Ieodo (異魚島 / 이어도, Kim Ki-young, 1977)

Ieoh Island restoration posterIn the hyper-masculine and intensely patriarchal atmosphere of Korea under Park Chung-hee, Kim Ki-young spins a tale of male obsolescence in the mysterious Ieodo (異魚島 / 이어도, AKA Ieoh Island). The eponymous island, apparently a kind of paradise home to the lonely ghosts of fishermen lost at sea, becomes a symbol of the impossible life drive of its impotent protagonists who find themselves taken by the island before their time while the community of women asserts its primacy in rendering men “redundant” through finding new ways to procreate.

The hero, Hyun Seon-woo (Kim Jeong-cheol), is an executive at a tourism company who is struggling to conceive a child with his wife and undergoing the early stages of IVF treatment. Alarmed to realise that his wife could have a child without him thanks to his frozen sperm, he throws himself into his work, planning for a new hotel development to be called “Ieodo” after the mythical fisherman’s paradise. Organising a publicity stunt in which journalists and industry guests are asked to board a boat to an unknown destination backfires spectacularly when a reporter, Chun Nam-seok (Choi Yoon-seok), becomes extremely upset and insists on turning the boat around on learning they will be heading towards the mythical island. Nam-seok accuses of the hoteliers of appropriating local culture, while even the boat’s captain expresses dismay at the thought of breaking such a strong taboo. Seon-woo offers to settle the matter with a drinking contest, eventually passing out during which time Nam-seok “falls” off the boat, leaving him the prime suspect in the man’s death. Convinced that Nam-seok must have taken his own life, he determines to investigate the case himself with the help of Nam-seok’s editor (Park Am).

Seon-woo’s quest takes him to the nearby island where Nam-seok was born, Parang – a place inhabited solely by women which all men must leave on having a child. Parang is a place where tradition reigns and superstition is prevalent. Guided to the local shamaness (Park Jeong-ja) by a timid widow, Seon-woo and the editor are told that Nam-seok’s family were under an ancestral curse in which all the men of previous generations were eventually taken by the “Water Ghost” of Ieodo, including Nam-seok’s own father. After his mother died of grief, Nam-seok tried to escape, but now, the villagers seem to believe, he too has returned to embrace his fate proving that the Water Ghost will always take what is hers by right.

In order to get around the lack of menfolk, the women practice what a friend of Nam-seok’s calls “both the most primitive and the most modern” form of marriage in which they copulate with men of their choosing during a candlelight ritual. Having sworn off having children himself, at least on the island owing to the curse, Nam-seok takes up with the wealthy widow Mrs. Park (Kwon Mi-hye) who finances his unusual business venture – an abalone farm designed to bring prosperity back to the island where the traditional diving business has begun to flounder thanks to the corruption of the modern world.

The fish in the ocean are dying because of industrial pollution – itself a problem produced by the thoughtless capitalism of the Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian regime and its relentless drive forward into economic dynamism at all costs. Watching his seed fall on stony ground (literally and figuratively), Nam-seok becomes enlightened to environmentalism, bemoaning that the ancestors of humanity cared for the planet for thousands of years only for recent generations to destroy it. It’s the end of the world, he says, everything is rotting. Which might, after a fashion, explain why everyone seems to be finding it so difficult so have children.

Nam-seok’s attempts to artificially breed abalone link straight back to Seon-woo’s inability to father a child with his wife whom, we are told in the very beginning, eventually died without ever giving birth. We’re told that sperm survives its host, that the sperm of a man who froze to death on the mountains was found to be perfectly viable once defrosted and that, therefore, Seon-woo himself is a largely irrelevant presence in his his wife’s ongoing quest to have a child. The island women too who do things the “traditional” way, had also stumbled on a way to conceive children in the absence of men, or at least in the absence of “living” men in realising that sperm could often be harvested from the dead and applied by means of ritual.

Kim returns to his favourite themes of sex and death as two literally become one. “All fears disappear when men and women unite”, the mysterious barmaid (Lee Hwa-si) tells an increasingly confused Seon-woo who has come to embody for her the soul of the lost Nam-seok whom she believes to be her spiritual husband. “Everything is only momentary”, he answers her, “eternity is a word which deceives us”. Seon-woo admires “the incredible energy of women who risk their lives to have children”, but if the island is to survive it can only be in the absence of his destructive male energy. Like countless men before him, he must leave, not for the paradise of Ieodo, but for the rapidly declining modern society, while a woman remains behind alone – the sole guardian of a child who is also, of course, the future.


Ieodo was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival. It is also available on English subtitled blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a complete script (Korean only) bilingual booklet, commentary by critic & director Chung Sung-ill, commentary featuring critic Kim Young-jin and director Oh Seung-uk (not subtitled), an interview with actress Lee Hwa-si, and clips of Lee Hwa-si with Jeong Beom-sik, and Park Jeong-ja with Lee Yoon-ho (no subtitles).

