The Surrogate Woman (씨받이, Im Kwon-taek, 1986)

“They seem to live for honouring the dead” the bemused heroine of Im Kwon-taek’s Surrogate Woman (씨받이, Ssibaji) explains to her visiting mother of the noble society she has been unwittingly plunged into but still struggles to understand. A condemnation both of a society which continues to value sons over daughters and of the absurdity of ancestral rites along with the hierarchies of the feudal order, Kwon’s impassioned historical drama speaks directly to the contemporary era in which in many ways nothing has changed.

In any case, Ok-nyeo (Kang Soo-yeon) is fated to become a surrogate woman. As the woman who seems to be in charge in a small community ensconced in a valley which from a certain vantage point seems to resemble female genitalia explains, surrogate mothers who bear daughters are expected to raise them themselves but the children are considered undesirable for marriage and generally end up becoming surrogate mothers themselves. Ok-nyeo’s mother had not wanted such a fate for her daughter, but is in the end powerless to prevent it especially given the allure of the generous payment promised on the birth of a male child. Ok-nyeo thinks she can endure anything for the promise of a comfortable life afterwards but is simply too young and naive to understand the emotional consequences of her decision, that her child will be removed from her seconds after birth and handed to another woman to raise. 

The situation is not much better for the wife who is made to feel as if she has failed in not having conceived a child during her 12 years of marriage. Both she and the grandmother who is so insistent on ensuring the existence of a male heir now that her husband has died and their only son is childless, express anxiety about Ok-nyeo’s youth, as did the women in the village, fearing that at 17 she is not yet physically or emotionally mature enough to bear a healthy child. The man they sent to select her seems to have done so out of personal preference, explaining that of all the women he picked a virgin though this raises several practical issues given the nature of surrogacy. Even so there is something quite perverse in the fact that it is the grandmother, the wife of a noble family of Confucianist scholars, who is actively participating in this system that renders women little more than wandering wombs now that she has the only real power that she will ever experience in her life as a widow turned head of household. 

On the other hand, it’s clear that this isn’t an ideal arrangement for the man either. The husband, Sang-kyu, is reluctant. He thinks it’s morally wrong and against his Confucianist philosophy while he is also attached to his wife and has no desire to sleep with other women. Nevertheless, he becomes attached to Ok-nyeo to a degree that is regarded as inappropriate by his family members and advisors, sneaking out to sleep with her for reasons other than conceiving an heir. When Ok-nyeo becomes pregnant they send him away to a temple in an attempt to sever their emotional connection, though he immediately sleeps with her again on his return despite the fact that she is already pregnant. For this transgression, Ok-nyeo’s mother is beaten while Ok-nyeo herself had earlier been punished for seducing him though she is completely confined to a single room for the entirety of her stay at the house lest anyone find out the embarrassing secret that the family have hired a surrogate. 

While Ok-nyeo and Sang-kyu make love in the bushes, drunken men from the party he’d been attending have a dull conversation about the nature of ancestral rites which is in its own way transgressive as they ask themselves where these ancestral spirits actually are, trying to make sense of what the rituals are for and what they mean but emerging with only confusion for they are largely meaningless. They praise women for rescuing the ancestral tablets at the expense of their children and constantly incur vast expense sacrificing food for those who can no longer eat. As someone remarks, the dead dislike their world and long to stay in ours but the living hardly live at all and spend all their time in service of those who are no longer here. All of it, this vast system that traps women like Ok-nyeo along with men like Sang-kyu the Confucian scholar, stems from this desire to placate departed souls at the expense of those still breathing. 

Yet Ok-nyeo is almost like a ghost herself, an invisible presence locked up in a backroom concealed as a dirty secret. Her mother reminds her that Sang-kyu is an aristocrat and she is not, they do not really regard her as human and what she is is stabled like a horse brought for mating to be taken home once the foal is born. They snuck her in by night and will insist that she leaves in darkness mere hours after her son’s birth. Meanwhile, she will be tortured by her captors who burn her stomach and force her to drink strange potions in the name of having a son. Sang-kyu too is forced to drink deer blood to improve his manliness while Ok-nyeo is advised to stare at the moon to the point of dizziness. She perhaps falls for Sang-kyu because he is her only real human contact though it appears they never actually speak to each other, while he discovers a kind of liberation in the permission to dispense with the sublimation of his sexual desire normally demanded by his Confucianist teachings. 

