The General’s Mustache (장군의 수염 / 將軍의 수염, Lee Seong-gu, 1968)

General's Mustache posterBroken dreams of the post-war society prove too much for one man to bear in Lee Seong-gu’s masterpiece of Korean Modernism – The General’s Mustache (장군의 수염 / 將軍의 수염, Janggun-ui Suyeom). Adapted from the novel by Lee O-young, Lee’s film co-opts the procedural but subtly subverts it, taking a cue from the film noir to turn it in on itself and ask if we can truly ever know another person, or if we simply conjure an image of everyone we know based on a collection of external observations gathered by ourselves and others. Our hero, Cheol-hun (Shin Seong-il), is a melancholy man who has chosen to live in a world of his own creation but when his shield of artifice is pierced by a spear of reality he can endure it no longer. Cheol-hun is dead, but who, if anyone, killed him and can we ever really understand why he died without his words to guide us?

Lee opens with a scream as Cheol-hun’s landlady discovers his body, draped half naked over his bed next to a stove with the safety cover removed. Concluding that carbon monoxide poisoning is likely the cause of death, the police find the panicked landlady suspicious but leave with three clues – a ladies’ stocking, a missing camera, and the scar on Cheol-hun’s forehead. The stocking takes them to Cheol-hun’s ex, who tells them that Cheol-hun gave his camera to a “nude model” which was perhaps a point of tension between the two, but not apparently the reason they decided to separate. The scar, ruining the detective’s (Kim Seung-ho) theory, turns out to be an old one – received in infancy when his exhausted mother (Han Eun-jin) dropped an iron on his head after a long day at the press.

After the testimony from Cheol-hun’s mother, the scar seems incidental but turns out to be anything but. Cheol-hun’s mother blames herself for his childhood injury (as any mother would) and has spent her life worrying about him, believing that the scar itself has been the cause of all his misfortune and sent him off on an unlucky path. From Cheol-hun’s sister (Kim Sin-jae) we learn that the family was once wealthy – local landowners who valued their “aristocratic” blood. After the war all that ended. The land was given back to the people, and Cheol-hun’s family were stripped of not only of their prestige but of their means of living. Nevertheless, Cheol-hun’s austere father refused to let his children play with the “commoners”, and so little Cheol-hun’s loneliness was born.

The testimony of Cheol-hun’s former boss reinforces the view that Cheol-hun was an eccentric loner, ill equipped for life in the “real” world. A former photojournalist, Cheol-hun lost his job as a result of a disastrous interview with a recently returned scholar who had enjoyed some minor success in America. The scholar, having been abroad five years, peppers his speech with random English and puts up a pretence of having forgotten his Korean. He complains that Korean kimchee is too spicy, and suggests that the key to improving the “backward” nation lies in “reforming” the cuisine. Cheol-hun, becoming ever more irritated, offers a few barbed comments but cannot contain himself when the kids, “John” and “Mary” who do not speak any Korean, arrive. American names, he points out, are usually associated with dogs and sex workers – why would you give them to your children if you plan to live in Korea? Needless to say, the interview is over.

Cheol-hun has now been characterised as a man who cannot read the air, but it’s time to hear from him too though it will have to be second hand. Shin-hye (Yoon Jeong-hee), the girlfriend, radically changing under testimony broadly agrees with this view of the man she loved but could no longer live with. Cheol-hun told her that he’d never been good with people and had no real friends save one in the army – interestingly enough a man descended from royalty, but that he died leaving Cheol-hun alone again with the lingering guilt that he was unable to save his only friend. His tragedy is that he yearns for true connection, to truly become one with another person, but he cannot achieve it. His life with Shin-hye crumbles not because of “reality” but because Shin-hye craves the real – to live in the real world where people bleed and hurt. She cannot live with Cheol-hun in his escapist paradise, but he cannot bear to leave it.

The title of the film comes from the book that Cheol-hun wanted to write. In the story, a victorious general fighting for “independence” returns to his “liberated” country. The general is dashing and brave and he has on his face the most magnificent mustache. A weedy reporter giddily asks him if he too might dare to grow such a wonderful mustache to which the general cooly assents. Before long a mustache craze sweeps the nation. Even those who cannot grow a mustache of their own have taken to wearing wigs, but our protagonist says no. He doesn’t want a moustache and refuses to wear one. He loses his job, but it remains open whether the fact of his not having a mustache (which no one forces him to have) or his melancholy loneliness in not wanting to have one and not understanding why everyone else does is the cause of all his suffering. 

The quote at the film’s beginning, painted on Cheol-hun’s maddeningly crowded walls, reads “I refuse to, That’s why I’m alive”. Yet it isn’t quite a refusal so much as a lack of capacity. Cheol-hun’s boss had a point when he said that Cheol-hun was fundamentally unsuited to living in human society, as did Shin-hye when she described him as a lonely child in need of a guardian. If anything killed Cheol-hun, it was loneliness – a revelation which profoundly shakes the conviction of the veteran detective. After all, you can’t put handcuffs on spiritual isolation. The detective thinks of his family, and decides to take a watermelon home to share with them as means of reinforcing his own shallow connections but it’s clear that his conception of the world, of his abilities as a detective and the entire framework of his existence have been irreparably compromised by his investigation into the life and death of Kim Cheol-hun.