Mist (안개, Kim Soo-yong, 1967)

Mist 1967 posterBy 1967 Korea’s fortunes were beginning to expand. For the young, the future held promise but the nature of that promise was still indistinct. Often considered his masterpiece, 1967’s Mist (안개, Angae, AKA The Foggy Town) was another in the series of literary adaptations for which director Kim Soo-yong had become well known but its avant-garde mise-en-scène and gloomy outlook stand in stark contrast to the heartrending melodramas with which the genre was synonymous. Economic prosperity and superficial success have provoked only emptiness and despair, but a return to source provides little clarity for one harried salaryman lost in the expanding landscape of Korea’s global ambitions.

A poor boy from a remote coastal village, Gi-joon (Shin Seong-il) is now a successful salaryman in the capital where the constant clacking of typewriters, ringing of telephones, and racing of traffic rub at his tired mind. The fact of the matter is Gi-joon is not all that successful – he owes his position to having married the widowed daughter of the CEO. His wife and father-in-law, however, have relatively little faith in his business acumen and so, with the annual shareholders meeting on the horizon, they suggest he get out of the way by paying a visit to his hometown. Gi-joon is not all that happy to be going back, he hated Mujin with its unrelenting fog and general air of existential malaise, but he’s spineless and so he goes, despite himself.

Taking the train, Gi-joon has plenty of time to dwell on his past, literally seeing reflections of his younger self and entering extended flashbacks of memory. Mimicking the stream of consciousness approach of the novel, Gi-joon provides frequent voiceover, introducing his hometown in a less than favourable light as a place which traps its young who yearn to be free of its oppressive boredom. According to the irritated dialogue of two passengers on the bus (which Gi-joon has to take after his lengthy train journey), Mujin is a nothing sort of town where the sea is too shallow for fishing and the fields to narrow for farming, yet the population is large and largely survives on desperation alone, isolated by the oppressive fog that envelops the landscape each and every morning.

Gi-joon characterises the residents of Mujin as petty and materialistic. Having longed to escape, he thought he’d achieved his dreams in Seoul but a trip home forces him to reconsider what it is he’s become. In truth he’s no different from the petty and materialistic villagers he looked down on in their need to look down on each other. Powerlessness has defined his life. As a young man, he resorted to hiding in a cupboard to escape the draft on the orders of his terrified mother and later suffered from weak lungs which made him something of a local laughing stock. Now he’s set for a big promotion in the city but, as his wife reminds him, he wouldn’t even be there if it weren’t for her. Gi-joon’s marriage is one of convenience but it’s clear his wife holds all the cards – a wealthy widow with ambition needs a husband to act as a foil, and a weak willed man like Gi-joon is just the sort to submit himself to her authority in return for the obvious benefits she can offer him. Gi-joon has gained everything he ever dreamed of, but he feels only despair, oppressed by the very system he longed to be a part of.

Back in Mujin his various self delusions are rammed home to him. Trapped once again by the unrelenting fog, he longs to escape from his Seoul life and free himself from the yoke of his marriage and career. Whilst in town he meets up with old friends who introduce him to recent arrival Ha In-sook ( Yoon Jeong-hee) – an opera student turned music teacher who has joined the local school. In-sook is by far the most exciting thing in the extremely boring town, but Gi-joon is worried he’s stepped into the middle of something when he realises his old friend, Park, now a teacher, has a crush on In-sook while another old friend, Cho, now a status obsessed tax inspector, may also have marital designs.

Gi-joon didn’t need to worry about the tax inspector – as it turns out, he thinks he can do better than a mere music teacher and plans to marry up, much like Gi-joon has. Gi-joon bristles slightly at this, as he does to Cho’s lewd story about how he trapped In-sook on an overnight trip and planned to have a fling with her but she managed to get away (much to Gi-joon’s relief). Back home Gi-joon sees reflections of himself everywhere and particularly doesn’t like this alignment of himself with the ugly ambition of men like Cho who only want to lord it over their former friends. More flatteringly he sees his younger self in the depressed, conflicted In-sook who is already going half mad in the stultifying rural town and longs to go back to Seoul. Despite mild qualms about his friends’ feelings, Gi-joon finds himself bonding with the melancholy young woman who again forces him to see himself the way he really is rather than as the idealised personality he’d constructed for himself as a successful Seoul salaryman.

Bonding in their existential loneliness, the two eventually embark on a tender if melancholy affair which, despite their protestations to the contrary, is built on self delusions if not exactly on lies. Gi-joon intends to take In-sook to Seoul, but he won’t, and In-sook knows she won’t leave even if she wants to believe in the possibility of rescue. The world for them is as foggy and indistinct as the mists around the beaches of Mujin. Filled with emptiness and despair, they remain adrift in the post-war society unable to accept the soulless compromises of conventionality but finding no escape from their self imposed prisons.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Soo-yong box set. Also available to stream for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Homebound (歸路 / 귀로, Lee Man-hee, 1967)

homeboundLee Man-hee was one of the most prolific and high profile filmmakers of Korea’s golden age until his untimely death at the age of 43 in 1975. Like many directors of the era he had his fare share of struggles with the censorship regime enduring more than most when he was arrested for contravention of the code with his 1965 film Seven Female POWs and later decided to shelve an entire project in 1968’s A Day Off rather than tailor it to the concerns of the day. For these reasons it’s not difficult to read a political message into Lee’s 1967 tale of the (im)possibility of escape from a moribund marriage, Homebound (歸路 / 귀로, Gwiro). Like her country, Ji-yoen finds herself at a crossroads in the battle scarred post-war world which asks her to choose between a life of miserable servitude in fulfilment of her duty or one of accepting the painfulness of public disapproval in choosing to strike out for a happier future.

For fourteen years, Ji-yeon (Moon Jeong-suk) has been more caretaker than wife to her paralysed war hero husband, Dong-u (Kim Jin-gyu), who is so absorbed in his own sense of impotence that he has almost come to resent the extreme sacrifice he feels his wife has made for him. Dong-u is now a writer earning his living through serialised newspaper stories which at least affords Ji-yoen the opportunity of frequent trips into the city to deliver his manuscripts and meet with the publishers.

As it happens, the novel Dong-u is currently writing has a meta-dimension in that it’s extremely close to his own life. The ongoing story of a paralysed writer and his “saintly” wife who endures all hardships to stay at her husband’s side has proved popular with readers but now the editor is minded to warn Ji-yoen that some are becoming bored with the wife’s unrealistic goodness. They want something more human, he says, that sort of devotedness is nothing short of dull. Offended (the editor is almost talking about her real life, after all), Ji-yeon storms out leaving her bag behind. A young reporter, Gang Uk (Kim Jeong-cheol), runs out after her and becomes instantly smitten. This fateful meeting will lead to a number of subsequent ones but like the heroine of the story the jury is out on whether Ji-yeon should leave her embittered husband for a better life with a younger man, or accept the vow she made as his wife and stay by his side no matter how unhappy it will ultimately make her.

Ji-yeon’s life is undoubtedly a difficult one despite her frequent protestations that she’s happy with her husband and could never love anyone else. Dong-u is forever trapped in the past, dreaming of his military glory and unable to accept his new life to move forward into the increasingly modern world. An early scene sees Ji-yeon deliver a letter congratulating him on the fourteenth anniversary of his wartime service. Dong-u asks Ji-yeon to help him into his uniform after which he puts on a recording of a parade and attempts to stand and salute only to immediately fall over, leading to a brief flashback of the battlefield as Ji-yeon cowers to the side, only later lifting the needle to end the ordeal.

Trapped within his own history, Dong-u berates himself for his physical failings in being unable to be a “full” husband to his self sacrificing wife. The couple have separate bedrooms and share no particular intimacy, barely even friends let alone husband and wife. Dong-u’s bitterness is all encompassing, claiming to be in regret of a sacrifice he feels has been made on his behalf which only brings him additional guilt for destroying his wife’s future happiness as the childless wife of a paralysed man. This same internalised frustration leads him to treat Ji-yeon coldly in intense resentment for the way in which she forces him to feel all of these negative emotions.

Receiving affection only from the family dog, few would blame Ji-yeon if she did find herself a way out through romance. Even Dong-u’s sister who confronts Ji-yeon after catching sight of her with Gang Uk expresses sympathy for her situation, but urges the couple to divorce in order to prevent greater suffering further down the line. Ji-yeon is torn between her uncertain feelings for Gang Uk and her duty as a wife to her husband. At one point, Ji-yeon asks a question about who in the world is the most unfortunate only to answer that it is the person who can neither be respected or hated. She can’t bear the idea of being the woman who abandoned her disabled husband for a younger man, but neither can she endure untold years of respect as his devoted wife trapped in that lonely, claustrophobic house forever.

Torn between modernity in the form of her young lover, and tradition in the form of her embittered former soldier, Ji-yeon is in a similar dilemma to her nation as she looks out at a transformed Seoul standing ready to strike out onto the world stage only to return home to her dark and dingy Incheon cottage which almost seems to exist in the never was of fourteen years before. Her final decision is an ambiguous one, paralysed in indecision as she longs for forward movement but is terrified to accept it. Lee’s film is subtle and subversive, not least in its social messages which lean towards individual freedom and happiness over duty bound tradition even whilst suggesting that those two ideals may be impossible to achieve. Shot in a crisp black and white, Homebound is a study in alienation with its claustrophobic angles and wide sweeping shots of the prospering city which seems to warn that those caught between the past and the future are likely to find themselves crushed by fear and memory in equal measure.