Sorrow Even Up in Heaven (저 하늘에도 슬픔이, Kim Soo-yong, 1965)

It’s a sorry enough tale to hear that many silent classics no longer exist, regarded only as disposable entertainment and only latterly collected into archives and preserved as valuable film history, but in the case of South Korea even mid and late 20th century films are unavailable thanks to the country’s turbulent political history. Though often listed among the greats of 1960s Korean cinema, Sorrow Even Up in Heaven (저 하늘에도 슬픔이, Jeo Haneuledo Seulpeumi) was presumed lost until a Mandarin subtitled print was discovered in an archive in Taiwan. Now given a full restoration by the Korean Film Archive, Kim’s tale of societal indifference to childhood poverty has finally been returned to its rightful place in cinema history but, as Kim’s own attempt to remake the film 20 years later bears out, how much has really changed?

11 year old Yun-bok has been forced out of his home and into a makeshift hovel near the river thanks to his gambling addicted invalid father’s inability to look after his four now destitute children. Yun-bok likes to narrate his life as a kind of letter to his absent mother who seems to have abandoned the family for unclear reasons possibly related to her husband’s drinking and gambling problem. Attending school as normal in an attempt to work hard and get an education so he can take care of the family in an adult world, Yun-bok, along with his younger sister Sun-na, spends his free time selling sticks of gum in the streets to try and earn enough money to feed everyone before his father drinks and gambles it all away.

Despite his obviously difficult circumstances, Yun-bok remains steadfast in his desire to stick by his family and take care of his siblings. Berated by the teacher for arriving late, Yun-bok finds an ally in a schoolmate who just wants to help even though many of the others shun him because of his raggedy clothes and lice infested hair. Eventually a teacher notices Yun-bok’s distress and urges him to write his struggles in a diary – which he does much as he’d been narrating his days in his imagined conversations with his mother. Moved by Yun-bok’s heartending descriptions of his life on the starvation line, the teacher manages to get the diaries to the newspapers who begin publishing them as a public interest column but just when it looks as if things maybe looking up for the family, Yun-bok loses heart and hops a freight train to look for Sun-na who has run away from home after an argument.

Korea in the 1960s was a difficult place, still bearing the scars of both WWII and the Korean War not to mention the resultant political turmoil. Nevertheless, by 1965 things had begun to pick up as seen in the flip side to Yun-bok’s sorry state of affairs – the various bars and drinking establishments he manages to work his way into in order to sell a few more sticks of gum. These places are filled with the sound of popular music where affluent young couples dance The Twist and salarymen in dark suits cement their business relationships over drinks. For some, everything is going fine but a concerted effort is being made to unsee the kind of unpleasantness which lurks below growing economic prosperity as manifested by 11 year old boys somehow responsible for the maintenance of a family of five.

As one teacher puts it, you can’t break the mirror because you don’t like what you see. Though there are some willing to help Yun-bok (at least to an extent) including his school friend who comes from a well to do family only too glad to set some food aside for Yun-bok and his siblings, out in the real world he finds only other desperate people willing to stoop to theft and violence against a child for nothing more than a few pennies. Many of these episodes are distressing as Yun-bok has his shoeshine kit stolen by an older boy or is violently beaten by a grown man at the harbour but the most serious occurs in the city when he is accused of pickpocketing by some louts who kidnap him and strip him naked for otherwise unclear reasons.

Though Sorrow Even Up in Heaven has a broadly positive ending as Yun-bok’s circumstances seem set to improve thanks to his accidental fame, Kim is quick to point out that there are many Yun-boks out there who can’t all become media sensations. Like many child heroes of classic Korean cinema, Yun-bok remains morally good – the idea of theft occurs to him but he remembers his teacher saying that everything will work out as long as his heart is pure, and his only transgression lies in spending a few pennies on himself to get something to eat and thereby work harder for his family (and for this he pays a heavy price). Even so his circumstances are portrayed in a naturalistic rather than melodramatic fashion neatly undercutting the inherent sentimentality of the material. Though Kim’s approach is closer to neorealism in the early scenes, he mixes in touches of magical realism with the ghostly appearances of Yun-bok’s mother which, alongside impressive montage and superimposition sequences, lend Yun-bok’s story an elevated cinematic quality. Remade several times over the last forty years, Sorrow Even up in Heaven remains sadly timeless in its depiction of an earnest young boy who knows only kindness and honesty even while those around him remain wilfully indifferent or actively cruel in the face of his continued suffering.


