In his 1965 film The Seashore Village, Kim Soo-yong had presented a broadly positive vision of a community of women who had learned to survive without men by supporting each other. 1967’s Burning Mountain (山불 / 산불, Sanbul, AKA Flame in the Valley) revisits a similar theme but with much less positivity. This time around, the women have been deprived of their men not because of nature’s cruelty, but because of man-made corruption. Set during the Korean War, Burning Mountain finds a collection of wounded, lonely women condemned by patriarchal social codes and hemmed in by political strife not of their making struggling against their baser instincts as they determine to survive in an often hostile environment.
A small village near Jirisan has lost all of its men. Pressed by communist guerrillas for food, the lone women are hungry and afraid. Consequently, they are often at each other’s throats and united only in a shared futility of waiting for men they are almost certain will never return, either because the war has taken them or they have taken the opportunity to seek a better kind of life. The drama begins when Jum-rye (Ju Jeung-ryu) discovers a communist deserter, Kyu-bok (Shin Young-kyun), hiding in the bamboo grove and is seduced by him, satisfying her long repressed desire and escaping her loneliness through a transient bond with a captive man.
Unlike the fishwives of The Seashore Village, the women of Burning Mountain are a more conservative bunch though they too are largely unafraid to talk plainly of their unanswered desire in the absence of men. Rather than embracing each other as the fishwives had, the mountain women allow their sexual frustrations to make them bitter and irritable, forever at each other’s throats and unable to let go of past grievances. They dwell on the possibility of escape, but do not believe it to be real. One of the younger, unmarried women, talks of going to the city to find work as a maid but is confronted by a world of checkpoints and soldiers which restricts both her movement and her freedom in ways she is ill-equipped to understand.
The village stands as a tiny enclave, caught between North and South, part of both and neither as if lost in some eternal netherland. The bamboo grove represents the innocent natural freedoms which have been taken from the villagers by civilisation and by later by the folly of men and war. It’s in the bamboo grove that Jum-rye first encounters Kyu-bok in a meeting which begins as rape but ends in seduction as Jum-rye surrenders herself to a rough stranger in desperation and loneliness. The affair continues and relations between herself and the other women improve until Sawol (Do Kum-bong), a woman with whom she’d been on bad terms because their absent husbands had been on different sides, discovers Kyu-bok’s existence and blackmails the pair into allowing her to make sexual use of him in order to ease her own frustration.
Roles interestingly reversed, Kyu-bok takes exception to his new status as a kept man, resenting the feeling that he is nothing more than a pet, breeding stock kept to scratch an itch. Nevertheless, he stays while the women, increasingly conflicted, urge him to turn himself in to the authorities sure that if he explains himself they will not treat him harshly. Already emasculated in having been forced into the mountains against his will, Kyu-bok remains impotent in all ways other than the sexual, pleading with Jum-rye that she let him stay in the bamboo grove “until the world gets better”.
Sadly, the world shows little sign of doing that, though thanks to their shared transgression a strange kind of camaraderie arises between former enemies Jum-rye and Sawol, now disposed towards female solidarity having eased their own frustrations. They want to trap Kyu-bok and keep him for themselves, but at the same time they dwell on the idea of the unseen woman waiting somewhere for him just as they are waiting for their menfolk and know they cannot have him for long. Where the constant refrains of “we are all the same” had rung somewhat hollow, they ring true now in the two women’s commitment to a woman they don’t know who is, in some senses, their rival.
Yet, the liminal space of the bamboo grove cannot be allowed to stand in the increasingly straitened future. Already subversive in his frank depiction of female desire, Kim subtly undercuts the austerity of the times in making accidental villains of the South Korean army who arrive to burn the bamboo grove down to smoke out the guerrilla fighters, taking from these women the symbol of their freedom in the natural pleasure of the forest. The cowardly communist, while fulfilling the demands of the censors’ board, is both passive victim of his times and a representative of the frustrated masculinity which has caused them in the first place. The corruption of the war has come to the bamboo grove and set light to the last vestiges of hope in taking from these already impoverished women their very source of life. A sorry tale of despair and futility, Burning Mountain spins a tale of weak men and resilient women whose solidarity is bought through a mutual satisfaction cruelly ended by an austere and unforgiving regime.
Burning Mountain is available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.