My House (Yukihiko Tsutsumi, 2012)

my houseYukihiko Tsutsumi has made some of the most popular films at the Japanese box office yet his name might not be one that’s instantly familiar to filmgoers. Tsutsumi has become a top level creator of mainstream blockbusters, often inspired by established franchises such as TV drama or manga. Skilled in many genres from the epic sci-fi of Twentieth Century Boys to the mysterious comedy of Trick and the action of SPEC, Tsutsumi’s consumate abilities have taken on an anonymous quality as the franchise takes centre stage which makes this indie leaning black and white exploration of the lives of a group of homeless people in Nagoya all the more surprising.

The film begins with its hero, Suzumoto, pulling a cart followed by his friends with other supplies and equipment. Arriving at their appointed destination, the men and women embark on a process they’ve obviously enacted a thousand times before. Dismantling their cart, they arrange the components for a kind of prefab house made out of found materials and propped up on crates.

Though the life may seem impossible to those from the outside – as it does to the well meaning men from the council eager to get the mini commune to move on by dangling a promise of sheltered accommodation or assistance, but thanks to Suzumoto’s innovations they have access to many of the benefits of the modern world from television to laptops. The main source of income comes from recycling – collecting tin cans, bottles, cardboard etc to be sold back to scrap merchants and recycling plants. It’s not easy money to make and there isn’t much of it but Suzumoto has his routine well worked out and is able to maximise his takings by cutting deals with householders and businesses for handiwork in return for what is essentially rubbish.

Getting into a discussion with a hotelier, Suzumoto is offered a regular job and a place in company accommodation but turns it down. He likes his life. It might seem hard to others and it is annoying to be continually dismantling and rebuilding your house, but the innovation appeals to him. He likes to work and to make things work. He wouldn’t want to be cooped up and constrained by the world of contracts and salaries and taxes.

The freedom and simplicity of Suzumoto’s life is contrasted with a seemingly ordinary middle class household which is defined by its tension and sterility. School boy Shota is an ace student but his austere father pushes him hard, allowing him little freedom or responsibility. Nursing a mild addiction to Pepsi, Shota’s only friend is the pet turtle he keeps in a tank in his wardrobe. While his father returns home only to shout at everyone and then go to bed, Shota’s mother is as obsessed with cleaning as he is with Pepsi and rarely leaves the house. Talking to almost no one, Shota’s mother’s existence is one of cold rigidity, living in fear of her domineering husband and accidentally neglecting her stressed out son in the process.

Through a series of inevitable coincidences the two worlds will clash with tragic consequences on each side. Tsutsumi doesn’t seek to glamorise life on the streets or paint it as some kind of hippyish quest for better living, but he does dare to suggest that Suzumoto’s self reliance and inner calm are much more healthy than the fear and repression which make Shota’s home as much of a prison as the tank he traps his turtle in. Suzumoto and his friends are looked down on, hassled by the authorities, and accused of crimes they did not commit but they are the victims and not the instigators of violence. Tension bubbles over and misses its target as rage against authority and society at large is redirected towards its most vulnerable citizens.

Suzumoto takes all of this in his stride, as he always does, dismantling his house only to rebuild somewhere else hoping only to continue the cycle while Shota is left to ruminate on the consequences of his actions still trapped inside the empty pressure cooker of his family home. Tsutsumi’s elegantly composed black and white aesthetic adds to the contemplative edge as two worlds are thrown into stark contrast but the one central tenet is the enabling factor for both – the intense pressures and total indifference of the mainstream world towards those attempting to live within in it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

One-Way Ticket to Love (恋の片道切符, Masahiro Shinoda, 1960)

vlcsnap-2017-04-14-00h33m57s991Although Masahiro Shinoda has long been admitted into the pantheon of Japanese New Wave masters, he is mostly remembered only for his 1969 adaptation of a Chikamatsu play, Double Suicide. Less overtly political than many of his contemporaries during the heady years of protest and rebellion, Shinoda was a consummate stylist whose films aimed to dazzle with visual flair or often to deliberately disorientate with their worlds of constant uncertainty. Like so many of the directors who would go on to form what would retrospectively become known as the Japanese New Wave, Shinoda also started out as a junior AD, in this case at Shochiku where he felt himself stifled by the studio’s famously safe, inoffensive approach to filmmaking.

