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.

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.