Best remembered for his 1961 feat of neorealist social drama Aimless Bullet, Yu Hyun-mok was one of the early masters of Korea’s golden age who sought to bring a degree of intellectual rigour and formal experimentation to a medium which often favoured the populist or propagandist. He did, however, have to start somewhere and the earliest surviving film in Yu’s filmography is indeed a melodrama though one perhaps a little to the side of the norm and with an axe to grind as regarding economic equalities and the demands of spiritual morality, even if he is forced to retreat to entrenched social codes in the closing moments.
The camera pans over a city filled with rooftops and eventually lingers on a group of children playing quietly by a wall. Panning over the wall which is exceedingly high, Yu reveals the children to have been playing on the other side of a prison where Gwang-pil (Lee Ryong), an inmate, is about to be released after 10 years inside. All things considered, Gwang-pil does not seem to be a hardened criminal and is optimistic for the future, intending to go straight and hoping to reconnect with the childhood sweetheart he believes is still waiting for him in the outside world though they have not seen each other since Gwang-pil made an ill-advised escape attempt and got his sentence increased a number of years. He recounts all of this to another inmate who is happy for him, broadly, but not quite convinced Gwang-pil is going to make it in the regular world.
Switching to a lengthily flashback, Yu allows Gwang-pil to recount the circumstances which landed him in jail, which also gives the director a chance to engage with his socio-political concerns. 10 years previously, Gwang-pil was a happy young man from an exceptionally poor village who was best friends with Ae-ran (Do Kum-bong). Ae-ran works in a bakery to help support her family, and often walks home with Gwang-pil which is one of the few times they have to be together. A happy day at the beach sees them building sandcastles and dreaming of the life they will one day live with a house and children of their own, only to see all their dreams washed away by a sudden outbreak of rain. In desperate need of money both to support himself and his bedridden mother and to impress Ae-ran, Gwang-pil starts hanging round with delinquents and picking pockets. Though Gwang-pil wants to give back some of the money they stole fearing the woman they took it from is also poor and cannot spare it, he goes along with the delinquents’ plan to rob a nearby US army depot. The others get away but Gwang-pil is arrested and sent to prison.
The first and foremost motivator for Gwang-pil’s descent into criminality is poverty and familial breakdown. His father was a gambler who left his mother flat, while she has become bedridden and is dependent on her teenage son for financial support. With no real jobs available in the town and no prospect of a way out through education, Gwang-pil is seduced by crime despite having no real aptitude for it. The other motivator, if indirectly is Ae-ran or, more specifically, jealous insecurity related to the harmonica playing delinquent Dal-soo (Choi Nam-hyun). Too poor to afford a harmonica of his own, Gwang-pil fears losing Ae-ran to a flashier guy and so he picks pockets to buy her fancy treats little realising all she wants is his time – something he will rob her of by getting himself sent to prison.
The war between Gwang-pil and Dal-soo over possession of Ae-ran will occupy the rest of the film though Ae-ran, like many women in the golden age of Korean cinema, is left with little choice of her own other than to continue suffering. When Gwang-pil gets out of jail it’s one of the other delinquents who meets him – Sang-moon (Choi Myung-soo) has become a priest, in part out of remorse for what happened to Gwang-pil and regret over his criminal past. Sang-moon is determined to help Gwang-pil repair his life but knows finding out what happened to Ae-ran is going to break his heart and send him spiralling into a nihilistic whirlpool of despair. Ae-ran has married Dal-soo who chose the path of crime and still operates a dodgy hostess bar as a front for his gangster activities.
Gwang-pil is just as upset and angry as Sang-moon feared. So much so that he completely misses how miserable Ae-ran is in her marriage and that her daughter, Eun-joo, is nine years old meaning she was conceived before he went to prison. Obsessed with his own pain, anger, and self loathing he fails to see anything other than his ruined hopes and commits himself only to further ruination through drink and the attentions of the manager at Dal-soo’s bar which are not altogether as one might assume them to be. Only too late does he begin to grasp the real situation but is still too wounded to process it fully. Dal-soo, knowing Ae-ran has never loved him and wondering if her decision to become his wife has been a long form act of revenge, sets a plan in motion to remove his rival from the scene while Gwang-pil also longs for revenge against the man who has stolen everything from him.
Dal-soo and Gwang-pil square off, leaving Ae-ran whose health is so poor and nerves so fragile that she has virtually lived in hospital for the last few years, to suffer alone with only the austere comfort of Sang-moon’s priestly ministrations. Wanting to be “a good wife” she stands by Dal-soo but fears for Gwang-pil, not only for his life but also for his soul lest he fall back into criminality in the shock and hopelessness of her betrayal. Her situation is impossible and the strain of it difficult to bear. She hates her husband and blames herself for the fate of her one true love but has no recourse other than to continue suffering or die. In keeping with the story’s melodrama origins, Ae-ran pays a heavy price for her “weakness”, as does Dal-soo, leaving only the priest and the wronged man behind, strengthened by the need to care for the daughter he never knew he had.
Far from the rigour and furious intent of Aimless Bullet, Forever with You (그대와 영원히 / 그대와永遠히, Geudaewa yeongwonhi) is a much more modest effort even among studio pictures from 1950s. Largely filmed on set with low production values, Forever With You does allow Yu a degree of formal experimentation as he makes frequent use of pans and zooms more commonly seen in the films of 20 years later and occasionally gives in to ostentation as in his expressionist spinning shot of Gwang-pil and a bar girl dancing as he attempts to lose himself in abandon, or an overhead view of a gangster meeting. In the end Gwang-pil comes to himself too late, only realising his foolishness just as he loses everything that mattered to him but Yu changes track, gives him hope again in the prospect of a new beginning, learning to live for others in purehearted sincerity whilst walking away proudly into the harshness of the post-war world.
Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Yu Hyun-mok boxset. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s official YouTube Channel.