Height of the Wave (파고, Park Jung-bum, 2019)

Height of the Wave poster“The suspects are all the residents” says the world weary police chief at the end of Park Jung-bum’s uncharacteristically forgiving island drama Height of the Wave (파고, Pago). Island communities are often thought of as innocent idylls, the city’s corruption lying far off over the horizon, but where there are people there is suffering and perhaps there’s nowhere completely free of human cruelty.

Recently divorced maritime police woman Yeon-su (Lee Seung-yeon) has been seconded to a remote island to act as its police chief for two years. She’s brought her deeply resentful teenage daughter with her, and is currently struggling with a “panic disorder” she’s keen to keep a secret. Meanwhile, island’s sleazy foreman, handsy and making inappropriate comments about the scent of Yeon-su’s hair, is hard at work to a get a designation as a “desirable destination” and attract much needed funding. His plans are disrupted, however, when Yeon-su overhears some worrying comments from the island’s only young woman, Yae-eun (Lee Yeon), which suggest she is indulging in sex work (which is illegal). Yeon-su investigates, becoming worried for Yae-eun who is an orphan and seems to be a little different than you might expect for a woman of her age, and contacts the mainland for support. As you might expect, this does not go down well with the foreman who worries that his precious designation might be denied if word got out about the base immorality lurking in his town.

Traumatised by her career as a policewoman on the mainland which mainly involved retrieving the bodies of those who’d committed suicide by drowning, Yeon-su might have come, or been sent, to the island as quiet place to recover. The island is after all a liminal space, between one state and another, where one might pause for reflection before preparing to move forward. Yae-eun, who lost her parents at sea, is trapped because of her fear of water and terror that someday a great wave will swallow everything and everyone. Yeon-su fears something similar, unable to sleep on thinking about all the bodies she never managed to save that sunk to the bottom of the ocean never to be seen again.

Yeon-su’s daughter Sangyi (Choi Eun-seo) recognises the similarities in the anxieties of the two women, bonding with Yae-eun out of a shared sense of betrayal and abandonment but finding it more difficult to forgive her mother for her increasingly strange behaviour, the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, and for bringing her to this barren place. Early on, Sangyi tries to join in with some of the other children, but finds them playing a cruel game in which they’re trying to kill off the sleepy ants on the grounds that they will soon invade and destroy all their houses. Sangyi, perhaps identifying with the “alien” bugs, tries to stop the kids crushing the ants before they’ve even done anything but is then othered herself, ironically put in “jail” with the chickens as a hostile element. “It’s your fault” a boy tells her, “we wanted to be friends”.

From the perspective of the foreman and perhaps others in the village, Yeon-su is a burrowing termite intent on undermining their foundations. This is an island, after all, and they do things a bit differently. What’s normal here, might not be appropriate on the mainland. It seems that Yae-eun has been accepting money in exchange for sex, and that she might not be fully capable of understanding the implications of her actions, but if she’s making a free choice to sell her body and is not in that sense being exploited by a third party then perhaps some might say that is her own business. The situation is complicated, however, when Yae-eun reveals she may have been doing this as young as 17, which means she was underage. Yeon-su wants to protect the young woman, all alone on an island full of possibly predatory old men and cared for only by an “uncle” (Park Jung-bum) and a “grandpa”, but has to accept that her desire to do so may involve short-term harm in that Yae-eun is terrified of getting on boats which means she is unable to escape her present environment even if she wanted to.

Yae-eun immediately recognises something in the other woman. “You look so lonely, chief”, she tells her placing artificial flowers on the altar of a disused church reassured by the fact they never change, “I thought I was the only lonely one”. The foreman tries to get the others on board by referring to Yae-eun as everybody’s child, literally raised by a village, but he wants to forcibly export her to the mainland so that she won’t mess up his desirable island plan by embarrassing him when the inspection committees arrive. Yae-eun’s uncle apologises for not being better able to protect her, complaining that the villagers are “blinded by money”, and have decided to sacrifice her rather than risk destroying their chances of financial gain. Yeon-su’s attempts to help have merely created a different, perhaps more dangerous, set of problems that expose but do not intend to heal a painful hypocrisy. Tellingly, it is Sangyi who eventually proposes the only positive solution in her desire to help Yae-eun overcome her fear of water but even this has its darkness because it is also a path to exiling her from the island possibly against her will to cover up the “scandal” of her existence. The wave may not be so high that it drowns us all, but it’s as well to learn to swim.