Partly a satirical swipe at post-war conformity, Lee’s film also subtly subverts a popular trope from the anti-communist genre in its apparent sympathy for landlords. Cheol-hun’s loneliness is posited as a direct result of his “fall” from his rightful position – the only friend he ever makes is also a fallen nobleman, and he struggles to adapt himself to the “classless” society of the “democratic” era. Yet it’s precisely these outdated ideas of “class” that have ruined his life in his father’s refusal to let him play with the other children. Cheol-hun retreats to a fantasy childhood world to avoid the harshness of modern life, but cannot escape his loneliness or his longing and when he realises Shin-hye is not the soulmate with whom he thought he could forge a new, perfectly isolated paradise, his entire existence becomes impossible.

Lee conjures a mosaic of Cheol-hun composed of the memories of those around him, gradually thickening in texture and finally coming into focus but always only a simulacrum of a man and not the man himself. Adopting a standard procedural narrative, Lee adds in extensive flashback and hypothetical dramatisations as the police investigate, switching to black and white for raw hypotheses and even breaking into elegantly drawn animation to recreate the surreal world of Cheol-hun’s putative novel. Dark and sad, The General’s Mustache seems to imply that there is no answer for solitude, that you can never really know another person fully, and that the loneliest man of all is the one born without a “mustache”, already naked of face in having no final mask to expose but finding that no one wants to see his true self only the one which is demanded he wear to appear just like everyone else.


The General’s Mustache is the third film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Heavenly Homecoming to Stars (별들의 고향, Lee Jang-ho, 1974)

%EB%B3%84%EB%93%A4%EC%9D%98_%EA%B3%A0%ED%96%A52In writing the original novel which inspired Heavenly Homecoming to Stars, Choi In-ho stated that he wanted to tell the story of “a woman whom a city killed”. The novel itself was first serialised in a newspaper where it quickly became a must read and popular discussion point among readers of all ages. It’s perhaps less surprising then that this completely radical film adaptation by first time director Lee Jang-ho proved to be the big cinema hit of 1974. A new “youth culture” movement was beginning inspired by social and political developments from overseas and there was a growing appetite for films and novels which were equally revolutionary. Heavenly Homecoming to Stars managed to provide this but also, crucially, was able to appeal to older age ranges too thanks to its re-imagining of classical melodrama.

In essence, Heavenly Homecoming to Stars is a traditional “fallen woman” narrative. Told in non-linear fashion, the film follows the sorry tale of Gyeong-a and her relationships with four different men each of whom contributes to her downfall. At the earliest point we see her she’s a cheerful young woman like any other working in an office in the city. She finds first love with her co-worker and the pair plan to marry but before they do Yeon-seok pressures her into sex. It’s at this point that everything goes wrong for her as in order to acquiesce to his desires, she begins drinking.

Later she winds up marrying a middle-aged widower with a young daughter but Man-jun is not the man she thought he was and is still nursing a wound from having driven his first wife to suicide through his jealous and increasingly erratic behaviour. After finding out about Gyeong-a’s past, he too leaves her.

Man three is Dong-heok, a rough and violent pimp who turns her into a bar hostess which only increases her reliance on alcohol. Before we meet the quasi-hero of our story, melancholy artist Mun-ho, Gyeong-a is already an alcoholic and well on the way to her own ruin.

Truthfully, Mun-ho may have been able to save Gyeong-a, but he doesn’t. We already know that things don’t end well for her – the film begins with its epilogue as Mun-ho carries a little white box full of ashes across a frozen forest. Hers is a sorry tale though one that’s been told hundreds of times over the course of history and, sadly, will likely continue to be told for centuries to come. Choi In-ho says the city killed her, but it’s only partly “the city” – what it really is is a cruel and patriarchal society which permits men to use and discard women relegating them to a kind of underclass from which it is impossible to escape. Gyeong-a is a woman among hundreds who came to the city in search of a better life and contributed to Korea’s modernisation but found herself sacrificed its name.

Having said that the tone is one of sadness much more than anger. The strict censorship practices of the time placed severe limitations on what could be expressed in a film such as this though, sadly, the ballad of Gyeong-a is one audiences of all ages could identify with. Though it condemns the behaviour of the men in Gyeong-a’s life it does not so much call for change as for lament. Gyeong-a was young, naive and in need of protection which she was denied at every turn – first from the anonymous and unfeeling city and then by its self centred men who took what they wanted from her and callously discarded her afterwards when she no longer fulfilled their standards of a “pure woman”.

Yet, Gyeong-a remains a “pure woman” at heart. Innocent and true, she dies alone in the snow, a woman still young yet ruined by drink, dreaming of her first lover who was also the cause of all of her later misfortune. We’ll be singing the ballads of a hundred Gyeong-as until the sun goes out, but that doesn’t make her story any less sad. Lee Jong-ho’s directorial technique is something of a revelation for the time period neatly allaying standard melodrama tropes with a new brand of Korean realism mixed with European arthouse style. Former child actress Ah In-suk (still only 22 at the time of making this picture) gives a beautifully nuanced performance as the tragic Gyeong-a though apparently retired from acting due to her marriage soon after completing Heavenly Homecoming. An extremely important film in terms of the history of modern Korean cinema kicking off a youth culture movement which would extend into the turbulent 1980s, A Heavenly Homecoming to Stars succeeds both as a conventional melodrama but also as a symbol of a culture in flux.


Heavenly Homecoming to Stars was recently re-released on blu-ray in a beautiful new restored edition which also includes English subtitles on not only the main feature but also the commentary track as well as coming packaged with a booklet in both Korean and English.

However, you can also watch the (considerably less pretty looking) unrestored version with English subtitles and for free (legally) via the Korean Film Archive YouTube channel.

Can’t seem to find a trailer but here’s a poignant (unsubtitled) scene from towards the end of the film: