 육체의 약속, Yukche-ui Yaksok), arrives two years after the acclaimed Japanese remake directed by Koichi Saito and takes a decidedly different, frustratingly ambivalent approach in which its heroine’s imprisonment is directly linked to emotional frigidity and a refusal to submit herself to the social conventions of womanhood which include home, family, and being sexually available to men.
We first meet Sook-young (Kim Ji-mee) taking a train to meet someone she is fairly certain will not be coming. While travelling she recalls a previous journey during which she met a man who changed her life – the very man she is now travelling to (not) see. Before that fateful day, however, Sook-young had endured an extremely troubling history of long term sexual abuse at the hands of various men all of whom expected her to surrender her body to them to do with it what they wanted. Eventually Sook-young snapped and killed a man who was trying to make love to her, getting herself sent to prison where she gradually fell into suicidal despair. In an effort to reawaken her sense of being alive, a kindly prison guard (Park Jung-ja) agreed to escort her to visit her mother’s grave which is how she met Hoon (Lee Jung-gil) – the first man we see being “nice” to her, which in this case extends to buying her a box lunch on the train.
Kim has a noticeably ambivalent attitude to female sexuality which eventually embraces the socially conservative, casting Sook-young’s plight as a great moral wrong but also insisting that her salvation lies in unwanted sex with a “nice” man as if that would somehow show her that “not all men” are violent sex pests and thereby make it possible for her to fulfil her “natural duties” as a woman by marrying and raising children. “A woman’s role is raising a child – everything else is pointless” Sook-young is instructed by a man who turns out to be, once again, deceiving her. Gradually we get the feeling that Sook-young has wound up in prison not because, as she later claims, the weight of all her degradations suddenly crushed her but because she attempted to live a life without men and is being punished for it.
At her first job interview, undertaken because her parents passed away and she had to leave university, Sook-young is advised to guard her body until she can “cope with men” otherwise she’ll “become a whore like all the others”. Shy and nervous, she is bullied into sex by a belligerent customer who turns out to have done it as some kind of rape revenge on behalf of a slighted friend to whom he later passes her on. Just about every man she meets, until Hoon, is after her body and nobody seems to think Sook-young has any right to refuse them access to it. Kim may lament the subjugated position of women in Korean society in condemning the actions of these “bad men”, but still insists that Sook-young needs “fixing” through finding a good man as a means to curing her despair.
This is why the prison guard enlists Hoon to teach Sook-young that “a woman needs a man” and that there is joy still in the world. Originally reluctant, Hoon decides to do just that by convincing her that she is wrong to be so mistrustful because human beings are basically good. Unfortunately he chooses to this in exactly the same way as all the other men she’s ever known – by pushing her into a dark corner and attempting to seduce her. In this case however it seems to work. Claiming she is too lonesome to ignore him, Sook-young is swept into Hoon’s rather romantic view of the world, little realising that he too is a fugitive from justice and will also have to pay for having become involved with the wrong people. Nevertheless, through meeting him, Sook-young affirms that she has been able to find a new capacity for living and convinced herself that “the meaning of life is to marry a good guy and live well”.
Socially conservative as it is, the message is undercut by the persistent melancholy that defines Sook-young’s existence even as she declares herself cured of her past traumas and vows to live on free of her “delusion of persecution”. Nevertheless, the picture Kim paints of Korean society is one of socially acceptable misogyny in which even women insist that women are nothing without men and the primacy of the male sex must be respected. At once resigned and angry, Kim paints Sook-young’s capitulation as a positive motion towards conformity but refuses to fully condemn the conservative society which has caused her so much misery.