Height of the Wave was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Short clip (dialogue free)

The Flower in Hell (地獄花 / 지옥화, Shin Sang-ok, 1958)

Flower in Hell newspaper 1Five years after the end of the Korean War, Korea was still a poor country in which hope for the future seemed all but impossible. Shin Sang-ok’s The Flower in Hell (地獄花 / 지옥화, Ji-oghwa), borrowing incongruously from both European neorealism and American film noir, situates itself directly within the “hell” of the modern city, a lawless and loveless place where life is cheap and an honest buck hard to come by. The corrupting influence of the American military has come to dominate the local economy with complicity the only option for survival.

“Country bumpkin” Dong-sik (Cho Hae-won) knows nothing of this when he arrives in Seoul in search of his missing brother. Pure of heart, he tries to intervene when he spots someone being robbed, only to be beaten up and fleeced himself. Unable to find trace of his brother Yeong-sik (Kim Hak) who apparently came to the city on business some time ago and hasn’t been heard of since, he roams the streets looking for clues. Unbeknownst to him, Yeong-sik has fallen into a life of crime and avoided contacting his family out of shame. Currently in a relationship with brassy “Western Princess” Sonya* (Choi Eun-hee), he has no intention of going back to a life of honest hardship.

“We live in a world of confusion” a street pedlar tells a melancholy Dong-sik, but that was perhaps something he’d never quite realised in his apparently happy life in the country. Dong-sik, just demobbed from the army, has come to bring his brother home because his mother is worried about her missing son. What Dong-sik comes to represent is a kind of village utopia that embodies the spirit of an uncorrupted Korea where the people are honest and happy, not wealthy but not starving either. Seducing him, Yeong-sik’s girlfriend Sonya ruffles Dong-sik’s hair and remarks that it smells like corn – the scent of pastoral innocence and the dream of a simpler life that she is now chasing.

A “Western Princess” – the slightly derogatory name given to sex workers catering largely to American servicemen, Sonya is an intensely corrupted figure. Brazenly chewing gum and unafraid to use her sex appeal as a weapon, she bewitches Yeong-sik and then breaks the ultimate taboo of seducing his brother. Yeong-sik, meanwhile, has been confronted with the dishonestly of his city life and considers returning to the country, asking Sonya to marry him but finding her unresponsive. Aside from her practical questions about the money they would need to start a new life, Sonya currently enjoys an unusual amount of independence for a contemporary woman and is unlikely to want to surrender that to become a conservative wife to Yeong-sik in his quiet country town even if he really could learn to accept and ignore her past as a sex worker.

Despite her original aversion to Yeong-sik’s offer, the idea begins to appeal to Sonya when captivated by Dong-sik’s innocence. Aware that she is also corrupting him, Dong-sik now dressing in a garish gangster-style Hawaiian shirt, Sonya convinces herself that what she wants is to return with him to his rural paradise while he agonises that perhaps he himself has lost the right to go back there because of his transgressions in the city. Meanwhile, another sex worker, Julie* (Kang Seon-hee), has also taken a liking to Dong-sik because of his simple hearted country ways. A war orphan, she is far less comfortable with her life as a Western Princess, her dependence on the Americans, and her lack of opportunities for a better life as a woman who most likely can no longer marry. Putting this to Dong-sik she finds him superficially sympathetic, telling her that she is good and kind and therefore could easily find a nice man to settle down with. When she asks him if he would consider marrying someone like her, all she gets is silence while he later cruelly answers her that he is not convinced she has the right to live in his idealised pastoral paradise.

Yeong-sik tells Sonya that the world won’t always be out of control, he too now yearning for the purity Dong-sik’s idealised hometown represents, but finds himself sinking deeper into the morass of the modern society in order to get there. Aside from pimping out the Western Princesses, the other main line of business for Yeong-sik’s gang is robbing American military bases, striking while the women distract the soldiers with salacious dance routines. Sonya and Yeong-sik are already too far gone, trapped in the purgatorial hellscape of the modern city, unable to go either forward or back. For the pure of heart like Dong-sik and Julie, there may be hope yet but if there is it lies only in the imaginary utopia of an idealised “hometown” free of American corruption and existing in another, purer Korea perhaps now inaccessible to those whose hearts are already blackened by the fetid air of the contemporary capital.