 

Aimless Bullet (오발탄, AKA Obaltan, Yu Hyun-mok, 1961)

Post-war cinema took many forms. In Korea there was initial cause for celebration but, shortly after the end of the Japanese colonial era, Korea went back to war, with itself. While neighbouring countries and much of the world were engaged in rebuilding or reforming their societies, Korea found itself under the corrupt and authoritarian rule of Syngman Rhee who oversaw the traumatic conflict which is technically still ongoing if on an eternal hiatus. Yu Hyun-mok’s masterwork Aimless Bullet (오발탄, Obaltan) takes place eight years after the truce was signed, shortly after mass student demonstrations led to Rhee’s unseating which was followed by a short period of parliamentary democracy under Yun Posun ending with the military coup led by Park Chung-hee and a quarter century of military dictatorship. Of course, Yu could not know what would come but his vision is anything but hopeful. Aimless Bullets all, this is an entire nation left reeling with no signposts to guide the way and no possible destination to hope for. All there is here is tragedy, misery, and inevitable suffering with no possibility of respite.

Nominal head of the family Cheolho (Kim Jin-kyu) has an OK job as an accountant but still he can’t make ends meet and his small family consisting of his wife, two children, war hero younger brother Yeongho (Choi Moo-ryong), unmarried sister Myeongsuk (Seo Ae-ja), and senile mother with wartime PTSD lives in a makeshift hovel in the middle of a fetid slum. Yeongho may have distinguished himself on the battlefield, but now the war is over society can’t find a use for him and so he remains jobless and another drain on his brother’s resources. In many ways he was one of the lucky ones, returning from the war with physical and mental scars but no permanent impairments. Myeongsuk’s former fiancé was not so lucky and requires the use of crutches to get around leading him to reject the woman he loves in the belief that he will never be anything more than a burden to all around him.

Cheolho suffers with a persistent toothache which he refuses to get treatment for despite the constant urging from his colleagues because he cannot in good conscience consider spending the money on himself when he has so many people with so many different needs to take care of. His toothache is not just a toothache but a manifestation of the unending torment of life in this ruined city defined by despair, madness, and cruelty.

The film begins with broken glass – a motif which will be repeated throughout as the structural integrity of this makeshift environment is repeatedly tested and repeatedly fails. A group of former soldiers is drinking in a bar, each lamenting their sorry progress in the post-war world. Yeongho remarks that he feels like a broken bowl – something used up and ready for the scrap heap. The country he fought so hard to protect has no place for him now the fighting is done. After such a long time searching for work, Yeongho is finally offered a promising job by an old flame currently working as an actress in the fledgling film industry, but the part they’ve offered him is that of a war veteran with similar scarring to his own. The studio want realism and casually ask him to remove his shirt and show off the traces of bullet holes on his side which is a step too far for Yeongho who objects to his wartime service being “exploited” in such a mercenary way. Insulted and not wanting to dishonour the memories of his fallen comrades Yeongho storms out only to later reconsider and realise he may have been foolish to turn down such a promising opportunity despite his indignation.

It isn’t just bowls and glass which end up shattered but dreams too as love lies bleeding in a land of permanent despair. Yeongho seems like something of a ladies’ man but re-encountering a kindly nurse he met at the front he begins to feel another life is possible. This particular dream is complicated by the presence of a disturbed neighbour who has also fallen in love with the nurse and stops by late at night to read her poetry despite the fact that she has taken to waving a gun to scare him off.

