North and South (南과北/남과북, Kim Ki-duk, 1965)

north and south posterMelodrama has often been an unfairly maligned genre, dismissed as pandering to the sentimental or engaging in frivolous emotion but to do so misses the undercurrent of social questioning that such films often entail. Korea has made the melodrama its own – indeed, though genre is often a more fluid matter in Korea than it is elsewhere it’s difficult to find films of any kind which are completely devoid of melodramatic themes. It’s less of a surprise therefore to find that Korean cinema turns to melodrama to examine one the nation’s most pressing concerns – the relationship between North and South. Kim Ki-duk’s North and South (南과北/남과북, Namgwa Buk) is the story of a woman caught between two men, two nations, and two eras but it’s mediated through the story of a noble North Korean who has battled all in the name of love, left his family, his home, his country only to find that he is too late and the world has already left him behind.

The film begins with capture of a North Korean soldier in November 1952, the middle of the Korean War. Following normal procedure, the soldier, Major Jang Il-gu (Shin Young-kyun) is taken in for questioning but the major matter on his mind is the lady in the photograph he keeps brandishing to everyone he meets. Rather than political disaffection, Il-gu has defected to the South in the name of love – he’s looking for a woman he regarded as his wife, the mother of the son he has never seen. The South Korean officers are less than sympathetic, they’ve been noticing increased activities on the frontiers and they want to know some concrete military details before they even agree to admit Major Jang, but Il-gu won’t talk until they promise to help him look for Eun-ga (Um Aing-ran) – the woman for whom he has betrayed his comrades.

Captain Lee Hae-ro (Choi Moo-ryong), otherwise sympathetic to Il-gu’s plight, runs into a problem when elements of Il-gu’s story start sounding all too familiar. In a coincidence too staggering to believe, Eun-ga is Hae-ro’s wife. Originally reluctant to marry him, Eun-ga had explained that she had a son already and was waiting for the child’s father (to whom she was not “legally” married) from whom she had been separated by the 38th parallel. Lee was patient and persistent, he told Eun-ga that she was free to leave him should her long lost love return (never believing it was possible) and that he was content to look after her until that day came or, should he be so fortunate, for the rest of his life. Now Il-gu has arrived as if to punish him for disrupting this fairytale of doomed romantic love.

Unlike many films of the time, Kim is not interested in demonising the North so much as emphasising the tragedy of Korea’s division. Eun-ga and Il-gu are divided by more than just politics. Eun-ga was the middle-class daughter of a wealthy doctor, Il-gu was the son of one of their servants. Their love was not possible even before the war, but still it blossomed. Growing up together, Il-gu and Eun-ga experienced the quintessentially innocent taste of first love, vowing to stay together even in the face of fierce parental opposition and social convention, but it is the war which eventually seals their fate. Il-gu, not wanting to be conscripted into the Japanese army hides out in a shack where Eun-ga, the only person to know his whereabouts, spends a fateful night with him during which time their child is conceived.

Dreaming only of being re-united with his “wife” and child, Il-gu has been carrying around a picture of Eun-ga and looking for an opportunity to defect ever since the erection of the 38th parallel. Abandoning everything in the name of love, he has left his mother alone in the North and risked his life in hope of seeing Eun-ga once more. Hae-ro, a romantic man himself, is intimidated by Il-gu’s passion. The great, fated love he’d imagined for himself in marrying the nurse who had saved him at his lowest ebb suddenly pales in comparison to Il-gu’s willingness to sacrifice his life in pursuit of a true love dream. Understating Il-gu’s feelings, Hae-ro finds himself in a terrible position, worried that his love will leave him, feeling guilty for pestering her into a marriage she may not have really wanted, and unsure whether he should even tell Il-gu and Eun-ga that he holds the key to their long delayed reunion. Il-gu remains resolute, demanding love or death, but Hae-ro vacillates, drinks himself into solipsistic misery, and indulges his own weaknesses which are only made worse by Il-gu’s continued heroism.

Immediately before the final sequence in which the trio are forced to confront their emotionally difficult situation, Il-gu is threatened with a gun but refuses to give up any information without proof he can meet Eun-ga. Believing all hope to be lost, he asks only to be allowed to go up a mountain to die but is moved by the compassion of intelligence officer Kwon (Namkoong Won) who alone is committed to delivering Eun-ga and eventually gives up his information even though it pains him to betray his own comrades. In an impassioned debate with Kwon, Il-gu gives voice to the film’s overarching message in reminding him “Are we not all brothers”. Kwon, counters that the reason they fight is in service of Il-gu’s quest – it’s precisely so that he can come here, speak freely, and pursue his love unhindered. The “South” is winning, in a sense, but the message of brotherhood and understanding between men is the one which is delivered with the most clarity.

Understanding between men is indeed the theme of Hae-ro and Il-gu’s eventual meeting. Eun-ga’s torment is relegated to background detail as she sobs her heart out in the corner in the unfairness of her impossible situation. Her heart has always belonged to Il-gu and she feels herself to have betrayed him, betrayed love, in marrying an admittedly good and kind man out of reasons of practicality rather than passion. Coming to understand the situation, Il-gu responds with compassion and understanding even in the middle of his own heartbreak. He bitterly regrets his journey and wishes Hae-ro had told him Eun-ga was now his wife rather than allow him to hurt her by suddenly reappearing and breaking her heart all over again. Witnessing Il-gu’s magnanimity, Hae-ro is also moved, offering to step back and allow Il-gu to return to the family he may have lost. Both men recognise the goodness of the other, want nothing more than the best outcome of the situation for Eun-ga and her son, and are committed to moving forward with sensitivity in trying to minimise the emotional pain inflicted on the innocent Eun-ga who continues to suffer through no fault of her own.

The “fault” falls on the 38th parallel which, as Il-gu explains during a painful first meeting with his unknowing son, is “the worst thing ever made by stupid men”. The situation is indeed impossible, there is no easy answer for Eun-ga who will have to choose between past love and a present commitment (or, uncomfortably, have that decision made for her by her respective lovers). Kim dramatises their anguish perfectly through the extraordinary performances of his cast during the drawn out, painful encounter in which they attempt to forge a way forward, but Eun-ga, who stands in for her nation, stands to lose all when this same fierce love and understanding between men may cost her everything in tragic gestures of love and sacrifice.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Ki-duk box set. Not currently available to stream online.

Five Marines (五人의 海兵 / 5인의 해병, Kim Ki-duk, 1961)

Five Marines posterKorean War films have a very particular tone and flavour often absent from those from elsewhere. As sad and despairing as they can be across the world, war films are generally the realm of macho heroism, men bravely holding back tears and charging forth with unrestrained rage in a quest to avenge their fallen comrades. Korean War films, however, like the majority of the nation’s cinematic output, are tinged with melodrama. These men wail, talk about their mothers, and worry for the future while forging intense bonds of homosocial brotherhood and becoming a battlefield family. The debut feature from Kim Ki-duk, Five Marines (五人의 海兵 / 5인의 해병, O in-ui haebyeong) is a prime example of this approach, eschewing combat scenes for behind the lines ensemble drama as ordinary men attempt to come to terms with the extraordinary situation of war.

Stock footage of the battlefield eventually gives way to a small squadron of marines digging trenches and at constant risk of ambush by Chinese forces. The main drama revolves around lieutenant Deok-su (Shin Young-kyun) who is the son of the company commander but there has long been bad feeling between the two men as Deok-su has always felt that his father favoured his brother, Deok-han (Choe Bong), and never really loved him. Meanwhile we’re introduced to another four marines – intellectual Jeong-guk (Choi Moo-ryong), Ju-han (Flyboy / Gwak Gyu-seok) – a father of five from Seoul, farm boy Yeong-seon (Park Nou-sik), and mother’s boy with anger issues Hun-gu (Hwang Hae). Following the death of two comrades, the squad of five is sent on a daring missing into enemy territory to blow up an arms depot through which they aim to make the sacrifice their friends have made in some way meaningful.

Made just eight years after the end of the Korean War and apparently commissioned by the Marine Corps in the wake of the May 16 military coup which initiated the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, Five Marines takes a very different approach to that seen in other contemporary war films such as Lee Man-hee’s The Marines Who Never Returned. Though in no way particularly jingoistic or warmongering, it would be difficult to describe Five Marines as an “anti-war” movie, not least because it avoids depicting scenes of combat until the final mission in which, as expected, some or all of the heroes will fall valiantly defending their fellow Koreans as well as their friends.

Jeong-guk, the college educated enlisted man, originally considers himself to be taking part in the pantomime of war, going along with the ridiculous sham of soldiering, but when a fellow soldier – a young boy who spends his time rewriting a poetic confession of love he doesn’t quite have the nerve to send to the girl he left behind, falls in front of him, Jeong-guk suddenly wants to join the fight for real. The idea of militaristic patriotism is then subtly reinforced if not quite sold with patriotic fervour. The necessity of the sacrifice is never questioned and the idea of doing one’s duty remains paramount even if it is also clear that the war has taken these men out of their familial environments leaving their women at home alone and, perhaps, defenceless.

Kim explores the peacetime lives of each of the men through flashback with the consequence that we get to know and care for them as people rather than as combatants. We rejoice with Jeong-guk when he hears he’s going to be a father, share Ju-han’s amused frustration when his wife includes all their bills in his mail, and worry with Hun-gu when his usual letters have not arrived. During their down time, the men discuss women but with more tenderness than expected – save for Yeong-seon’s rather lewd (and apparently fabricated) story of his wedding night for which he is rightly taken to task by his stern company Sergeant. Rather than focussing on the negatives of military service, Kim emphases the warmth and friendship among the men who forge deeper and stronger connections precisely because of the ever present threat of death.

When the final mission rolls around, Kim allows the action to take centre stage as the five man squad plots and executes a daring raid which does not quite go to plan and eventually erupts into a more conventional fire fight. Marrying the demands for macho battle scenes with the emotional quality of melodrama, Kim allows the men to sort out their emotional difficulties, shedding both blood and tears in equal measure. More emotional drama than action packed celebration of the glory of war, Five Marines may not quite be what the Marine Corps had in mind but perhaps serves their purpose anyway in reinforcing the positive ideas of camaraderie and patriotism whilst telling the stories of ordinary men and extraordinary heroism.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Ki-duk box set. Also available to stream online for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

The Marines Who Never Returned (돌아오지 않는 해병, Lee Man-hee, 1963)

Marines Who Never ReturnedLee Man-hee was among the most prolific of Korean directors until his untimely death at the age of just 43 in 1975, but even among so many well regarded works The Marines Who Never Returned (돌아오지 않는 해병, 돌아오지 않는 해병, Doraoji Anneun Haebyong) has taken on an especial place in Korean film culture. Lee had himself served in the Korean War and brought his own ambivalent attitudes to the piece, expressing both an abject rejection of the senseless loss of life but also a warmth and nostalgia for the camaraderie born only out of such immediate danger. The film’s title, as melancholy as it is, points to this same ambivalence by signalling the eventually unhappy fates of these ordinary men but also according them a ghostly, unresolved future.

In the midst of the Korean War, a squad of South Korean soldiers is on patrol and taking fire from the Chinese in an urban environment. While they bide their time in a trench, a young girl and her pregnant mother run out of a nearby building. The girl runs clear but the mother is shot and killed in the crossfire. One of the soldiers is deeply struck by the scene and insists they at least make sure the little girl is safe. Pushing deeper into the building, the soldiers come upon a truly horrifying, hellish scene of men trussed up and hanging from the ceilings while bodies of the townspeople lie piled along the floor. The same soldier who wanted to save the little girl finds his own sister among the dead, just one face among so many.

From this point on the tale is narrated by the little girl, Young-hui (Jeon Young-sun), who is adopted by the troop of marines and smuggled around inside an old army kit bag so that the superiors do not find out about her presence. Young-hui proves a resilient little girl who obviously misses her parents but begins to care deeply for the soldiers who have taken her in. Giving each of her new uncles nicknames, Young-hui becomes the squad’s mascot and a symbol of everything it is they’re fighting for. Yet this makeshift family also has its share of difficulties. A problem arises when Young-hui recognises a new recruit, Choi (Choi Moo-ryong), as a man from her village. Choi is the brother of the man who joined the other side, took Young-hui’s father away and killed the sister of Private Goo, discovered so casually among the many dead in Young-hui’s village alone.

The conflict between Choi and Goo is emblematic of many ordinary families throughout Korea as fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, decided on different paths and found themselves on opposing sides of a war. Choi, as is pointed out, is not responsible for his brother’s actions – he clearly does not condone or agree with them, but still he feels responsible enough to understand Goo’s anger and resentment. Goo in turn realises his anger is pointless and misdirected but is powerless to change the way he feels. This situation is no one’s fault, but they’ll all pay the price anyway.

Lee spares no expense in recreating the hellish battles scenes more akin to the first war than the second with its outdated tanks, dugouts, and trenches. The easy, familial life of the camp soon gives way to action and danger as the squad meet their ends one by one. Away from the battlefield the men feel displaced within their own country – caught in the midst of a civil war yet also subjugated by foreign forces, barred from UN only bars and referred to as “tuppenny Koreans” by the “hostesses” in comparison to their big spending compatriots. Making his goodbye speech, the commanding officer instructs his comrade to return home and ask if anybody really needs to go to war, but rising from the trenches their thoughts are all for their fallen friends who will never see home again. These men remain “lost” on the battlefield, a lingering memory of loss and sacrifice which is impossible to resolve even so many years later.


The Marines Who Never Returned is the first in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet but the film is also currently available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.

 

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.)