The Flower in Hell was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival. It is also available on English subtitled DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Landscape After the War box set.

*Names are as they appear in the subtitles for the Landscape after the War box set. In the screened 35mm print of the film the two women are named as “Sonia” and “Judy”.

A Coachman (馬夫 / 마부, Kang Dae-jin, 1961)

A coachman poster 1The Korea of 1961 was one of societal flux, mired in post-war poverty but striving towards a brighter economic future. The rising tides of affluence had given birth to a new middle-class with the old feudal attitudes while others were largely left behind on the shores of prosperity. Kang Dae-jin’s A Coachman (馬夫 /마부, Mabu), the first Korean film to win a major international award with the Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival, finds itself at just this juncture as an old man pulling a horse and cart is forced to face up the automobile age while worrying what is to become of his family in the perilous modern society.

Ageing patriarch Chun-sam (Kim Seung-ho) has been guiding a horse and cart since his father died in Manchuria when he was 14. Technically speaking, he is not the owner of his horse, Dragon, but operates it on behalf of the owner, the mistress of an upper middle-class salaryman. As business is slow, she is always threatening to sell the horses which would leave Chun-sam and the other coachmen without a means to support themselves. Meanwhile, Chun-sam’s four children whom he raised alone after his wife passed away at a young age are each looking for different ways out of their impoverished existence. Chun-sam married off his eldest daughter Ok-nyeo (Jo Mi-ryeong) who is deaf and mute to a man he saved during the Korean War but he is abusive and treats her like a servant while openly inviting his mistress into their home. Oldest son Su-eop (Shin Young-kyun) is currently studying to retake the bar exam for the third time, middle daughter Ok-hee (Um Aing-ran) has begun dating a shady salaryman, and youngest boy Soo-up has become a high school delinquent.

Kang opens with an exciting sequence following Soo-up who has attempted to steal a bicycle as he tries to escape from its owner chasing him. Returning home covered in mud, slowing to a walk and putting his student’s cap back on to avoid suspicion, he makes his way from the modern houses of the new city back through traditional Korean homes towards his rather makeshift family abode which they share with the horse stabled in a side room. Chun-sam is obviously not a wealthy man, but the family bear their struggles with fortitude, perhaps to some extent avoiding each other but rarely arguing directly. Even the news that Ok-hee has once again quit her latest job, working in a cafe, in record time is greeted with exasperated acceptance rather than anger or resentment.

Ok-hee quit the cafe to fall in with her ultramodern friend Mi-ja (Choi Ji Hee) who has arranged a double date with a pair of sleazy executives, telling them that Ok-hee is a university graduate and daughter of a wealthy CEO. Intensely ashamed of her working class background as a mere coachman’s daughter, Ok-hee tries to catapult herself into the middle classes by weaponising her sex appeal, too proud to take the long way round through honest work. She rejects the attentions of family friend Chung-soo (Hwang Hae) who is good and kind because he is only a driver, taking little notice of his earnest warning that nothing good ever comes of hanging around with shady types like her boyfriend. He keeps trying to persuade her to take a job in a nearby factory, but she still thinks she’s above that kind of life and is convinced she can get the executive to marry her.

Chang-soo’s interest is of course romantic, but the advice he gives her is honest and altruistic. Unlike his unsavoury money lender father, Chang-soo is a salt of the earth type, but good men are hard to find and trying to escape poverty through marriage is a road fraught with danger as Ok-nyeo discovers. Chun-sam thought he’d done the right thing in marrying her off, believing a match would be hard to come by because of her disability and worrying she’d be left alone with no-one to look after her, but she is forced to endure mistreatment and humiliation at the hands of her husband. Ok-nyeo repeatedly returns to her family home, only able to show them the bruises to explain what’s happening, but Chun-sam always sends her back unable to break with the old patriarchal rules which insist that once married she must forever remain this man’s wife.

Chun-sam faces a similar dilemma of his own when he strikes up a tentative relationship with the kindly maid at his boss’ mansion who often heats up rice wine for him and goes out of her way to give him little treats. The odious moneylender is also after Suwon (Hwang Jung-seun) who is considered “old” to be unmarried at 37, but she favours Chun-sam because, as she says, she has always known him to be a “good man”. The “courtship”, if you could call it that, is innocent in the extreme with Suwon largely taking the lead while Chun-sam lags bashfully behind, childishly excited but also embarrassed because he cannot afford a wife and would be ashamed to ask her to share his life of poverty.