By the late ‘60s that approach was itself failing and so the studio began to take a few chances on new young directors including Shinoda who was afforded the opportunity to script and direct his first feature – One-way Ticket to Love (恋の片道切符, Koi no katamichi kippu). Studio mandated programme picture as it was, Shinoda still had to play by some of the rules – notably that the title song which is a Japanese cover of the 1959 Neil Sedaka hit needed to feature prominently. Shinoda does indeed showcase the song throughout the film though he also paints a dark and unforgiving picture of the burgeoning talent management industry whilst sympathising with those trapped in the underworld to which the effects of growing economic prosperity have yet to trickle down.

Down on his luck 20 year old alto-sax player Kenji Shirai (Kazuya Kosaka) has resorted to hanging around stations in Tokyo alongside a host of other unemployed artists trying to get picked up for a job and having little success. His luck changes when a young female talent fixer, Miss Yoshinaga (Yachiyo Otori), finds herself in need of an alto sax player with immediate effect. Kenji is elated to find work but somewhat troubled when the club is abruptly raided, giving him a taste of the precariousness of the underground club scene. Nevertheless, Yoshinaga hands him a card and tells him to come to her office tomorrow in case she has any more work for him.

On his way home, Kenji comes across a distressed woman crying her heart out dangerously near a high bridge. Fearing she is about to commit suicide, Kenji comforts her and then takes her home for the night before introducing her to Yoshinaga the next day in the hope that she may also have work for a young woman – she does, but as a nudie dancer. Mitsuko (Noriko Maki) reluctantly takes the job leaving Kenji conflicted but there’s more drama in both of their lives to come in the form of “The Japanese Elvis” Ueno (Masaaki Hirao), Mitsuko’s married ex-boyfriend Tajima, and an errant pistol belonging to Kenji’s petty yakuza roommate.

Although Shinoda was less noticeably political than many of the other directors of the time, his sympathy remains with those who feels themselves to be oppressed or have in someway been cast aside by an unforgiving world. Kenji in particular feels himself to be just such a person, remarking that the world is a cruel place in which people look after their own interests and are prepared to use and discard those less fortunate in order to get what they want. Describing himself and Mitsuko as nothing more than offerings fit for burning on the altar that is the post-war economy, Kenji’s sense of hopelessness is palpable. Despite having acted to rescue Mitsuko from her suicidal contemplation, he feels powerless to help her in any other way and honestly tells her so each time she comes to him for comfort or assistance. Though his earnestness has an honest quality in its determination not to deceive, it also has an air of cowardice as he refuses to even discourage the woman he loves from doing something he knows she will regret because he has already decided that resistance is futile.

Mitsuko, by contrast, finds herself entirely without agency. Betrayed by the man she loved on discovering that he was already married and had been stringing her along, she finds it difficult to adjust to living life alone. Consequently she finds herself wooed by the big idol star of the day, Ueno, and then swept into a studio scam in which the pair are tricked into a sexual relationship with dire consequences for both. Ueno, who sings the all important title song at several points throughout the film, might be in a more comfortable position than Kenji but he is no more free. The studio’s prime cash cow, Ueno is pimped out to his hoards of screaming teenage girls and denied anything like a private life outside of studio control. As the latest dancer at the club, Mitsuko is assured that she’s going out there a rookie and coming back a star but her fate, along with Ueno’s, is entirely in the hands of the managers who can make or break a career at will.

If the interpersonal drama fails to convince, Shinoda makes up for it with unusually dynamic and interesting cinematography much more like the youth movies Nikkatsu were making at the time than the usual Shochiku stateliness. Looking much more like the European New Wave, Shinoda makes fantastic use of tracking shots and unusual framing to draw attention to the isolation of his protagonists. The club set finale featuring the title song is a masterclass in tension as Kenji roams around the audience, caught among the crowd of screaming girls before pausing for an up close contemplation of Ueno which leads him to his final decision. A programme picture, but one in which Shinoda declared his stylistic intentions if not his scripting prowess. One-way Ticket to Love dazzles with visual flair but never captivates on anything other than a superficial level as its story of love frustrated by social inequality and controlling authority fails to deliver on the melancholy promise of the title.


