A pompous scholar returning home after five years living abroad in France struggles to adapt himself to a changed Korea in Jang Sun-woo’s literary drama, Road to the Racetrack (경마장 가는 길, Gyeongmajang Ganeun Kil). Hoping to rekindle an affair with a fellow student with whom he lived for three and a half years, the man known only as R (Moon Sung-Keun) finds himself frustrated by the same patriarchal norms which he manipulates in an attempt to dominate and control his former lover while little realising that it is she who truly has the upper hand as he pathetically follows and entreats while begging her to sleep with him.
J (강수연), as the woman is known, shows little desire to pick up where they left off and roundly refuses to sleep with R who can speak of little else. She tells him that things are different in Korea and hints that the cause of her reluctance is that R is still married and in fact has two children. While J had (seemingly) been content to live with R as his “wife” in France, in Korea she feels a need to be married herself and obviously cannot marry R as his wife will not divorce him. Old-fashioned in her thinking, R’s wife (Kim Bo-yeon) assumes the cause of the discord in their marriage is that she was not a virgin when they married though it seems clear that since obtaining his PhD in France, R has begun to look down on his humble family and no longer wishes to associate with his uneducated spouse. An ironic soap opera scene precedes one of their conversations in which a husband cooly tells his wife that he will do as he pleases and has no intention of granting her a divorce fully highlighting R’s hypocrisy though his own wife is depicted more or less like the one on screen eventually screaming at him and refusing his demands to end their marriage.
Though R had told his wife that the fact she had lovers before they married is not a factor in his desire for a legal separation, discovering that J has met someone else and is thinking of marrying him sends R into a tailspin of jealously. Badgering J into sex, he is ultimately unable to perform and complains that the “shadow” of the other man is putting him off his stride. He demands that she makes a choice and encourages her to tell her new man all about their time in France whereupon he might like R abruptly dump her for being an impure woman. Meanwhile, R complains that she’s treating him “like a rapist”, which is ironic because that is exactly how he is behaving. She cries and refuses, asking him if they “really have to” and still he pushes on violently pulling at her clothes until she gives in. He can’t seem to understand why it’s “different in Korea” when they lived together for three years in France, as if a single instance of consent has eternal permanence.
J always returns to him if for unclear reasons in the increasing toxicity of their relationship. She addresses him as “doctor”, while he repeatedly insults her and calls her stupid, mocks her middle-class background in an attempt to deflect the class difference between them, implies she’s useless without him and that all her achievements are really his own. He claims to have written her PhD thesis for her, and is irritated that she’s had some success since returning to Korea having completed her studies a year before him. He reads an essay she’s written and while he may have a point about an ambiguous turn of phrase, further insults her by claiming that the only good bits are the bits she ripped from an old essay of his, but is clearly annoyed that she’s managed to get an essay published after showing it to another man who further edited it for her. Suddenly he explodes in rage and claims he feels exploited, insisting that J pay him monetary compensation for his emotional pain.
The relationship only begins to work again once it becomes transactional perhaps hinting at a societal change in an increasingly capitalistic society. As J is unable to pay the sum he asked for, R insists she work off the amount by becoming his personal prostitute. Though effectively constrained by his wife’s refusal to divorce him, he thinks that he controls J and is reasserting his patriarchal authority. But then he is clearly the one in thrall to J following her around and refusing to let her go while her decision to continue meeting with him seems like it may partly be born of fear and a sense of inadequacy if also a delight in wielding her power. His contribution to J’s PhD leaves her feeling underconfident and a fraud, fearing he’s right and she’s not much of a scholar just a girl with rich parents who could send her France to study. But she’s also tied to him in service to outdated patriarchal social codes that were not in play in France in which he is both husband and not. When he strikes her, she immediately apologises.
The contrast between the two cultures is clear on R’s arrival as he wonders at the thousands of neon crosses that now colour the nighttime skyline of Seoul, remarking that’s as if he’d found himself in a European war cemetery. Both he and J seem to be adrift in a new society, aimless and with no particular place to go. Hoping to rekindle their love, R tries to force J to go abroad again but she refuses and declines to give an explanation. Incredibly frank in its sexual language, the file presents an otherwise bleak view of the toxic relationship between the former lovers who inhabit a series of seedy motels and are seemingly unable to escape the destructive cycle of their love while the pompous hero can only comment on his inability to orient himself in a changing city by recording the number of steps from each direction to the racetrack as if trying to reassure himself of the geographical integrity of the landscape of his memory.
The Road to the Racetrack screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.