Looked down on by everyone, Chun-sam is forced to go cap in hand to his employer where he is made to “know his place” and reminded he is “just a coachman” with no right to talk back. When Hwang, the boss’ lover, injures Chun-sam through reckless driving, Su-eop becomes fed up with persistent feudalism and intends to have a polite word but is quickly shut down, reminded that he is nothing more than coachman’s son and told that his dreams of becoming a lawyer are not only unrealistic but an offence to the social order.

Su-eop alone takes the conventional route out of poverty in pursuing education and a steady government job, but is repeatedly told that he’s getting above himself and should be content with becoming a coachman like his dad, despite the fact that being a coachman is already close to an obsolete profession given the increasing affordability of the motorcar. He alternates between guilt and despair, wondering if he’s being irresponsible in pinning all his hopes on the bar exam and worrying that he’s not doing enough to support the family.

Yet Chun-sam, forced to consider his own obsolescence, is keen for him to succeed, not only because the family needs him to make a success of himself but because he wants his son to have a better kind of life than he had taking full advantage of the possibilities of the new society. Though their lives are hard, Chun-sam and his family remain kind and honest (even Ok-hee and Suo-up eventually conclude that hard work is the way after all), bonding with others of the same mindset like the maid Suwon who eventually quits her job in protest, and Chang-soo who rejects his father’s underhanded venality for simple human decency. United by friendly solidarity, the family is repaired and resolves to live on as a tiny unit of cheerful resistance against the feudalistic greed and selfishness of the modern society.


A Coachman was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

A Boy and Sungreen (보희와 녹양, Ahn Ju-young, 2018)

A boy and sungreen poster 1Figuring out who you are is a normal part of growing up, but if you start to suspect that parts of the puzzle have been kept from you it can become an even more complicated business. The hero of Ahn Ju-young’s delightfully charming debut A Boy and Sungreen (보희와 녹양, Boheewa Nokyang) thought he was doing OK. Maybe he worried that he was a little bit weedy and resented being picked on by the snooty kids at school, but he always had his good friend Nok-yang (Kim Ju-a) to hide behind and she always had his back. Realising that his mum (Shin Dong-mi) may have a new romance on the cards entirely destabilises his worldview, sends his anxiety into overdrive, and reawakens a series of as yet unresolved abandonment issues resulting from losing his father at a young age.

What Bo-hee (Ahn Ji-ho) discovers on “running away” to visit a woman he kind of remembers might be his half-sister, is that his mother might have lied to him and the father he thought was dead might actually still be alive. Together with his best friend Nok-yang, he resolves to investigate and find out if his father is still out there somewhere, if he still thinks of him, what sort of man he might be, and, crucially, why he chose to abandon his son. Still upset with his mother and childishly resentful, Bo-hee avoids going home and installs himself at his “half-sister” Nam-hee’s (Kim So-ra), an air hostess who turns out to be a cousin temporarily taken in by Bo-hee’s mum when she ran away from home as a teenager, where is he is cared for by her surprisingly supportive boyfriend Sung-wook (Seo Hyun-woo).

Tellingly, Sung-wook is also an orphan with no family, raised in an orphanage with no parental models yet easily slipping into a positive paternal role. Both Bo-hee and Nok-yang are being raised in single parent families, Bo-hee believing until recently that his father had died, while Nok-yang lost her mother in childbirth and lives with her salty grandma and distant father. In conservative Korean society they each experience a degree of stigma for not having the “full” complement of parents with some of the snooty kids at school even assuming that’s why they’re friends, but the pair largely rejoice in each other’s company and have learned to pay them no mind.

Meanwhile, Bo-hee is experiencing strange anxiety-like attacks which eventually turn out to be something more serious, but neatly underline his intense adolescent confusion. Finding out his mother has a boyfriend not only forces him to confront his father’s absence, but also deepens the sense of anxious rootlessness he feels as someone without an extended family network. As Nok-yang somewhat insensitively puts it, what if the boyfriend turns out to be an “evil stepmother” and pushes him out of his family home, where will he go then? That kind of thinking is what leads him to track down Nam-hee, “certain” that she won’t turn him away because, he believes, they share the same father.