Final sequence featuring the title song by Masaaki Hirao (English subtitles)

A Quiet Dream (춘몽, Zhang Lu, 2016)

Review of Zhang Lu’s A Quiet Dream (춘몽, Chun-mong) first published by UK Anime Network.


A North Korean defector, a lonely orphan, and a nerdy landlord walk into a bar but also, perhaps, into a dream or several dreams in Zhang Lu’s latest chronicle of lovelorn city dwellers and their eccentric days of tiresome banality. Dreams, reality, and wish fulfilment mingle freely in this run down land of cheerful hopelessness populated by the displaced and permanently fugitive. Zhang’s film is as elusive as it is melancholy but offers its painful meditations with good humour and kindness even if it sees little possibility of escape.

Everyone is in love with pretty barmaid, Yeri (Han Ye-ri). Yeri bears this with good grace as she divides her attentions equally between her three suitors, nervous landlord Jong-bin (Yoon Jong-bin), petty criminal Ik-june (Yang Ik-june), and sorrowful North Korean defector Jung-bum (Park Jung-bum). Having come to Korea as a teenager after her mother died, Yeri tracked down her estranged father only for him to suffer a serious illness requiring round the clock care soon after. When she’s not serving drinks or looking after dad, Yeri spends her time with the three guys, drinking, visiting the Korean Film Archive, or chatting with the romantic teenage poetess (Lee Joo-young) so obviously, painfully, in love with her that Yeri is able to do little other than ignore it in an attempt to let her down gently.

Dreamscape aside, the problems each of the protagonists is facing is real enough. Yeri’s life yields its own sorrows as her heartfelt rendition of Li Bai’s famous ode to homesickness makes plain as do her frequent references to her mother and the quest for a mysterious crater bound lake. Having lost a mother and found a father she loses again when he is taken ill and she is left to care for a man she barely knew in the most intimate of ways. Her burden is a heavy one and her dreams filled with the idea of abandoning it as her father’s wheelchair careers emptily down the hill on which they live. A visit to a fortune teller proves far from reassuring when he informs her that her father will live a long life, but abruptly changes the subject when it comes to a more personal projection.

The three guys could almost be aspects of her own personality turning up to haunt her but each of Yeri’s men (as she later describes them) is battling his own kind of despair. Jung-bum’s is the most pronounced as he battles bipolar disorder and possible PTSD from North Korean labour camps. A refugee with no one to protect him, Jung-bum falls victim to workplace exploitation only be fired because his eyes are “too sad” and it’s bringing his boss down. Ik-june, kinder than anyone gives him credit for, thinks he can help him through his gangland godfather “Mr. Jellyfish” but Ik-june can’t decide how far he really wants to be in the criminal underworld and is in disgrace after laughing at a funeral. Jong-bim lays claim to control over everything in sight as he’s “the landlord” only it’s his father who actually owns the land and Jong-bim is arrested in an almost adolescent sense of powerlessness.

Nevertheless, their days are ones of gentle dreaming as the guys push their luck but refuse to compete for the love of Yeri, preferring to share the unique light she seems to bring into their darkened world. Dreams and reality flow into one another without thought or warning leaving each indistinct as Yeri dances drunkenly on a rooftop only to turn around and find her trio of suitors disappeared, though the surreal characters which people the city including an old lady who collects cans, bottles and cardboard to place outside an old wardrobe on the side of the road which she uses “to pray” might make “reality” a difficult thing to believe in in any case.

Purgatorial as their existence is, the melancholy collective seem to find a comforting symbiosis in their personal miseries. Filming through mirrors and opaque curtains Zhang rejects any idea of certainty or concrete realities. The Chinese characters which accompany the film’s original title effectively mean “short lived illusion”, lending a poetic air to the otherwise surreal goings on, painting this greyed out land as a temporary container for eternal woes. At the film’s end we either wake up or fall asleep, or perhaps merely exchange one dream for another but despite all of the heartache and desperation this strange world is one defined by warmth and basic human goodness.