Cheolho has committed himself to living honestly, even if it means his family suffers. Yeongho is beginning to wonder if his philosophy is worth suffering for, why should they have to keep living like this when they could abandon conventional morality and humanitarian concerns and become rich through immoral means. Myeongsuk, abandoned by the love of her life and unable to find work, has fallen into prostitution, another effect of the ongoing American military presence. Yeongho, having lost all hope, makes a drastic decision of his own but one which is destined to be as ill fated as each of his other dreams, hollow and unfulfillable as they are.

Experiencing a moment of selfish indulgence born of total despair, Cheolho finally gets his tooth seen to. Actually he asks the dentist to just pull all his teeth right now but medical ethics suggest that’s not a good idea. Ignoring the dentist’s advice, Cheolho roams the streets of the city before stopping into another dental clinic for more “treatment”. Dazed and bloody he steps into a taxi but confuses his drivers by changing his mind on destinations from the morgue to the hospital to the police station. The Aimless Bullet of the title, as the cabbie calls him, Cheolho can only echo the words of his senile mother, “let’s go”, even if he has no idea where. Earlier in the film another character has the same dilemma and frames it as a joke – ask a dying man where he’s going, he says, and he’ll tell you he doesn’t know. There is nowhere for Cheolho to go. His road is blocked, his meter running. Korea is directionless and lost, a desolate land of broken bowls and ruined hearts too tired to keep moving even if there were any destination available.

So relentlessly bleak, it’s little wonder that the film ran into censorship problems which eventually saw it pulled from cinema screens. Legend has it censors objected to the frequent refrains of “let’s go” from the bedridden mother which they interpreted as “let’s go to North Korea” as opposed to the “just let us die” which seems to be the much darker message implied by her later talk of sheep and green pastures. Everything here is broken, caged, ruined. There is no way out or possibility of salvation in this life or any other. Lasting only a few seconds, the film’s most shocking moment passes with little to no reaction as Yeongho, on the run from the police, dashes past the body of a woman who has hanged herself with her crying baby still tied to her back. Yeongho, and presumably the police chasing him, ignore both the body and the wailing of the child in their self obsessed propulsion forwards. A warning – but one which is heeded only too late.


Short scene from the film (English subtitles)

Aimless Bullet is available on English subtitled region free blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive but you can currently watch the HD restoration version of the film in its entirety legally and for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel. (You may have to sign in and “confirm” you’re a grown up.)

Homebound (귀로, Lee Man-hee, 1967)

homeboundLee Man-hee was one of the most prolific and high profile fillmakers 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 Holiday 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 (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-yoen (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 an 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 acheive. 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.


 

Tuition (수업료 , Choi In-gyu & Bang Han-joon, 1940)

tuition largeLong thought lost, Tuition (수업료, Su-eop-ryo) is an unusual example of Korean film made during the Japanese colonial period. Released in 1940, the film depicts the lives of ordinary people facing hardship during difficult economic conditions though there is no reference made to the ongoing military situation. The story itself is inspired by a prize winning effort by a real life school boy who was doubtless experiencing something similar to the trials of Yeong-dal, however, directors Choi In-gyu and Bang Han-joon made several subversive changes to the script at the filming stage in an attempt to get around the censorship regulations.

Schoolboy Yeong-dal lives alone with his grandmother after his parents have left to try and make more money. The pair are struggling to get by already and the grandmother is so exhausted that she’s beginning to become too ill to continue working. Yeong-dal’s biggest preoccupation is the money for his school fees, they’re already a few months behind and besides it being embarrassing in front of his friends, he’s worried he’ll be kicked out altogether. They’ve also got the landlord breathing down their necks and the threat of eviction hanging over them too. When the worst comes to the worst, Yeong-dal sets off on a long and arduous journey walking to his aunt’s house in a distant village in the hope that she will lend him the money for his school fees.

