Promise of the Flesh (肉体의 約束 / 육체의 약속, Kim Ki-young, 1975)

Promise of the flesh poster 1Lee Man-hee’s Late Autumn is one of the great lost gems of ‘60s Korean cinema and despite its unavailability has been remade three times in Korea and once in Japan. Kim Ki-young’s version, Promise of the Flesh (肉体의 約束 / 육체의 약속, Yukche-ui Yaksok), arrives two years after the acclaimed Japanese remake directed by Koichi Saito and takes a decidedly different, frustratingly ambivalent approach in which its heroine’s imprisonment is directly linked to emotional frigidity and a refusal to submit herself to the social conventions of womanhood which include home, family, and being sexually available to men.

We first meet Sook-young (Kim Ji-mee) taking a train to meet someone she is fairly certain will not be coming. While travelling she recalls a previous journey during which she met a man who changed her life – the very man she is now travelling to (not) see. Before that fateful day, however, Sook-young had endured an extremely troubling history of long term sexual abuse at the hands of various men all of whom expected her to surrender her body to them to do with it what they wanted. Eventually Sook-young snapped and killed a man who was trying to make love to her, getting herself sent to prison where she gradually fell into suicidal despair. In an effort to reawaken her sense of being alive, a kindly prison guard (Park Jung-ja) agreed to escort her to visit her mother’s grave which is how she met Hoon (Lee Jung-gil) – the first man we see being “nice” to her, which in this case extends to buying her a box lunch on the train.

Kim has a noticeably ambivalent attitude to female sexuality which eventually embraces the socially conservative, casting Sook-young’s plight as a great moral wrong but also insisting that her salvation lies in unwanted sex with a “nice” man as if that would somehow show her that “not all men” are violent sex pests and thereby make it possible for her to fulfil her “natural duties” as a woman by marrying and raising children. “A woman’s role is raising a child – everything else is pointless” Sook-young is instructed by a man who turns out to be, once again, deceiving her. Gradually we get the feeling that Sook-young has wound up in prison not because, as she later claims, the weight of all her degradations suddenly crushed her but because she attempted to live a life without men and is being punished for it.

At her first job interview, undertaken because her parents passed away and she had to leave university, Sook-young is advised to guard her body until she can “cope with men” otherwise she’ll “become a whore like all the others”. Shy and nervous, she is bullied into sex by a belligerent customer who turns out to have done it as some kind of rape revenge on behalf of a slighted friend to whom he later passes her on. Just about every man she meets, until Hoon, is after her body and nobody seems to think Sook-young has any right to refuse them access to it. Kim may lament the subjugated position of women in Korean society in condemning the actions of these “bad men”, but still insists that Sook-young needs “fixing” through finding a good man as a means to curing her despair.

This is why the prison guard enlists Hoon to teach Sook-young that “a woman needs a man” and that there is joy still in the world. Originally reluctant, Hoon decides to do just that by convincing her that she is wrong to be so mistrustful because human beings are basically good. Unfortunately he chooses to this in exactly the same way as all the other men she’s ever known – by pushing her into a dark corner and attempting to seduce her. In this case however it seems to work. Claiming she is too lonesome to ignore him, Sook-young is swept into Hoon’s rather romantic view of the world, little realising that he too is a fugitive from justice and will also have to pay for having become involved with the wrong people. Nevertheless, through meeting him, Sook-young affirms that she has been able to find a new capacity for living and convinced herself that “the meaning of life is to marry a good guy and live well”.

Socially conservative as it is, the message is undercut by the persistent melancholy that defines Sook-young’s existence even as she declares herself cured of her past traumas and vows to live on free of her “delusion of persecution”. Nevertheless, the picture Kim paints of Korean society is one of socially acceptable misogyny in which even women insist that women are nothing without men and the primacy of the male sex must be respected. At once resigned and angry, Kim paints Sook-young’s capitulation as a positive motion towards conformity but refuses to fully condemn the conservative society which has caused her so much misery.


Promise of the Flesh was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Jagko (짝코, AKA Pursuit of Death, Im Kwon-taek, 1980)

Jagko posterDuring the dark days of the dictatorships, the “anti-communist film” was a mainstay of the Korean film industry. Though it wasn’t exactly possible to make a pro-communist film and that therefore any and all films were at least implicitly anti-communist, the authorities had been especially keen on films which took a hardline on anything remotely leftwing. By the late ‘70s however times were changing and a more nuanced view of recent history began to become possible. Im Kwon-taek is thought to be among the first directors whose work precipitated a shift from the “anti-communist” to the “division” film in which the tragedy of the division itself takes precedence over the demonisation of the North (though such views were perhaps not as uncommon as might be assumed in films from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s before the passing of the Motion Picture Law). Jagko’s (짝코) two haunted protagonists are both flawed men betrayed by their country and changing times realising they have wasted their youth on a cat and mouse game over an outdated ideological disagreement when the conflict that defined their lives was merely a proxy war fought by two super powers on Korean soil.