A Quiet Dream was screened as part of a teaser programme for the London Korean Film Festival. The next screening in the series will be E Oni’s Missing at Picturehouse Central on April 10, 2017. Tickets on sale now directly from Picturehouse.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sorrow Even Up in Heaven (저 하늘에도 슬픔이, Kim Soo-yong, 1965)

It’s a sorry enough tale to hear that many silent classics no longer exist, regarded only as disposable entertainment and only latterly collected into archives and preserved as valuable film history, but in the case of South Korea even mid and late 20th century films are unavailable thanks to the country’s turbulent political history. Though often listed among the greats of 1960s Korean cinema, Sorrow Even Up in Heaven (저 하늘에도 슬픔이, Jeo Haneuledo Seulpeumi) was presumed lost until a Mandarin subtitled print was discovered in an archive in Taiwan. Now given a full restoration by the Korean Film Archive, Kim’s tale of societal indifference to childhood poverty has finally been returned to its rightful place in cinema history but, as Kim’s own attempt to remake the film 20 years later bears out, how much has really changed?

11 year old Yun-bok has been forced out of his home and into a makeshift hovel near the river thanks to his gambling addicted invalid father’s inability to look after his four now destitute children. Yun-bok likes to narrate his life as a kind of letter to his absent mother who seems to have abandoned the family for unclear reasons possibly related to her husband’s drinking and gambling problem. Attending school as normal in an attempt to work hard and get an education so he can take care of the family in an adult world, Yun-bok, along with his younger sister Sun-na, spends his free time selling sticks of gum in the streets to try and earn enough money to feed everyone before his father drinks and gambles it all away.

Despite his obviously difficult circumstances, Yun-bok remains steadfast in his desire to stick by his family and take care of his siblings. Berated by the teacher for arriving late, Yun-bok finds an ally in a schoolmate who just wants to help even though many of the others shun him because of his raggedy clothes and lice infested hair. Eventually a teacher notices Yun-bok’s distress and urges him to write his struggles in a diary – which he does much as he’d been narrating his days in his imagined conversations with his mother. Moved by Yun-bok’s heartending descriptions of his life on the starvation line, the teacher manages to get the diaries to the newspapers who begin publishing them as a public interest column but just when it looks as if things maybe looking up for the family, Yun-bok loses heart and hops a freight train to look for Sun-na who has run away from home after an argument.

Korea in the 1960s was a difficult place, still bearing the scars of both WWII and the Korean War not to mention the resultant political turmoil. Nevertheless, by 1965 things had begun to pick up as seen in the flip side to Yun-bok’s sorry state of affairs – the various bars and drinking establishments he manages to work his way into in order to sell a few more sticks of gum. These places are filled with the sound of popular music where affluent young couples dance The Twist and salarymen in dark suits cement their business relationships over drinks. For some, everything is going fine but a concerted effort is being made to unsee the kind of unpleasantness which lurks below growing economic prosperity as manifested by 11 year old boys somehow responsible for the maintenance of a family of five.

As one teacher puts it, you can’t break the mirror because you don’t like what you see. Though there are some willing to help Yun-bok (at least to an extent) including his school friend who comes from a well to do family only too glad to set some food aside for Yun-bok and his siblings, out in the real world he finds only other desperate people willing to stoop to theft and violence against a child for nothing more than a few pennies. Many of these episodes are distressing as Yun-bok has his shoeshine kit stolen by an older boy or is violently beaten by a grown man at the harbour but the most serious occurs in the city when he is accused of pickpocketing by some louts who kidnap him and strip him naked for otherwise unclear reasons.