The original script for Tuition was written entirely in Japanese as was common for the era. However, at the shooting stage, the directors put most of the dialogue back into Korean other than that which would naturally occur in Japanese. The kids are taught in Japanese at school – their Japanese tutor doesn’t even really understand Korean as can be seen when he decides to visit Yeong-dal’s home to see why he hasn’t been coming to class and struggles to converse with his grandmother. At home and in the streets everyone speaks Korean to each other, Japanese is reserved for official occasions only.

That said, the tuition the children are receiving is entirely geared to turning them into loyal Japanese citizens. They read about mainland Japanese history with an unusual amount of passion for school kids reciting from a text book, enjoying exciting stories of ancient battles somehow separated from the real political context of the time. Likewise, as Yeong-dal makes his arduous solo road trip, it’s a Japanese military song he sings to raise his spirits rather than a Korean folk tune or familiar lullaby.

Aside from the political ramifications, the reasons the film proved so popular at the time were more likely to do with the feel  good story of a small boy so committed to his studying, and to the honesty of being able to pay for it, that he’d walk miles and miles all alone solely for the promise of being able to ask a family member to borrow the money. Actually, his aunt seems to be extremely well off when he gets there and gives him a huge bag of rice as well as the tuition fees so one has to wonder why Yeong-dal and grandma haven’t upped sticks and gone to stay with her ages ago rather than endure this life of extreme hardship and near starvation. It is, however, a happy ending for little Yeong-dal who finds his perseverance and determination rewarded and not only that, his struggles have also inspired his schoolmates to start a charity collection to help other pupils who find themselves unable to pay the school fees.

Tuition isn’t particularly notable in terms of its directing style which remains relatively simple though typical of the time, but does offer an interesting window into the cinema of the late colonial period which has often been difficult to see. The film’s child’s eye view of economic hardship which is filled more with shame and worry than it is with fear, also make it an interesting addition to the world of depression era children’s cinema inviting comparisons with the films of Hiroshi Shimizu which appear to have influenced Tuition to some degree. Only recently rediscovered, Tuition is an invaluable resource for the history of Korean cinema but is also the heartwarming tale of an earnest little boy winning through despite almost insurmountable odds.


Tuition is the fifth film in the Korean Film Archives The Past Unearthed Project which is attempting to recover some of these lost and hidden films from the 1930s and 40s. Like the majority of releases from the Korean Film Archive, Tuition includes English subtitles and comes packaged in an elegant slipcase. The set also includes a beautifully designed booklet which resembles an old fashioned school excercise book and as usual also contains an English translation of the original Korean text. The DVD itself is region free!

Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, Park Kwang-su, 1988)

Chilsu MansuThough not a big box office hit at the time of its release, Park Kwang-su’s Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, Chil-su wa Man-su) is not only fondly remembered by its contemporary audience chiefly because of the amusing performances of its still popular leading actors, but is also credited with kicking off what would become known as Korean New Wave. Released in 1988 and set sometime in 1987, this is the new Seoul emerging into democracy after decades of military rule and looking ahead to the glory of the 1988 Seoul olympics. However, as ever, the future has not been evenly distributed and there are those who find themselves unable to climb its ladder through no fault of their own.

Based on a story by (banned at the time) Taiwanese writer Huang Chunming, the film begins with the blaring sirens which denote a “civil defence drill” is about to take place. Chilsu is forced off the bus he’d been travelling on and takes refuge in a video arcade where he encounters college student Jina. After the drill ends Chilsu continues to pursue her at her job working part-time in a Burger King. When he gets back to work, Chilsu finds that his boss has paid someone else to cover the time he was missing. Chilsu argues with him and quits but pesters the man he’s just met, Mansu, to take him on as an assistant and help him find work. The pair become friends and begin working together as billboard painters but one fateful outburst seems fit to change both of their lives forever.

Chilsu is an animated fellow who’s constantly wandering off to do his own thing to the consternation of everyone else. He’s a chancer and an opportunist and, as it turns out, a compulsive liar. Almost everything he says is untrue. In order to get closer Jina, he tells her he’s an art student and tries to impress her by speaking English with stories of going to America to study where his brother has a house in Miami. He dresses like Bruce Springsteen and has Stars and Stripes patterned T-shirts but his taste for Americana is merely aspirational, he has no education or connections and his stories about going to America to study are a fantasy. He does have an older sister who has apparently been disowned by their father for fraternising with Americans and may have have gone to America with a man, but no one even knows if she’s alive or dead.