Song (Choi Yoon-seok), a former policeman, is picked up by a vagrancy patrol and taken to a “rehabilitation centre”. Despite the name the centre is more like a debtors’ prison and Song is now a prisoner of poverty who will not be allowed to leave unless redeemed by a family member (of which he has none or he might not be here). Nevertheless, the men are treated well, fed three meals a day, and only asked for a couple of hours of non-strenuous work with the rest of the time marked “free”. Once Song has begun to calm down, he makes a shocking discovery. He is convinced that a man lying ill a few beds over is none other than Jagko (Kim Hee-ra) – a former North Korean partisan and the man he holds responsible for ruining his life.

Im lets us in on the stories of both men via a series of flashbacks. Though he pretends not to know him, the other man, calling himself Kim, is indeed “Jagko” though his life has been just as miserable as Song’s. Back on Mount Jiri at the end of the Korean war, Song was a respected policeman – he left school at 12 and made a name for himself catching partisans. When he catches the legendary Jagko, wanted for a series of atrocities and terrorist acts, all Song can do is boast and talk of his imminent promotion after which he will enjoy a life of comfort. Unsurprisingly, Jagko is not exactly happy for him but allows his captor to prattle on in order to buy time for his escape. It is Song’s own arrogance which permits him to do so. Claiming to need the bathroom, Jagko offers Song a gold ring hidden in his shoe which Song scoffs at, but he does loosen his cuffs to facilitate Jagko’s relief at which point he manages to headbutt him and run away. Song is accused of taking bribes and dismissed. He is humiliated and loses his status, job, and family all in one go. Fixated on Jagko, Song gives up everything to chase him in order to turn him in to his former commander and have him clear his name by confirming that he was not bribed and did not sell out his country for gold.

Almost thirty years later both men are older than their years, broken and defeated. As one of the rehabilitation centre residents puts it, they’re all about to die – what does it matter now if someone was a communist or a partisan, what good could it possibly do to drag the past up all these years later? For Song it’s almost as if there is no “past”, the last few decades have been spent in a relentless pursuit of the man who holds the key to his good name. He wants to undo the folly of his hubris by overwriting it, but time has passed and what he’s lost cannot be reclaimed. Meanwhile, Jagko is not an ideologically crazed leftist, but a lonely old man who is now in poor health and has nothing but regrets. The two men bond in their mutual suffering and work together to escape, but the world they emerge into is not that of their youth. Song was disempowered when he entered the facility – they took his arrest rope away from him, but when he tackles the weakened Jagko to the ground and tries to call two policemen on patrol over to arrest him as an “escaped communist guerrilla” the young officers of the law have no idea what he’s talking about. Those words no longer mean anything. The bemused policemen conclude the old men must be escaped mental patients before spotting the rehabilitation centre uniform and jogging off to phone someone to come and take them back.

The old men’s quarrel is exposed as ridiculous. Jagko, less angry more soulful, remarks that men like he and Song are the most pitiful souls on Earth as he watches America sit down with Russia on the TV and realises he is merely a victim of ongoing global geopolitical manoeuvring. It’s no longer a question of left and right, both men are victims of their times, neither “good” nor “bad” but flawed and human. We do not know if Jagko did the things Song says he did but he has paid a heavy price all the same. Song, by contrast, has shifted all the blame for his fate onto Jagko, believing that if he can catch him he can somehow make it all right, but of course he can’t and is trapped in a spiral of denial in refusing to accept his own responsibility for the tragedies of his life. What is to blame is the folly of war and particularly of an internecine fraternal conflict which remains unresolved and may well be unresolvable unless an attempt is made to address the past with empathy and understanding in place of enmity and rancour.


Jagko is available on blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. The set includes subtitles in English, Japanese, and Korean with the audio commentary by Kim Dae-seung and editor of Cine21 Ju Sung-chul also subtitled in English. The audio commentaries from the DVD edition included with the Im Kwon-taek boxset, one by director Im Kwon-taek and film critic Huh Moon-yung, and the other by screenwriter Song Gil-han and film critic and director Kim Hong-joon, unfortunately do not carry over the English subtitles. The set also comes with a bi-lingual Korean/English booklet featuring an essay by film critic and professor Park Yuhee. Not currently available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.