Though Sorrow Even Up in Heaven has a broadly positive ending as Yun-bok’s circumstances seem set to improve thanks to his accidental fame, Kim is quick to point out that there are many Yun-boks out there who can’t all become media sensations. Like many child heroes of classic Korean cinema, Yun-bok remains morally good – the idea of theft occurs to him but he remembers his teacher saying that everything will work out as long as his heart is pure, and his only transgression lies in spending a few pennies on himself to get something to eat and thereby work harder for his family (and for this he pays a heavy price). Even so his circumstances are portrayed in a naturalistic rather than melodramatic fashion neatly undercutting the inherent sentimentality of the material. Though Kim’s approach is closer to neorealism in the early scenes, he mixes in touches of magical realism with the ghostly appearances of Yun-bok’s mother which, alongside impressive montage and superimposition sequences, lend Yun-bok’s story an elevated cinematic quality. Remade several times over the last forty years, Sorrow Even up in Heaven remains sadly timeless in its depiction of an earnest young boy who knows only kindness and honesty even while those around him remain wilfully indifferent or actively cruel in the face of his continued suffering.


 

The Assignation (密会, Ko Nakahira, 1959)

Aside from the genre defining Crazed Fruit which kick-started the era of the “seishun eiga” and, in its own way, the Japanese New Wave, Ko Nakahira has remained under seen and under appreciated outside of Japan. Completed just three years after the youth fuelled frenzy of Crazed Fruit with its freewheeling playboys and their speedboat crises, The Assignation (密会, Mikkai) is a much more measured, mature meditation on social constraint, guilt and the slow drip feed of poisonous thought. Nakahira wastes none of his characteristic energy in the necessarily tight 76 minute runtime, but this is an exercise in high tension as a pair of illicit lovers are suddenly confronted with their crime after accidentally witnessing a murder.

Neglected at home by her studious professor husband, Kikuko (Yoko Katsuragi) has embarked on affair with one of his students, Ikuo (Seiji Miyaguchi). Canoodling at a deserted woodland spot, the pair muse on their impossible love prompting Ikuo to wonder how it would be if Kikuko’s husband simply died. Kikuko quickly puts a stop to Ikuo’s dark and desperate thought but the seed of death has already been sown in the relationship as they’re quickly spotlighted by a pair of unexpected car headlights. Hiding behind a nearby bush, Kikuko and Ikuo witness some kind of struggle inside a taxi before a young man drags and older one out of the car and takes off at a run.

Traumatised, Ikuo and Kikuko finish dressing and attempt to rejoin regular society by avoiding the unusual level of traffic in this remote spot which includes another truck and, as luck would have it, a policeman on a bike. Troubled, the pair bid each other goodbye with the suggestion that they’d better not see each other for a while but the tension continues to mount as Ikuo’s youthful desire to do his civic duty conflicts with Kikuko’s middle aged preoccupation with her reputation and the possible scandal that would occur should the police discover the whole story of their sordid love affair.

Nakahira begins with a careful panning of trees against the film’s bouncy jazz soundtrack neatly underlining the dread hanging somewhere overhead. Scandalous for 1959, the ongoing affair between the naive student and the melancholy housewife is already tinged with doom from the outset despite the relaxed quality of their post-coital coversation. Ikuo is pained, he wants a full life with Kikuko, but she dampens his youthful dreams by already thinking of the end. Adopting a maternal tone, she talks about his future – graduation, a successful career, a lovely young girl his own age who become will his wife. She even wonders if he’ll invite her to the wedding so she can meet the woman who will complete his life in a way she never can. Though she may say she wants to stay with him forever in the throws of passion, hers is a pragmatic love which is more need than desire. The archetypal middle-class housewife, Kikuko may have made this brief weekday evening transgression but throwing off the constraints of propriety is not a step she she envisages taking.

Already guilt ridden over her moral transgression, Kikuko views the incident in the woods as some kind of karmic revenge for her carnal sin. A very frank discussion with her forthright sister-in-law who quizzes her about the marriage’s lack of offspring reveals the depths of her despair and loneliness as her husband barely acknowledges her existence and there is almost nothing for her to do around the house. Taking cooking classes just to get out for a while, she runs into Ikuo whose story is an equally common one of a young man’s infatuation with the pretty yet sad younger wife of his professor.