Mansu, by contrast is sullen and standoffish. He drinks too much and says little though his anger is of the subdued kind. His problem is that his father had, and continues to have, communist sympathies which he refuses to renounce. This causes a problem for Mansu because each time he receives a background check he gets flagged up and in one notable instance he’s refused a passport that would enable him to take an overseas job precisely because of his father’s record. He’s trapped in poorly paid menial work through no fault of his own simply because of something that his father did that is nothing at all to do with him.

Chilsu is also resentful of his father who worked as a “houseboy” for the American military but now does nothing much of anything at all. After Chilsu’s mother died, his father remarried and lives off his second wife’s earnings. A drunk and a layabout, Chilsu’s father sets a poor example for his son who is terrified of becoming just as feckless and miserable as his deadbeat dad. Both men are paying the price for the actions of the previous generation who have left them with nothing but barriers preventing them from escaping the years of difficulty for the bright and shining future that men like themselves are building for other people’s sons to prosper in.

The climax of the film occurs as the pair are just finishing a giant billboard for an alcoholic drink and are taking a break. Chilsu climbs up on top of the billboard and Mansu goes up to join him. The pair get chatting and Chilsu eventually confesses his lies as he realises all of his dreams have been shattered. He has no hope left, no possible future to consider. Mansu is now angry for both of them and takes this opportunity to scream in rage into the uncaring void that is the expanding city below. Obviously, they can’t be heard or understood but the pair’s wild gesticulations create quite a show for the people down below and a crowd starts to gather. This results in the police being called and a further agressive motion by Chilsu makes them think the pair have petrol bombs. Neither of the two quite realises the fuss they’ve caused by unwittingly making a “political protest”, possible suicide bid or perhaps both. This absurd misunderstanding will have profound consequences for both of them.

This final scene continues the tragicomical tone that has characterised the film so far which adds to its absurdist quality rather than pushing it into a harder political statement. Chilsu and Mansu was the first film of Park Kwang-su who had already been politically active during the dark years of the dictatorship and was committed to socially-conscious filmmaking. Kicking off a similar trend for years to come, Chilsu and Mansu is an early example of commercial realist cinema that although not a big hit on original release has gone on to be regarded as an enormously important step in the history of modern Korean cinema.


Chilsu and Mansu is the fourth in the Korean Film Archive’s series of remastered blu-ray releases and like the others in the series includes English subtitles on not only the main feature but also the commentary track with director Park Kwang-su and film critic Kim Young-jin. The discs also boast an image gallery and the set comes with a 42 page booklet in both English and Korean plus a 20 page photo booklet.

You can also watch the entirety of Chilsu and Mansu (pre-restoration version) with English subtitles for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel

No trailer but here’s a prominent song from the film’s soundtrack which includes some early Korean rap:

The March of Fools (바보들의 행진, Ha Kil-Jong, 1975)

March of FoolsAside from the original 1960 version of The Housemaid (and this perhaps only because of its modern “remake”), mid 20th century Korean Cinema has been severely neglected overseas. Ha Kil-jong’s The March of Fools (바보들의 행진, Babodeul-ui haengjin) is almost unknown abroad but consistently tops Korean lists of the country’s best cinema and has been both enormously influential on later filmmakers and fondly remembered by audiences.

The story centres around two philosophy students, Byeong-tae and Yeong-cheol who are making the most of their youthful freedom. Beginning as a camp comedy, the film follows the pair as they rub up against oppressive squares who take issue with their longish hair (as in one comical sequence where they amusingly escape from a policeman who could do with a trim himself) or berate them for smoking on campus. They’re pretty broke most of the time but they each pay a couple of bucks to go to a mixer to meet girls and they both spend the rest of the movie chasing their respective ladies. Byeong-tae ends up leaving the party to meet his date, Young-ja, outside but she makes him wait for her at a snack stand before flirting with her professor to try and get a better grade. Only partially succeeding, she then asks Byeong-tae to write the paper for her in return for a proper date. Yeong-cheol has much less luck with Young-sook who declares him “boring” and walks out, but the pair meet again a few times later.