Despite maintaining an intense belief in the power of blood connection, Bo-hee remains distrustful of the idea of family and uncertain in his own identity. Even his name, which is really just “Boy” like the unnamed protagonist of a young adult novel, bothers him in that is uncomfortably close to slightly rude word, not to mention being somewhat unusual. Nok-yang has an unusual name too, but hers has a lovely, if sad, story behind it about her dad seeing rays of sunshine through the trees on the way home from the hospital and deciding to name her after that, whereas Bo-hee’s seems to be random. Thanks to his quest to track down his dad, Bo-hee finally comes to understand the meaning behind his name and accept himself for himself rather than longing to be just like everyone else.

Like all small children, Bo-hee thought everything that happened in his life was somehow his fault, that his dad left because of something he did or that there was just something wrong with him that his dad couldn’t love. What he realises is that his father’s decision was his father’s and nothing to do with him. It wasn’t his fault that his father left and there is nothing about him that means anyone else in his life is likely to leave without warning. In a roundabout way, looking for his dad helps to rebuild a sense of the family he didn’t think he had, becoming more secure in his relationship with his mother, bonding with Sung-wook and Nam-hee, and remembering that whatever happens he and Nok-yang will always be there for each other.


A Boy and Sungreen was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Piagol (피아골, Lee Kang-cheon, 1955)

piagol poster 1Under the oppressive regime of Park Chung-hee, “anti-communism” became a national policy and all films, at least implicitly, had to display anti-communist sentiment. In the 1950s, however, despite the immediacy of the war’s end, there might have been more room for nuance. Then again, perhaps not. Lee Kang-cheon’s Piagol (피아골), released just two years after the events it depicts, was among the first to concern itself with the North Korean partisans and was subsequently banned for its supposedly sympathetic depiction of communist guerrilla fighters, finally released only with the addition of the South Korean flag superimposed over the closing scene in order to suggest that the sole surviving partisan had decided to walk towards freedom.

Led by hardline Captain Agari (Lee Ye-chun), the partisans are in a sorry state. The truce has been signed and the war is “over” (or, at any rate, as “over” as it is now). They know no further reinforcements from China or the Soviet Union will be forthcoming, but have decided to continue fighting anyway. Holed up on Mount Jiri, the partisans are involved in an internecine guerrilla conflict with the encroaching South Korean and American forces, but are determined to root out “reactionary” elements and have been taking brutal revenge on local villages they believe to have “betrayed” them to the authorities.

Unlike the later anti-communist films, Lee’s partisans are not rabidly evil or gleefully sadistic but they are casually cruel and wilfully heartless. After the escape sequence which opens the film, a roll is called recording a casualty and a lost rifle. Captain Agari is much more worried about the gun than the man, eventually executing the soldier who dropped it after being shot in the arm for dereliction of duty. Agari’s actions are even harder to defend given that he knows there will be no further reinforcements and he’s down to a handful of men already, but neatly exemplify his lack of human feeling and intense need to enforce both dominance and ideological purity.

Convinced that someone in a nearby village is acting as an informant for the South, Captain Agari decides to carry out a raid to rid it of “reactionary” elements, which is a thinly veiled excuse to sack it. Not all of the partisans are entirely on board, especially as some of them hail from this village originally and have family members still living there. During the raid, Lee focuses on cowardly Captain Agari hiding in a nearby temple while Buddhist statues seem to be giving him the hard stare, before shifting to the same temple now in flames. A baby cries and crawls over the half naked body of its mother, raped and left for dead. Meanwhile, teenage recruit Il-dong (Cho Nam-suk) searches for his mum only to find her dying of a bullet wound in the street. Half delirious she asks him why he shot his own mother while all he can do is cradle her as she dies. Cold as ice partisan Ae-ran (Roh Kyung-hee) blows her whistle to tell him to get moving and brushes off the disapproval of sensitive intellectual Chul-soo (Kim Jin-kyu) with an affirmation that all actions to eradicate reactionaries should be praised.