If mutual loneliness brought them together, guilt and fear will later tear them apart as they face their shared “crime” from opposing sides. For Kikuko her illicit meetings with man much younger than herself are a shameful secret which must be concealed at all costs. Ikuo, however, is in love and sees nothing “wrong” in his courtship of the older woman even if he sympathises with her desire to avoid a scandal and does not want to cause her pain. What bothers him is a sense of justice and social responsibility. He saw the killer’s face – if he goes to the police, the victim’s wife and children might at least be able to gain some peace of mind knowing that the perpetrator is behind bars even if little else will change for them. Kikuko, by contrast, can think of nothing other than herself and is willing to sacrifice all to keep her reputation intact.

The threat of discovery is ever present as Nakahira litters the scene with clues and threats from the constant flagging of possible witnesses to an errant leaf resting on the pot which Kikuko has so calculatedly prepared to back up her cooking class alibi. A dreamlike atmosphere pervades as superimposition and montage segue into Kikuko’s flights of fancy from her memories of the beginning of the affair to a premonition of the newspaper furore which awaits her should Ikuo follow through with his intention of revealing all to the police. In the end, someone is always watching. Despite the youthful tone and jaunty jazz soundtrack, the morality police will tolerate no transgression. The wages of sin are death, but it’s fear driven by guilt and social constraint which is its executioner.


 

Afternoon Breezes (風たちの午後, Hitoshi Yazaki, 1980)

Even in the Japan of 1980, many kinds of love are impossible. Afternoon Breezes (風たちの午後, Kazetachi no gogo), the indie debut from Hitoshi Yazaki follows just one of them as a repressed gay nursery nurse falls hopelessly in love with her straight roommate. Based on a salacious newspaper report of the time, Afternoon Breezes is a textbook examination of obsessive unrequited love as its heroine is drawn ever deeper into a spiral of inescapable despair and incurable loneliness.

Nursery nurse Natsuko (Setsuko Aya) is in love with her hairdresser roommate Mitsu (Naomi Ito), who seems to be completely oblivious of her friend’s feelings. Mitsu has a boyfriend, Hideo (Hiroshi Sugita), and the relationship is becoming serious enough to have Natuko worried. Hideo, unlike Mitsu, is pretty sure Natsuko is a lesbian and in love with his girlfriend but finds the situation amusing more than anything else. Beginning to go out of her mind with frustration, Natsuko tries just about everything she can to break Mitsu and Hideo up including introducing him to another pretty girl from the nursery, Etsuko (Mari Atake). Hideo is not exactly a great guy and shows interest in Etsuko though does not seem as intent on leaving Mitsu as Natsuko had hoped. Desperate times call for desperate measures and so Natsuko steels herself against her revulsion of men and seduces Hideo on the condition that he end things with her beloved Mitsu. He does, but the plan goes awry when Natsuko realises she is pregnant with Hideo’s child.

Less about lesbianism and more about love which can never be returned slowly eroding a mind, Afternoon Breezes perfectly captures the hopeless fate of its heroine as she idly dreams a future for herself which she knows she will never have. Natsuko buys expensive gifts for roommate, returns home with flowers and courts her in all of the various ways a shy lover reveals themselves but if Mitsu ever recognises these overtures for what they are she never acknowledges them. Her boyfriend, Hideo, seems more worldly wise and makes a point of cracking jokes about Natsuko, asking Mitsu directly if her friend has a crush on her but Mitsu always laughs the questioning off. Mitsu may know on some level that Natsuko is in love with her, she seems to be aware of her distaste for men even if she tries to take her out to pick one up, but if she does it’s a truth she does not want to own and when it is finally impossible to ignore she will have nothing to do with it.

Despite Mitsu’s ongoing refusal to confront the situation, Natsuko basks in idealised visions of domesticity as she and Mitsu enjoy a romantic walk in the rain only to have their reverie interrupted by a passing pram containing a newborn baby. What Natsuko wants is a conventional family life with Mitsu, including children. After their walk, the pair adopt a pet mouse which Natsuko comes to think of as their “baby” but like a grim harbinger of her unrealisable dream, the mouse dies leading Mitsu to bundle it into a envelope and leave it on a rubbish heap along with Natsuko’s heart and dreams for the future.

