Yang Ju-nam directed only five films and spent the bulk of his career, which began in the mid-1930s, working as an editor. Making his directorial debut with Sweet Dream in 1936, Yang would not return to the director’s chair for 21 years, releasing Exorcism of Bae-Baeng-Yi in 1957. In 1958, however, he completed two more, The Bell Tower (종각 / 鐘閣, Jonggak, AKA The Bell Tower: Missing Another Dawn) following on from A Mother’s Love. Adapted from the novel by Kang Ro-hyang, The Bell Tower is a small scale affair starring two actors who would become giants of golden age cinema in a melancholy chamber piece charting the tragic history of mid-century Korea through the life stories of a bell maker and a lonely orphan.
The scene opens with a voice over from Yeong-sil (Moon Jeon-suk) who tells us that she has been staying in this temple for sentimental reasons seeing as she loves the sound of its bell and was once told that her father was a bell maker. Her story quickly gives way to that of the bell maker himself, Seok-sung (Heo Jang-gang), now very elderly and in poor health, who recounts his own sad life story in answer to her question about the bell. As a young man, Seok-sung had been in love with a young woman, Ok-bun, and planned to marry. After she died suddenly, he became a bell maker in honour of a promise he made her but met tragedy again when his mentor died, only latterly finding happiness with a widow who bore him a child only to lose them too.
Of course, we are conditioned to assume that Seok-sung must be Yeong-sil’s long lost father – after all, that’s how these stories go, but Yang keeps wrong footing us, not least through the triple casting of Moon Jeong-suk who plays each of the women Seok-sung meets throughout his life including the tragic Ok-bun, dead of appendicitis at only 19 and around 40 years previously. Then again, our perception of events is that of an old man’s memories – perhaps none of these women truly resembled Yeong-sil and Seok-sung has simply read her into his story as he leads her through the course of his life which eventually led him to creating his masterwork in the beautiful bell which now hangs in the temple.
Tellingly, Heo also turns up in Yeong-sil’s eventual flashback as we come to learn how it was she came to be staying in the temple. Her story and Seok-sung’s occupy differing temporal spaces, seemingly cleaved in two by historical circumstance. Seok-sung is man of Joseon whose long life story takes him into the age of occupation but his troubles are all those of an old world and not the new, until, that is the present day. Yeong-sil is a child of the colonial era whose life has been lived in the shadow of imperial violence though it is men of her own nation who seem to have betrayed her. A lonely orphan she made her way to the city but was tricked by a people trafficker who sold her to a mine as a sex slave. Falling in love with an indentured miner (Chan Min-ho), she managed to escape when the trafficker decided to sell her on a Japanese comfort woman station in China, but lives her life as a fugitive in fear of discovery, hiding from those who would misuse her but longing for her lover to return and a new life to start.
For Seok-sung the bell seems to toll mournfully as if in memory of things past, while for Yeong-sil it rings of determination, as if urging her not to give up rebelling against her fate. Yet the bell itself is doomed by the times of its creation. Now finding itself in the middle of a failing war, the bell is just hollow metal and soon to be melted down for military use. Having poured his heart, soul, suffering, and familial legacy into its creation, Seok-sung can hardly bear to see it put to such a sordid purpose. He would rather destroy his bell or take it with him than allow it to be sullied in such a way, but he is old and his gesture of rebellion futile.
Contrary to expectation, Yang ends on an ambivalent note as if anticipating a kind of limbo in which the present struggles to break free of the past but is, in essence, still waiting for something to begin rather than resolving to begin it. Beautifully framed and told almost entirely in flashback, The Bell Tower is a strangely melancholic meditation on post-war malaise and temporal dissonance as a dislocated father and daughter ponder on past and future while pulling at the threads of their miscommunication.
Available on DVD from the Korean Film Archive accompanied by a bilingual booklet featuring essays by film critics Kim Jong-won and Chung Sung-il, plus a documentary on the career of direct Yang Ju-nam. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.