But few of them acknowledge the cruelty with which Ok-nyeo and the surrogate women are treated, the pain and despair her mother had tried to warn her of. Ok-nyeo had said anything was worth the price of 10 fields, but soon cries out that she’d give them all up for her son unable to accept that the boy will never be hers for to be a surrogate woman is to be denied one’s own existence. Caught in the night, she can only stare back through the fog as the carriage departs forever separating her from her child and the man she had unwisely come to love. As the closing titles explain, returning to the funereal scenes with which the film had opened, Ok-nyeo has become a victim of a society that prizes sons over daughters as have so many women like her even centuries later in which enlightenment has brought little freedom for those oppressed by class and patriarchy.


The Surrogate Woman screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Trailer (no subtitles)

Underground Rendezvous (만남의 광장, Kim Jong-jin, 2007)

Underground Rendezvous posterAt the very beginning of Kim Jong-jin’s Underground Rendezvous (만남의 광장, Mannamui Gwangjang), a group of kindly villagers in the north of Korea are caught by surprise when they unwittingly help to build the 38th parallel – a series of fortifications which will divide them from one another forevermore. Family members are trapped on different sides of an artificial border by a matter of accident rather than choice, a decision effectively made for them by the Americans and Russians amping up cold war hostility in engineering a proxy war over war-torn Korea.

30 years after the villagers sealed their own fates through being overly helpful, the South Korea of the 1980s is perhaps not so different from its Northern counterpart. A brief hope for democracy had once again been dashed and the land remained under the yoke of a cruel and oppressive dictatorship. Young-tan (Im Chang-jung), a boy from a poor village, is determined to escape his life of poverty by travelling to Seoul and studying to become a teacher. However, within five minutes of exiting the station, his country bumpkin ways see his only suitcase swiped by a street thief. An attempt to report the crime only gets him into trouble and so Young-tan is sent to a “re-education” camp in the mountains. Falling off the back of a truck, he gets lost and eventually ends up in a remote village where they assume, ironically enough, that he is the new teacher they’ve been expecting for the local school. The village, however, has a secret – one that’s set to be exposed thanks to Young-tan’s questions about a beautiful lady he saw bathing at the local watering hole.

Young-tan turns out to be a pretty good teacher, though not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. The village’s big secret is that the divided families were so attached to each other that they each started digging tunnels to the other side shortly after the wall went up and eventually met somewhere in the middle where they’ve built a large cave they use for underground reunions. Apparently existing for 30 years, no one outside of trusted citizens on either side knows about the tunnel’s existence. No one has used it to switch sides, the only purpose of the tunnel is for relatives and friends to mingle freely in defiance of the false division that’s been inflicted on them by outside forces.

Young-tan, however, is fixated on the bathing woman who turns out to be North Korean Sun-mi (Park Jin-hee) – the sister-in-law of the village chief. Thinking only of his crush and also a comparative innocent and devotee of the moral conservatism of ‘80s Korea, Young-tan catches sight of Sun-mi and the village chief and is convinced that the old man is molesting an innocent young maiden. He sets out to convince the villagers of this, little knowing the truth and unwittingly threatening to expose the entire enterprise through failing to understand the implications of his situation.

Kim pulls his punches on both sides of the parallel, only hinting at the oppressions present on each side of the border with Sun-mi fairly free in the North, working as the army propaganda officer in charge of the noisy broadcasts which attempt to tempt South Koreans to embrace the egalitarian “freedoms” on offer to defectors. Meanwhile the villagers in the South live fairly isolated from the unrest felt in the rest of the country, continuing a traditional, rural way of life but are also under the supervision of a local troop of bored army conscripts on the look out for North Korean spies. Nobody wants to defect, though perhaps there’d be little point in any case, but everyone longs for the day when families can all live together happily as they used to free from political interference.

Satire, however, is not quite the main aim. An absurd subplot sees the “real” teacher marooned on his own after taking a detour and accidentally standing on a landmine leaving him rooted to the spot on pain of death, but the majority of the jokes rest on Young-tan’s “misunderstandings” as a village outsider, goodnatured simpleton, and bullheaded idiot. A final coda tries to inject some meaning by hinting at the effects of repurposing the truth for political gain and the tempered happiness of those who get what they wanted only not quite in the way they wanted it, but it’s too little too late to lend weight to the otherwise uninspired attempts at comedy.