When her colleagues at the nursery get stuck into the girl talk and ask Natsuko about boyfriends, her response is that she would not “degrade” herself yet that is exactly what she finally resorts to in an increasingly desperate effort to get close to Mitsu. After her attempts to get him to fall for another girl fail, Natsuko’s last sacrificial offering is her own body, surrendered on the altar of love as she pleads with the heartless Hideo to leave Mitsu for good. Though her bodily submission is painful to watch in her obvious discomfort her mental degradation has been steadily progressing as Hideo deliberately places himself between the two women, even going so far as to disrupt a seaside holiday planned for two by inviting himself along.

Yazaki perfectly captures Natsuko’s ever fracturing mental state through the inescapable presence of the dripping tap in the girls’ apartment which becomes a dangerous ticking in Natsuko’s time bomb mind. Occasionally gelling with clocks and doors and other oppressive noises, the internal banging inside Natsuko’s head only intensifies as she’s forced to endure the literal banging of Mitsu and Hideo’s lovemaking during her romantic getaway. Just as an earlier scene found Natsuko sitting on the swing outside embracing the flowers she’d brought for Mitsu only to find Hideo already there, Natsuko’s fate is to be perpetually left out in the cold, eventually resorting to rifling through her true love’s rubbish and biting into a half eaten apple in a desperate attempt at contact.

Natsuko’s love is an impossible one, not only because Mitsu is unable to return it, but because it is essentially unembraceable. In a society where her love is a taboo, Natsuko is not able to voice her desires clearly or live in an ordinary, straightforward way but is forced to act with clandestine subtly. After Hideo unwittingly deflowers her and laughs about it, stating that she “must really be gay” Natsuko lunges at him with a knife, suddenly overburdened with one degradation too many. Though the prospect of the baby may raise the possibility of a happy family, albeit an unconventional one, the signs point more towards funerals than christenings, so devoid of hope does Natsuko’s world seem to be. Shot in a crisp 16mm black and white, Afternoon Breezes owes an obvious debt to the art films of twenty years before with its long takes, static camera giving way to handheld, and flower filled conclusion, but adds an additional layer of youthful anxiety as its heroines find themselves moving into a more prosperous, socially liberal age only to discover some dreams are still off limits.


 

Aimless Bullet (오발탄, AKA Obaltan, Yu Hyun-mok, 1961)

Post-war cinema took many forms. In Korea there was initial cause for celebration but, shortly after the end of the Japanese colonial era, Korea went back to war, with itself. While neighbouring countries and much of the world were engaged in rebuilding or reforming their societies, Korea found itself under the corrupt and authoritarian rule of Syngman Rhee who oversaw the traumatic conflict which is technically still ongoing if on an eternal hiatus. Yu Hyun-mok’s masterwork Aimless Bullet (오발탄, Obaltan) takes place eight years after the truce was signed, shortly after mass student demonstrations led to Rhee’s unseating which was followed by a short period of parliamentary democracy under Yun Posun ending with the military coup led by Park Chung-hee and a quarter century of military dictatorship. Of course, Yu could not know what would come but his vision is anything but hopeful. Aimless Bullets all, this is an entire nation left reeling with no signposts to guide the way and no possible destination to hope for. All there is here is tragedy, misery, and inevitable suffering with no possibility of respite.

Nominal head of the family Cheolho (Kim Jin-kyu) has an OK job as an accountant but still he can’t make ends meet and his small family consisting of his wife, two children, war hero younger brother Yeongho (Choi Moo-ryong), unmarried sister Myeongsuk (Seo Ae-ja), and senile mother with wartime PTSD lives in a makeshift hovel in the middle of a fetid slum. Yeongho may have distinguished himself on the battlefield, but now the war is over society can’t find a use for him and so he remains jobless and another drain on his brother’s resources. In many ways he was one of the lucky ones, returning from the war with physical and mental scars but no permanent impairments. Myeongsuk’s former fiancé was not so lucky and requires the use of crutches to get around leading him to reject the woman he loves in the belief that he will never be anything more than a burden to all around him.

