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men betrayed by their country and changing times realising they have wasted their youth on a cat and mouse game over an outdated ideological disagreement when the conflict that defined their lives was merely a proxy war fought by two super powers on Korean soil.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.

Suddenly in the Dark (깊은밤 갑자기, Go Yeong-nam, 1981)

suddenly-in-the-darkEverybody ought to have a maid, goes the old adage, but finding one you can trust can be a tall order. Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid clearly sounds a warning call to husbands everywhere not to be tempted by the enticements of pretty young girls or conniving social climbers with designs on upending the domestic order by supplanting the legitimate wife from within her own home. The Housemaid is melodrama rewritten as horror in which a parasitical force colonises the domestic environment hell bent on taking it over through a subversion of its binding yet taboo foundation – sexual desire. Twenty years later, Suddenly in the Dark (깊은밤 갑자기, Gipeun Bam, Gapjagi) returns to the same theme but from a different angle. A once harmonious household is suddenly turned upside down following the introduction of a second female, provoking a series of crises within the already strained mind of its wife and mother.

Lepidopterist Kang Yu-jin (Yoon Il-bong) returns home after three weeks away chasing butterflies and is warmly greeted by his faithful wife, Seon-hee (Kim Young-ae), and their loving daughter. Seon-hee looks on while her husband shows off some slides of his latest finds to his colleagues but is disturbed by the incongruous presence of a shamanic statue, somehow mixed in with the shots of rare butterflies. The creepy doll-like figure continues to haunt Seon-hee who finds herself in a state of agitation regarding her husband’s frequent absences.

She is then, fairly non-plussed when Yu-jin returns from another trip with a strange young girl in tow. Essentially kind but also absent minded and a little insensitive, Yu-jin has picked up a waif and stray, recently orphaned and alone, with the idea of killing two birds with one stone by taking her into his house as a maid. On hearing Yu-jin’s explanation, Seon-hee reconsiders and is excited to get both some much needed domestic help and a degree of companionship in her otherwise lonely life. The girl, Mi-ok (Lee Ki-seon), is a little strange but seems grateful to have found a place to belong. Seon-hee, however, gradually becomes alarmed firstly by Mi-ok’s youth and beauty, and later by the presence of the same shamanic statue that’s been haunting her all this time among Mi-ok’s few belongings. Increasingly unhinged and paranoid, Seon-hee becomes convinced that her new maid has seduced her husband and means to kill her by any means possible.

Like The Housemaid, Suddenly in the Dark turns on the parasitical threat of an outsider within the family unit. Focussing on the women rather than the temptation and fall of the man of the house, the narrative shifts away from a crisis of male desire and responsibility to the fear and insecurity of the neglected, lonely housewife intentionally isolated from society at large yet under appreciated and often bored at home. By all appearances, the Kangs have made a fairly nice life for themselves with a spacious, if remote, country villa filled with nicknacks and elegant furniture, and seem to have a happy and fulfilled marriage. However, Yu-jin is often away for long stretches of time and even when home is often too occupied with work to appreciate his wife and daughter.

Seon-hee appears to have only one real “friend” who seems to be the sort of woman who likes to talk people down and undermine the happiness of others to make herself feel better. Consequently, she’s filled Seon-hee’s mind with lots of imagined troubles. Women over thirty might as well be sixty when it comes to male attention, she says. Suddenly throwing Seon-hee into a morass of uncertainty regarding her husband’s growing indifference towards her as he retreats to the spare room to finish writing his book, Eun-yeong is then quick to disregard Seon-hee’s distress over the threat posed by her new maid, refusing her help at the very time it’s most needed.

Mi-ok moves between an innocent young girl clutching the talisman left to her by her mother like a child her doll, and a predatory sex fiend corrupting and possessing Seon-hee’s husband aiming to displace her from her rightful position in this ordinary middle-class world. Aside from Seon-hee’s subjective perception, Yu-jin seems mostly indifferent or genially paternal in his dealings with Mi-ok, and even her caustic friend Eun-young remarks that she doesn’t think Mi-ok is all that pretty after all. In fact, the only person to be struck by Mi-ok’s physical beauty is Seon-hee who finds herself personally bathing her new maid, caressing her lithe and youthful body and remarking on the beauty of her skin. Insecure of her own ageing appearance, Seon-hee is, in one way or another, desirous of Mi-ok’s youthful figure, either jealously wishing to possess and wear it for herself, or possess it in a more obvious, externalised way.

Even if Seon-hee describes Mi-ok’s beauty as striking enough to attract even a woman, any latent desire on her own part is left on the level of psycho-sexual subtext rather than directly addressed even if each of the lingering shots of Mi-ok’s naked body are from Seon-hee’s POV and her (perhaps fantastical) observations of Mi-ok and her husband making love are entirely focussed on the younger woman.

Where Suddenly in the Dark diverges from its closer genre relatives is in its shamanistic themes as Seon-hee finds herself haunted by the creepy talisman and its later personification as Mi-ok before finally perhaps becoming the image herself. Shamanism had been aggressively suppressed in recent history, often viewed distastefully as a remnant of a backwards, superstitious age. Though Yu-jin insists that the doll is just a doll and holds no power, forcing Seon-hee to stay in the same room with it to overcome her irrational fear of a bit of old wood, the ancient ways work their magic on her, adding to her madness and ultimately provoking the final, psychedelic rampage.

Through the disorientating, kaleidoscopic butterfly vision which fractures Seon-hee’s fragile world view, Go creates a strange and eerie atmosphere of uncertainty as perception and reality diverge into opposing poles. Taking advantage of the recently relaxed censorship codes to further enhance the film’s erotic quality, Suddenly in the Dark is a psychedelic tour de force with its glass bottom view, green tinted shamanistic visions, taxidermy filled creepy mansion, and constantly shifting uncertainty born of spiritual and mental battling inside its heroine’s soul. A fantastic example of esoteric Korean horror, Suddenly in the Dark is an important rediscovery for the genre’s history but also a fascinating zeitgeisty character study which refuses definitive interpretation.


Recently released on blu-ray by Mondo Macabro with English subtitles (currently sold out, second pressing released 2017)

Mondo Macabro trailer (dialogue free, NSFW, quite creepy)