Currently streaming on Netflix UK (and possibly other territories)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

People in the Slum (꼬방동네 사람들, Bae Chang-ho, 1982)

People in the slum still 2The Korea of the early ‘80s was not an altogether happy place. One dictator fell in 1979, but hopes of returning to democracy were dashed when general Chun Doo-hwan staged a coup and instigated martial law, brutally suppressing a large scale democracy protest in Gwangju in 1980 (though the news of the incident was also suppressed at the time it took place). People in the Slums (꼬방동네 사람들, Kkobangdongne Salamdeul), adapted from the best selling novel by Lee Dong-cheol, is not an overtly political film but takes as its heroes those who have lost out in the nation’s bold forward march into the capitalist future. Opening with a voice over from the author himself, the film dedicates itself to “the memory of neighbours of bygone days”, remembering both the hardships but also the fierce sense of community and warmth to be found among those living at the bottom of the heap.

Myeong-suk (Kim Bo-yeon), a still young-ish woman with a young son, lives in a slum outside of the city with her second husband, Tae-sub (kim Hee-ra). Nicknamed “Black Glove” because of the glove she always wears on her right hand, Myeong-suk is about to open her own business – a small grocery store serving the local residents, but her happiness is tempered with anxiety. Tae-sub, despite his promises, steals money from Myeong-suk to go drinking and gambling, is occasionally violent, and does not get on with her son, Jun-il, who refers to him as Mr. Piggy. Jun-il is also a constant worry because he’s picked up a habit of stealing things and generally causing trouble around the neighbourhood. When Myeong-suk’s former husband and the father of Jun-il, Ju-seok (Ahn Sung-ki), catches sight of her by chance one day, the past threatens to eclipse the small hope of her future.

Life in the slums is not easy. There are few resources, few people are working and there are lots of children with no money to feed and clothe them. Fights are frequent but often unserious. The community pull together to support each other, turning out in force for the grand opening of Myeong-suk’s shop or the 60th birthday celebration of a fellow resident. Besides Myeong-suk, her second husband, and son, the slum is home to a collection of unusual characters from a widow who dresses in white and does strange dances to entertain the locals, to the pastor who does his best to help where he can. A poor drunken woman makes a fool of herself all over town, nursing a crush on the pastor but seemingly unable to move past her dependency on alcohol and whatever it is that caused it and landed her in the slum.

Myeong-suk’s early life would not have suggested her current trajectory, as Bae reveals in Ju-seok’s flashbacks of his courtship to the woman who would become his wife. Ju-seok, a pickpocket, spotted Myeong-suk on a bus and it was love at first sight. Eventually he married her but never revealed his illicit occupation until he was finally arrested. For the sake of his wife and child, Ju-seok attempts to go straight but his efforts are frustrated by bad luck, temptation, and unforgiving policemen. No matter how hard Ju-seok tries to be a decent, hardworking, family man, the economic instability of late ‘70s Korea will not allow him to do it.

Myeong-suk waits for him, but there comes a point she cannot wait anymore. Her second husband is no better than her first and, just like Ju-seok, is hiding something from her. Tae-sub is a bully and a bruiser who is only using Myeong-suk as a convenient place to hide. She cannot rely on him for affection, protection, or financial stability. Ju-seok, at least, did love Myeong-suk even if that love was the very thing which kept leading him back into a life of crime which then took him away from her. Once again love is a luxury the poor cannot afford .

Where the general atmosphere may seem destined for a tragedy for the resilient, suffering Myeong-suk, her damaged son, and reformed taxi-driver former husband, Bae gives them hope for a warmer, if not a better, future. As Myeong-suk prepares to leave the slum, the pastor, encircled by the residents, reads out a passage reminding the locals that a neighbour’s suffering is one’s own suffering while the drunken woman who previously hated children appears to have sobered up and happily hugs a child. Myeong-suk makes a selfless gesture of atonement and solidarity in giving the money from selling her shop to another single mother whose youngest three all have different fathers, perhaps indicating the difficulty of her life since the father of her eldest passed away. Tae-sub too reforms, decides to face the past he’s been running from and make amends for his former life, facilitating a possible reunion for the star-crossed lovers Myeong-suk and Ju-seok. The future suddenly looks brighter, but it remains uncertain and who knows if love and a taxi-driver’s salary will be enough to keep Ju-seok on the straight and narrow as a responsible husband and father in turbulent ‘80s Korea.


People in the Slum screens as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 which is hosting a mini Bae Chang-ho retrospective of three films at each of which the director will be present for a Q&A.

The film was also recently released on all regions blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. In addition to English subtitles on the main feature, the blu-ray also includes English subtitles for the commentary track by Bae Chang-ho and film critic Kim Sungwook, and comes with a bilingual booklet featuring essays by Jang Byung-won (programmer for Jeonju International Film Festival), Lee Yong-cheol (film critic), and Chris Berry (King’s College London).

You can also watch the entirety of the film legally and for free courtesy of the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.