Ae-ran is one of only two female partisans and seems to have something of a vendetta against the other, Soju (Kim Young-hee), who is berated by Captain Agari for being weak and womanly, “too wimpy for the communist party”. Breaking down in tears, Soju is raped by Agari who, a few moments later, is handed a commendation for heroism from the guerrilla commander and has her transferred to HQ out of the way. Unlike Soju, Ae-ran is presented as overly masculine, tough and unforgiving but, crucially, able to defend herself against Agari and successfully resist his advances. She is, however, softened by the quiet expression of desire for sensitive romantic Chul-soo whom she describes as “like a poet in fairyland”, and is unique among the partisans for her eventual acceptance of defeat as she urges to Chul-soo to go down the mountain and surrender to take advantage of the amnesty proposed by Southern forces, remaining reluctant to go herself in believing there is no way back for her after all she has done in the mountains.

Ae-ran has indeed done quite a lot in the mountains and none of it good. Chul-soo may lament that he has already lost his humanity despite being the only partisan to regularly voice dissent, but Ae-ran does not appear to have had very much of it in the first place. Still, she is “a survivor”. Given that we’ve seen them repeatedly commit atrocities and eventually destroy each other out a series of petty resentments, attempts to cover up crimes, and revenge born of sexual jealousy, you could hardly say that the communists have been shown in a very positive light, but audiences at the time failed to identify the film as sufficiently “anti-communist” because they couldn’t be sure that Ae-ran’s ideological disillusionment had led her to choose freedom in the South, rather than it simply being a case of physical desperation. Unlike the anti-communist films of the ‘60s, Lee refuses to demonise the partisans, depicting them as ideologically committed, cruel, and heartless, but also flawed and human as they succumb to despair on realising they have been abandoned by their nation, marooned in the South somewhere between death and freedom. In this at least, they are victims of their ideology, ruined by emotional austerity and betraying their own revolution even as they attempt to enact it.


Piagol was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

A Bedsore (욕창, Shim Hyejung, 2019)

bedsore posterFamily is supposed to be about mutual responsibility, according to oldest daughter Ji-soo, but in a culture as fiercely patriarchal as Korea’s, there may be differing interpretations of what “responsibility” entails. Shim Hyejung’s A Bedsore (욕창, Yokchang) uses the titular ailment as a metaphor for the festering wounds at the centre of familial relationships, an irritating and potentially dangerous pressure ulcer born of something sitting too long in the same place unaddressed and unresolved. Intensely lonely and unable to connect, the family members struggle with the demands of what it means to be a family and find themselves more often than not guilty and resentful in their filial obligations.

Grandma Gil-soon (Jeon Gukhyang) is bedridden following a cerebral haemorrhage and largely unable to communicate though obviously very much present. The family has hired a live-in carer/housekeeper to look after her as well take care of the domestic tasks because retired patriarch Chang-sik (Kim Jonggu) is a traditional sort which means he’s entirely unable to fend for himself. The trouble starts when Mrs Yu (Kang Aesim) discovers Gil-soon has a nasty bedsore on her back. Rather than deal with it himself, Chang-chik rings his daughter Ji-soo (Kim Doyoung) to come and look in on them, but despite her obvious distress in worrying that perhaps her mother is not receiving proper care and may be in pain, she is also dealing with a moody teenage daughter and a husband who may be having an affair. She wonders why her dad always calls her and not her brother Moon-soo (Kim Jae-rok) or his wife. And then there’s the golden boy middle brother Yong-soo who was the apple of his father’s eye but has made a mess of his life and is currently living as an undocumented migrant in America after doing a midnight flit.

The most obvious problem in the Kang household is that Chang-sik is a product of his times. He does almost nothing to care for his wife and fully expects that a woman will take care of it and him. When there is a problem, he summons Ji-soo and/or his daughter-in-law, never his son, and expects them to take over. He cannot cook or clean and “requires” a woman to fulfil those functions for him so that he can live like a man. This attitude has perhaps contributed to his ongoing confusion regarding Mrs Yu with whom he is on friendlier terms than might be wise for someone who is technically an employee. Somewhere between authoritarian father and jealous suitor, he grows resentful towards her for going out on her days off and irrationally irritated when he realises she may have a boyfriend, eventually leaving Gil-soon on her own to spy on Mrs Yu in a quiet bar where she likes to go dancing.

