The Old Potter (독짓는 늙은이, Choi Ha-won, 1969)

“The man of the house shouldn’t covet and touch what belongs to others even if he is starving to death” laments an old potter admonishing his well-meaning son but also commenting on the folly of his life. A melancholy tale of illusionary futures, Choi Ha-won’s The Old Potter (독짓는 늙은이, Dokjitneun Neulgeuni) is a deeply felt meditation on loneliness and regret as a wandering son finally comes “home” to look for himself in the ruins of his family which seems to have existed as briefly as a dream. 

The young man (Kim Hee-ra), apparently from a nearby village, is a wandering soul struck by the familiar sight of traditional pots which he has not seen in some years seeing as he has just returned from the war. Stepping into a house he finds it not quite as empty as he thought and strikes up a conversation with an elderly gentleman (Heo Jang-gang) who invites him to stay the night among a small community of beggars congregating around a disused kiln. The old man tells him that he comes here every 15th day to spend time with a late friend of his, Song (Hwang Hae), to whom he seems to feel some sort of debt. 

Back in the 1920s, Song, the old potter, joked that he was married to his pots, living a lonely life devoted to his craft. One winter he happened upon a young woman collapsed in the snow, rescuing her and nursing her back to health in his shack. The young woman, Ok-soo (Yoon Jeong-hee), does not exactly fall in love with him but is grateful and, it turns out, has nowhere else to go and so the pair marry. The potter becomes a father to a son, Dang-son, at the age of 61. For seven years, the family is perfectly happy. Old Song truly loves the young Ok-soo and takes good care of her. He is a kind man and patient father keen to pass on his skills to his young son. 

And then, a strong and handsome young man arrives. He is is Sok-hyun (Nam Gung-won), Ok-soo’s first love for whom she left her family, heading off to look for him but fainting in the snow where she was rescued by Song. When Song’s friend made fun of him for washing Ok-soo’s clothes in a nearby stream and prompted him to ask her to stay, he said he’d let her go if that was what she chose, and to that extent he’s true to his word. Having overheard the couple talking and realised their past relationship, he says nothing but silently hopes that Ok-soo will choose to stay with them. 

Ok-soo meanwhile is torn. Her old lover has returned, the man she’d been searching for, but he’s come at an inconvenient time when she is now a wife and a mother with a settled home. She is not unhappy with the potter who, though elderly, is kind and has always taken care of her and their son, but she’s drawn back towards passion and romance with Sok-hyun who is young and strong, able to split logs with a single blow. Song hears the sound of the axe echoing in his mind as a grim reminder that Sok-hyun is everything he is not – young and handsome and full of life. He can offer only the warmth of their home and the feeling of duty towards family as reasons for Ok-soo to stay, but knows in his heart that she will choose the love of her youth over the security they have built together. 

Song’s late life happiness is shattered like one of his imperfect pots. He cautions his son that one should not covet things which belong to others as if blaming himself for daring to “borrow” Ok-soo all these years when she “belonged” to someone else. He gives Dang-son another pottery lesson which is really life philosophy, explaining that it’s fire that makes the pot, not the man. A man is made by the fires he endures, and perhaps, Song starts to think, he should give in and allow Dang-son to be adopted by a noble family so that he might live an easier life as a gentleman rather than struggle here with him with no real hope for the future seeing as all his pots are cracked. 

Of course, as we already know, the sad young man who returned from the war is Dang-son, so perhaps Song’s choice did not buy him the easy life that he hoped it would. Meanwhile, the old man explains that Ok-soo later returned and bitterly regretted her choice, begging to be told where Dang-son had been taken, but the old man turned her away which is why he feels so guilty. “I deserve the severest punishment as a woman who deserted her husband and son” Ok-soo laments, having spent the last 20 years trying to atone for her decision to choose passion over her maternal responsibility. Song’s brief moment of happiness left him unable to return to his cold and lonely life as the master potter, his hopes shattered by life’s imperfections. Fire has shaped them all, but after it’s cooled all that remains is bitter regret for the frustrated desires of youth and a painful longing for forgiveness. 


The Old Potter is available on English subtitled DVD courtesy of the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a bilingual booklet featuring an essay by director Choi Ha-won on the making of the film as well as writing by film critic Kim Jong-won. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

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.