Cheolho suffers with a persistent toothache which he refuses to get treatment for despite the constant urging from his colleagues because he cannot in good conscience consider spending the money on himself when he has so many people with so many different needs to take care of. His toothache is not just a toothache but a manifestation of the unending torment of life in this ruined city defined by despair, madness, and cruelty.

The film begins with broken glass – a motif which will be repeated throughout as the structural integrity of this makeshift environment is repeatedly tested and repeatedly fails. A group of former soldiers is drinking in a bar, each lamenting their sorry progress in the post-war world. Yeongho remarks that he feels like a broken bowl – something used up and ready for the scrap heap. The country he fought so hard to protect has no place for him now the fighting is done. After such a long time searching for work, Yeongho is finally offered a promising job by an old flame currently working as an actress in the fledgling film industry, but the part they’ve offered him is that of a war veteran with similar scarring to his own. The studio want realism and casually ask him to remove his shirt and show off the traces of bullet holes on his side which is a step too far for Yeongho who objects to his wartime service being “exploited” in such a mercenary way. Insulted and not wanting to dishonour the memories of his fallen comrades Yeongho storms out only to later reconsider and realise he may have been foolish to turn down such a promising opportunity despite his indignation.

It isn’t just bowls and glass which end up shattered but dreams too as love lies bleeding in a land of permanent despair. Yeongho seems like something of a ladies’ man but re-encountering a kindly nurse he met at the front he begins to feel another life is possible. This particular dream is complicated by the presence of a disturbed neighbour who has also fallen in love with the nurse and stops by late at night to read her poetry despite the fact that she has taken to waving a gun to scare him off.

Cheolho has committed himself to living honestly, even if it means his family suffers. Yeongho is beginning to wonder if his philosophy is worth suffering for, why should they have to keep living like this when they could abandon conventional morality and humanitarian concerns and become rich through immoral means. Myeongsuk, abandoned by the love of her life and unable to find work, has fallen into prostitution, another effect of the ongoing American military presence. Yeongho, having lost all hope, makes a drastic decision of his own but one which is destined to be as ill fated as each of his other dreams, hollow and unfulfillable as they are.

Experiencing a moment of selfish indulgence born of total despair, Cheolho finally gets his tooth seen to. Actually he asks the dentist to just pull all his teeth right now but medical ethics suggest that’s not a good idea. Ignoring the dentist’s advice, Cheolho roams the streets of the city before stopping into another dental clinic for more “treatment”. Dazed and bloody he steps into a taxi but confuses his drivers by changing his mind on destinations from the morgue to the hospital to the police station. The Aimless Bullet of the title, as the cabbie calls him, Cheolho can only echo the words of his senile mother, “let’s go”, even if he has no idea where. Earlier in the film another character has the same dilemma and frames it as a joke – ask a dying man where he’s going, he says, and he’ll tell you he doesn’t know. There is nowhere for Cheolho to go. His road is blocked, his meter running. Korea is directionless and lost, a desolate land of broken bowls and ruined hearts too tired to keep moving even if there were any destination available.

So relentlessly bleak, it’s little wonder that the film ran into censorship problems which eventually saw it pulled from cinema screens. Legend has it censors objected to the frequent refrains of “let’s go” from the bedridden mother which they interpreted as “let’s go to North Korea” as opposed to the “just let us die” which seems to be the much darker message implied by her later talk of sheep and green pastures. Everything here is broken, caged, ruined. There is no way out or possibility of salvation in this life or any other. Lasting only a few seconds, the film’s most shocking moment passes with little to no reaction as Yeongho, on the run from the police, dashes past the body of a woman who has hanged herself with her crying baby still tied to her back. Yeongho, and presumably the police chasing him, ignore both the body and the wailing of the child in their self obsessed propulsion forwards. A warning – but one which is heeded only too late.


Short scene from the film (English subtitles)

Aimless Bullet is available on English subtitled region free blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive but you can currently watch the HD restoration version of the film in its entirety legally and for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel. (You may have to sign in and “confirm” you’re a grown up.)