Though we might initially feel sorry for Chang-sik because he seems so incredibly lonely now that he can no longer communicate with his wife, he quickly loses our sympathy as we realise that it is largely self-pity and that as lonely as he might be, it must be so much worse for Gil-soon who is often left all alone in her room with no stimulation though we can clearly see that she is present and able to engage with the world around her. Mrs Yu does her best to look after her, but is not a trained carer just someone in desperate need of a job. Being an undocumented Korean-Chinese migrant worker also places her in an awkward position with the miserly Chang-sik who, while not a bad man or abusive employer, does perhaps think he has more leverage to exploit her because of her precarious immigration status. We wonder what Gil-soon’s married life must have been like, and if Chang-sik thinks of her as an individual or merely as a woman to be swapped out and replaced now that she can no longer serve him, especially when he announces a bizarre plan to divorce his wife and marry Mrs Yu to make her a legal citizen and ensure she stays in the household.

That particular bombshell obviously does not go down well with the kids, particularly Ji-soo on whom most of the additional burden of care has fallen. She tries to reason with her dad, but he doubles down on the patriarchal norms, telling her it’s all her fault for not pulling her weight as a daughter while she quite reasonably reminds him he had three children but expects her drop everything and sit by her mother’s bedside 24/7. Like her parents and Mrs Yu, Ji-soo is also lonely even within her own family, pushed out by her teenage daughter who keeps bringing her “friend who is a boy” home to play, and her husband who keeps “working late” and takes private phone calls from a young woman. Meanwhile, Moon-soo’s wife does her best to keep the peace between her husband and the father with whom he so obviously does not get on. Though he feels sorry for his mother, Moon-soo seems to be over this whole family thing and ready to sever ties, but that doesn’t stop the couple having a mini panic about the inheritance if their dad goes ahead and marries Mrs Yu after their mum passes away.

The bedsore becomes a metaphor for all the pent up pressures involved with living in a patriarchal social system which expects women to shoulder all domestic burdens. Even Mrs Yu is only working abroad because her husband in China had a stroke and her son can’t find work so she needs to send money home while someone else looks after her grandson. Chang-sik’s first reaction to Ji-soo’s suggestion that perhaps it might be time to think about putting Gil-soon into a home where she can be cared for properly is to ask “what about me?”, not outraged by the suggestion that he is failing in the duty of caring for his wife or seriously concerned for her welfare, but selfish and self-involved. In the end, Chang-sik will discover his house is full of smoke from a fire that’s been smouldering all these long years and dissipating it may take more than merely opening some windows to let it all air out.


A Bedsore was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Short interview with director Shim Hyejung from the Jeonju International Film Festival.

Goryeojang (고려장, Kim Ki-young, 1963)

Goryeojang hanging bannerWhat happens to the marginalised in times of trouble? Nothing good, might be the answer. To exist outside of the group, to be in some way other, is to be rendered vulnerable but there can also be a kind of strength in involuntary independence. Like the Japanese Ballad of Narayama, Kim Ki-young’s Goryeojang (고려장) envisages a world in which the old are expected to sacrifice themselves for the young, but unlike either Keisuke Kinoshita or the later Shohei Imamura, Kim struggles to find nobility in adherence to such a cruel and inhuman tradition.

Kim opens with a contemporary TV panel discussion on overpopulation (a key concern of the day) which strays uncomfortably into comparison with vermin, leading one expert to contribute that when short of food rats eat each other in order to survive so perhaps people should too. Moving swiftly on, the host turns to a historian who explains that in the distant past during times of war or famine, there was a tradition of abandoning the over-70s on mountains to reduce the burden on the rest of society.

Kim then shifts to the main narrative which takes place in the feudal “Goryeo” era. During a time of scarcity, a lord married four times already scorns the local shamaness to marry a young and beautiful widow with a young son. The shamaness claims that the lord’s 10 sons from his previous marriages are to blame for the failure of the relationship and vows revenge on the entire family. Meanwhile, new wife Keum (Ju Jeung-ryu) struggles to adjust herself to the household and is warned that none of the previous wives managed to endure it very long. Though the lord accepts her son Guryong as his own and tries to integrate him with his 10 new brothers, the boys fiercely reject him, especially when they hear about the shamaness’ curse which states that he is destined to kill them at some unspecified point in the future. The abuse culminates in an attempt to assassinate Guryong with a snake bite. He survives but is left with a lame leg. Keum realises she cannot stay in the lord’s house, and so he gives her a small plot of land and some money to support herself and her son.