Yes, there are drinking parties and sports – the authentic “college” experience, but these are turbulent times and though Ha Kil-jong is prevented from including as much political action as he’d have liked, the subtext of student rebellion hangs in the background. The film caused trouble with the censors at the scripting stage and even once completed was subject to a number of cuts which removed all references to student protests or so called “immoral behaviour”.

The cheerfulness of the early part of the film is there to deepen the despair present in its later moments, though this same despair and desperation were the things the censorship office sought to dampen with their frighteningly effective yet often minimal cuts and changes to the innovative editing structure. All of these young people talk about their dreams for the future and mostly these are small personal things, no one talks about changing the world or getting into politics. However, all are also facing the fact that the dreams they’re chasing are unattainable. They have no positive future or freedom to change their own path – a job, a marriage, children, death. All mapped out already, but if you fall from one of the branches, there’s nowhere to go but down.

Young-ja sort of knows this, she jokes around by saying she wouldn’t marry Byeong-tae because they’re the same age. He’ll be drafted into the army, then have to finish university, so she’ll be “an old maid” before their lives can even get started. She would be better off to find an older man who’s already been through the army, finished his education and has a steady a job. Byeong-tae is also a philosophy student which doesn’t exactly scream employment potential either. Yet, when the couple are to be separated at the end of the film in a scene which has become a landmark in Korean cinema history, she shows her true feelings for the first time as, perhaps, she is about to watch her dream pull away from her.

Yeong-cheol keeps repeating the same strange dream of going whale hunting after he becomes rich. He also always rides a bicycle but every time someone asks him about it he looks confused and says “this is my car”. Yeong-cheol is the weedier of the pair and has failed the military examination which takes place at the beginning of the film because of his poor eye sight. He couldn’t go into the military even if he wanted to and is much less equipt in terms of his personality to cope with the quite turbulent environment of 1970s student radicalism with the constant university shutdowns and pressure from above to conform to the standards of the time.

The “Fools” of the title are the young people like Byeong-tae and Yeong-cheol who know everything is pointless but somehow persist with their ideals and maintain the idea, at least, of a brighter future even if not actively pursuing any kind of “revolution”. Ha Kil-jong was educated in America alongside such contemporaries as Francis Ford Coppola and brought some of that mid 1960s radicalism back with him when he returned to Korea in 1970. Because of the effects of the censorship placed on the film which not only required dialogue to be erased or scenes to be cut entirely but even disrupted the sequence of the editing, the finished film is not necessarily the one which Ha was trying make but does place him among one of the most innovative directors working in the comparatively difficult 1970s Korean Cinema environment. Sadly, after making two sequels to this film Ha Kil-jong died of a stroke at the tragically young age of only 38 robbing us of the masterpieces which would surely have followed. At least with the stunning restoration completed by the Korean film archive which presents the film in the “most complete” form possible, his vision might be more clearly seen by viewers around the world.


The March of Fools is the second film in the Korean Film Archive’s series of blu-ray releases and like the other films in the collection includes English subtitles for the main feature as well as for the commentary track but also features an English language commentary from Korean film expert Darcy Paquet as well as some of the censored footage and comes with a 42 page booklet in both Korean and English.

Unsubtitled extract from towards the end of the film:

 

Heavenly Homecoming to Stars (별들의 고향, Lee Jang-ho, 1974)

%EB%B3%84%EB%93%A4%EC%9D%98_%EA%B3%A0%ED%96%A52In writing the original novel which inspired Heavenly Homecoming to Stars, Choi In-ho stated that he wanted to tell the story of “a woman whom a city killed”. The novel itself was first serialised in a newspaper where it quickly became a must read and popular discussion point among readers of all ages. It’s perhaps less surprising then that this completely radical film adaptation by first time director Lee Jang-ho proved to be the big cinema hit of 1974. A new “youth culture” movement was beginning inspired by social and political developments from overseas and there was a growing appetite for films and novels which were equally revolutionary. Heavenly Homecoming to Stars managed to provide this but also, crucially, was able to appeal to older age ranges too thanks to its re-imagining of classical melodrama.