20 years pass, during which time Guryong (Kim Jin-kyu) has managed to make a life for himself but the brothers are still obsessed with getting back the land that was given to him. When they find out that Guryong has amassed enough resources to consider marrying despite the fact that he is disabled and therefore considered undesirable, their rage intensifies. Guryong meanwhile has been trying to keep to himself, but is brokenhearted in unrequited love for a woman, Gannan (Kim Bo-ae), who rejects him because of his disability. He is eventually married off to a woman who is mute, considered a socially acceptable match for both, but the brothers kidnap and rape her in an attempt to extort Guryong for the deeds to the land. Unable to tell anyone what’s happened, she murders her attacker. Faced again with cruel tradition, Guryong does not resist. 

After that, he goes back to minding his own business, but there are customs he will not follow including that of abandoning his mother on the mountain. 15 years later, drought and famine strike again. Keum worries that she is the cause and Guryong’s refusal to take her to the mountain has angered the gods. As supplies dwindle, the brothers make the most of their feudal powers, restricting access to the local well which is technically on their land, exchanging water for potatoes which are the only available source of food. Guryong, meanwhile, has spent the last few years quietly working away and has quite a sizeable crop of his own which makes him a rather wealthy and powerful figure, once again irritating the brothers. It’s at this point that a starving Gannan, now the mother of nine children, reappears and is forced to throw herself on Guryong’s mercy.

Marginalised because of his disability and fatherless status, Guryong has had to learn to survive alone and has prospered because of it, yet others regard him as a potential drain on their resources, an ill omen or harbinger of doom forever associated with the shamaness’ curse. With little to eat, people are forced to put their prejudices to one side but do so superficially. Gannan’s husband, dying of hunger, urges her to seduce Guryong and if possible marry him before he dies so that she won’t have to obey the custom of waiting three years in mourning before marrying again. Gannan is minded to sell her body, if that’s what it takes, but still reluctant to sell it to Guryong. In another case of socially acceptable partnering, she eventually sells one of her children to Keum to raise as a ward – Yeon, who is “imperfect” because of her pockmarked face.

Like Guryong, Yeon is brave and defiant, in some senses emboldened by her difference. She volunteers to go to Guryong because her siblings bully her over her face, but thinks nothing of cheerfully mocking Guryong’s limp or of talking back while playing the part of a servile daughter-in-law. She does, however, remain loyal to Gannan, stealing potatoes to sneak back to her family. The arrangement fails only when Keum decides it’s time to absent herself, that her presence is preventing Guryong uniting with Gannan and her children, but Guryong refuses to swap a mother for a wife and angrily rejects Gannan, beating her and the child believing them to have orchestrated a plot to get rid of Keum.

With the brothers hoarding food and Guryong keeping well out of it, the only solution proposed by the villagers involves the human sacrifice of a child. Guryong struggles to believe that they would really go that far, but finds himself again in the firing line when the brothers frame him for a murder and leave him at the mercy of the shamaness and her sacred tree. Spared only on the condition that he give in and take Keum to the mountain where she will pray for rain, he is forced into complicity with the cruelty of his times but his rage on his return knows no bounds. Realising he has been betrayed once again, he fulfils the shamaness’ prophecy, but is shaken by the words of one of the 10 as he attempts to stay his violence, insisting that they are not bad people and must embrace each other as brothers. He blames everything on the shamaness and her curse, which is of course a matter of a woman scorned. Guryong doesn’t quite buy that, the brothers were cruel to him because they could be even if the root cause was their father’s moral transgressions in his many marriages. He does, however, awaken to the inherent corruption of the world in which he lives embodied by the tyrannical authority of the shamaness and “Divine Spirit” manifested as the tree from which transgressors are hanged.

Kim never closes his framing sequence, the dark humour of the contemporary opening merely an introduction, but obliquely references the April Revolution of 1960 as Guryong takes an axe to the tree and frees himself from the shamaness’ control. According to Guryong, the tree kept the small evil out, but let the big one in. Taking the children by the hand, he leaves. “If there is someone to teach us, we can grow anything”, he tells them, it’s time to plant some seeds. Claiming his own freedom and rejecting his marginalisation, he steps forward into a better world out of the mountain’s shadow and free from the terrible tyranny of “tradition”. 


Goryeojang was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival. The new 4K restoration will also be released on blu-ray by the Korean Film Archive on 14th November.