In essence, Heavenly Homecoming to Stars is a traditional “fallen woman” narrative. Told in non-linear fashion, the film follows the sorry tale of Gyeong-a and her relationships with four different men each of whom contributes to her downfall. At the earliest point we see her she’s a cheerful young woman like any other working in an office in the city. She finds first love with her co-worker and the pair plan to marry but before they do Yeon-seok pressures her into sex. It’s at this point that everything goes wrong for her as in order to acquiesce to his desires, she begins drinking.

Later she winds up marrying a middle-aged widower with a young daughter but Man-jun is not the man she thought he was and is still nursing a wound from having driven his first wife to suicide through his jealous and increasingly erratic behaviour. After finding out about Gyeong-a’s past, he too leaves her.

Man three is Dong-heok, a rough and violent pimp who turns her into a bar hostess which only increases her reliance on alcohol. Before we meet the quasi-hero of our story, melancholy artist Mun-ho, Gyeong-a is already an alcoholic and well on the way to her own ruin.

Truthfully, Mun-ho may have been able to save Gyeong-a, but he doesn’t. We already know that things don’t end well for her – the film begins with its epilogue as Mun-ho carries a little white box full of ashes across a frozen forest. Hers is a sorry tale though one that’s been told hundreds of times over the course of history and, sadly, will likely continue to be told for centuries to come. Choi In-ho says the city killed her, but it’s only partly “the city” – what it really is is a cruel and patriarchal society which permits men to use and discard women relegating them to a kind of underclass from which it is impossible to escape. Gyeong-a is a woman among hundreds who came to the city in search of a better life and contributed to Korea’s modernisation but found herself sacrificed its name.

Having said that the tone is one of sadness much more than anger. The strict censorship practices of the time placed severe limitations on what could be expressed in a film such as this though, sadly, the ballad of Gyeong-a is one audiences of all ages could identify with. Though it condemns the behaviour of the men in Gyeong-a’s life it does not so much call for change as for lament. Gyeong-a was young, naive and in need of protection which she was denied at every turn – first from the anonymous and unfeeling city and then by its self centred men who took what they wanted from her and callously discarded her afterwards when she no longer fulfilled their standards of a “pure woman”.

Yet, Gyeong-a remains a “pure woman” at heart. Innocent and true, she dies alone in the snow, a woman still young yet ruined by drink, dreaming of her first lover who was also the cause of all of her later misfortune. We’ll be singing the ballads of a hundred Gyeong-as until the sun goes out, but that doesn’t make her story any less sad. Lee Jong-ho’s directorial technique is something of a revelation for the time period neatly allaying standard melodrama tropes with a new brand of Korean realism mixed with European arthouse style. Former child actress Ah In-suk (still only 22 at the time of making this picture) gives a beautifully nuanced performance as the tragic Gyeong-a though apparently retired from acting due to her marriage soon after completing Heavenly Homecoming. An extremely important film in terms of the history of modern Korean cinema kicking off a youth culture movement which would extend into the turbulent 1980s, A Heavenly Homecoming to Stars succeeds both as a conventional melodrama but also as a symbol of a culture in flux.


Heavenly Homecoming to Stars was recently re-released on blu-ray in a beautiful new restored edition which also includes English subtitles on not only the main feature but also the commentary track as well as coming packaged with a booklet in both Korean and English.

However, you can also watch the (considerably less pretty looking) unrestored version with English subtitles and for free (legally) via the Korean Film Archive YouTube channel.

Can’t seem to find a trailer but here’s a poignant (unsubtitled) scene from towards the end of the film: