Tosuni: The Birth of Happiness (또순이, Park Sang-ho, 1963)

Korean Cinema had enjoyed a small window of freedom following the April Revolution that brought down the government of Rhee Syngman, but that window was closed all too soon by the Motion Picture Law brought in under Park Chung-hee which reformed the film industry and instituted an increasingly stringent censorship regime. Despite that, however, 1963 was something of a banner year which saw the release of such enduring classics as The Marines Who Never Returned, Bloodline, and Goryeojang. In comparison, Park Sang-ho’s Tosuni: The Birth of Happiness (또순이) seems like a much smaller film but was the fourth highest grossing that year, possibly because it was inspired by a hugely popular radio serial. Standing in direct contrast to contemporary melodrama, Tosuni puts a positive spin on go getting capitalistic individualism as its salt of the earth working class heroine defiantly makes her dream come true on her own despite the parade of useless men that attempt to drag her down. 

The cheerful Tosun (Do Kum-bong) is the daughter of Choi Jang-dae (Choi Nam-hyeon) who came from the North with nothing but the shirt on his back and now owns a bus company. A difficult, miserly old man, Jang-dae has a loathing for people who depend on others which is why he sends a young hopeful, Jae-gu (Lee Dae-yeop), packing when he turns up with a letter of recommendation and asks for a job as a temporary driver. Unbeknowst to Jang-dae, Tosun had already encountered Jae-gu on the bus where her father had sent her on an errand only to complain she’s not come back with as much money as he hoped. Tosun asks her father for a 50 won payment for her work but he refuses, leading to a blazing row during which Tosun points out that while both her parents were out working she was basically their housekeeper so he owes her around 15 years in back pay and is also in contravention of the child labour laws. Seeing as she was looking after them all these years, she feels she’s already well acquainted with the “independence” her father always seems so keen on. Eventually she storms out, vowing to become a success on her own. Jang-dae is annoyed to have lost the argument but also oddly proud, realising that he brought Tosun up right and impressed that she actually stood up to him and can obviously take care of herself. 

Tosun certainly is a very capable woman, working hard, taking every job going, and making money wherever she goes. Jae-gu, meanwhile, turns out to be something of a layabout, never really looking for a job but spending all his money drinking with the madam, Su-wol (Na Ae-sim), in a local cafe. Tosun carries on doing her own thing but also wants to help Jae-gu, not least because they pledged to try and achieve their dream of owning a modern motor car together. Jae-gu knows that Tosun is perfectly capable of getting the car on her own and is mildly put out by it, sore over wounded male pride despite her assurances that even if she’s the one who gets the money together he’s the one who’ll be driving. That’s perhaps why he’s so easily suckered by an obvious scam when he gets together with a friend who’s met a guy who needs to shift some tyres, but only after dark when there’s no one around. Tosun thinks it’s fishy, especially if they can’t take the tyres right away, but goes along with it to make Jae-gu feel better. 

Like Jae-gu, most of the other young men are also selfish and feckless, dependent on and exploitative of female labour to get them out of trouble. Tosun’s brother-in-law (Yang Il-min) is forever lying to his in-laws to get loans for spurious business opportunities which never work out, complaining that he can’t “slave away as a temporary driver forever” but taking no proactive steps to change his circumstances despite the responsibilities of being a husband and father. Jae-gu’s friend, meanwhile, takes the opportunity of his wife being in hospital waiting to give birth to their child to try it on with Tosun who manages to fend him off but has a major loss of confidence because of the shock of his betrayal. 

Tosun’s mother hadn’t wanted her to move out not only because that means she’s alone in the house with the difficult Jang-dae, but because being an “independent” woman was somewhat unheard of and she’s worried her daughter will lose her virtue, or at least be assumed to be a loose woman, after leaving home before marriage. Tosun might be a little naive and extremely good hearted, she keeps unwisely lending money to people who obviously aren’t going to pay her back, but as she keeps pointing out she didn’t move out for fun she wants her independence. That’s one reason she keeps Jae-gu at arms length even though she’s fallen in love with him despite her constant exasperation. 

Tosun is in many ways the embodiment of a capitalistic work ethic, proving that you really can make it if you just knuckle down. The car represents both independence itself and a sense of modernity, as demonstrated by the excited commotion among Tosun’s friends and neighbours when she finally gets one and arrives to take her parents for a drive. Even the brother-in-law suddenly realises he might be better off working for Jang-dae rather than living a feckless existence of constant and humiliating failures trying to get rich quick. That’s the problem with the younger men, apparently, they want everything right away, like Jae-gu and his tyre deal, and aren’t really prepared to work at it. Tosun sorted the tyre problem in her own cooly handled fashion, outwitting the unscrupulous vendor but doing it without malice and only showing him she won’t be had. Is the motor car and everything it represents the birth of happiness? Maybe not, but it doesn’t hurt, and Tosun unlike her father seems to have retained her good heart, setting off into an admittedly consumerist but hopefully comfortable future, a back seat driver but behind her own wheel. 


Tosuni: The Birth of Happiness is available on English subtitled DVD from the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a digital restoration before/after comparison and stills gallery plus a bilingual booklet featuring essays by Kim Jong-won (film critic & professor), and Park Yu-hee (film critic & research professor). It is also available stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

A Sister’s Garden (姉妹의 花園 / 자매의 화원, Shin Sang-ok, 1959)

In melodramas of the post-war era, the good suffer nobly but often find their goodness ill rewarded by an increasingly amoral society. Shin Sang-ok’s A Sister’s Garden (姉妹의 花園 / 자매의 화원, Jamaeui Hwawon) is, perhaps, a little different despite its rather mild critique of a society preparing to head into rampant capitalism, allowing a magnanimous entrepreneur to become the pure hearted saviour of an equally pure woman while her weak willed lover remains petulantly on the sidelines unable to defy outdated social codes to claim his right to happiness. 

In fact, this is in many ways Mr. Bang’s (Kim Seung-ho) story. It’s him we first meet getting off a swanky Korean Air plane signalling his position as a member of a new class of jet-setting elitists. He is, however, kindhearted which is why his first thought is to pay a visit to Dr. Nam (You Chun) who cured him of a serious illness. Unfortunately, Dr. Nam has now been laid low by the same illness himself. His business has suffered, he’s sold his clinic, taken a job at the hospital, and even mortgaged his house to a persistent loanshark. Unfortunately, all the stress has got to him and soon after Bang is able to meet with Dr. Nam he collapses and dies, breathing his last words to his assistant, Sun-cheol (Kim Seok-hun) who had been like a son to him, to the the effect that he has already arranged a marriage for eldest daughter Jeong-hui (Choi Eun-hee) to an artist named Dong-su (Nam Gung-won) and hopes that Sun-cheol will watch over his younger daughter Myeong-hui (Choe Ji-hui) and much younger son Chang-sik (Ahn Sung-ki). 

This last request will cause a series of problems among the young, the first of them being that it’s extraordinarily insensitive because Sun-cheol is himself in love with Jeong-hui who is also in love with him. Both of them are, however, good people which is why Sun-cheol wastes no time telling Jeong-hui about her father’s last words while she is minded to obey them even if her primary concern is the family finances seeing as she is now the sole provider for her siblings and there will be no more money coming in. With the loanshark still breathing down their necks, Jeong-hui is in danger of losing the family home. 

The other major problem is Myeong-hui who unlike her sister is a thoroughly modern woman, thoughtless and selfish in a childish sort of way. Unaware of the family’s financial situation, she hoped to use some of the money from selling the clinic to open a dress shop and is put out to realise there isn’t any because the clinic was only sold to pay off debts. Meanwhile, it’s also quite obvious that Dong-su, an equally naive son of a wealthy family, prefers Myeong-hui and almost certainly intends to marry her not her sister. Dong-su thinks he’s hot stuff in the art world and is going to make a lot of money selling paintings, which is optimistic whichever way you look at it. 

This awkward love square creates a series of problems of its own as Myeong-hui convinces herself that her sister is jealous of her relationship with Dong-su while also knowing that she has been silently in love with Sun-cheol for many years. Sun-cheol, for his part, feels himself indebted to the Nams and allows the debt to come between himself and true entrance to the family through marrying Jeong-hui. He saves their house through selling his own, but times being as they are Jeong-hui still needs to find a job which is another problem because she is an upper middle-class woman raised for marriage. She gave up school to keep house after her mother died and has no qualifications, even if qualifications could help a woman in need find a good job in 1950s Seoul. She asks Bang for help, and he offers her a frankly insulting opportunity as the head hostess at a sleazy bar he owns where businessmen go to have discreet fun without their wives. 

Jeong-hui wasn’t going to take it, but in the end she has little choice, allowing the married Myeong-hui and Dong-su to move into the house to look after Chang-sik while she lives at the bar. Sun-cheol, still afraid to speak his heart, is judgemental and filled with resentment, entirely unsupportive of Jeong-hui’s position or her proactive decision to try and change it even if changing it means hovering on the fringes of the sex trade. Myeong-hui also, perhaps because of her selfishness and naivety, fails to understand the sacrifices her sister has made on her behalf. Worried that Myeong-hui and Dong-su may have re-mortgaged the family home that she is actively debasing herself to save, Jeong-hui asks her sister to reassure her that the deed to the house is safe. Myeong-hui had been thinking of doing just that so she fires back cruelly that Jeong-hui has everything “easy” and can’t understand how hard it is for her, which is a strange thing to say given that Jeong-hui has become a bar girl solely to keep a roof over her sister’s head. 

Myeong-hui and Dong-su continue to make mistakes, Dong-su convincing his friend to embezzle money from his company to plough into the dress shop even though it’s a loan they can’t repay and threatens to get them all in hot water. Jeong-hui has to sort everything out again, but that puts her in further debt to Bang to whom she is already substantially indebted because he convinced her to take a loan to pay back Sun-cheol who didn’t even really want paying back. Uncharitably, Bang’s behaviour looks suspect. He makes a prim upperclass woman degrade herself by plunging her into the sleazy underbelly of a burgeoning economy and then burdens her with debt to be able to manipulate her better. Perhaps he gets a kick out of that, but soon feels guilty seeing someone who so obviously does not belong in one of his bars forced to drink with clients and play nice with the customers. On the other hand, perhaps there really were no better jobs available for a woman without qualifications and he only wanted to help. 

Ultimately, Bang turns out to be the good guy, falling in altruistic, selfless love with the innocent Jeong-hui who always does the right thing and acts with absolute integrity. Debt, once again messes everything up. Bang decides to propose to Jeong-hui, which practically speaking is a good option in the situation, but makes it clear that he is not forcing her and will continue to help and support her whatever she decides. But how is Jeong-hui to refuse someone who has been so “kind” to her without a sense of betrayal? Sun-cheol, meanwhile, is prevented from declaring his feelings because of the “debt” he feels he owes to the Nam family, not quite good enough for Jeong-hui but also the custodian of her father’s last words which were that she should marry Dong-su. Myeong-hui and Dong-su meanwhile think only of themselves, acting with selfish recklessness. Only when Jeong-hui comes through for Myeong-hui and tells her of Bang’s proposal does she begin to grow up and realise that her sister may throw away her own happiness for the sake of her family’s in marrying a rich old man out of a sense of hopelessness and obligation. 

Contrary to other melodramas, the solution is Bang’s and Bang’s alone. He makes the decision to release the youngsters from patriarchal control by essentially canceling out Dr. Nam’s last wishes by telling Jeong-hui that she should try to be happy with Sun-cheol while giving her the financial means to do so by gifting her the bar to run as her own, making her both business owner and career woman as well as wife. He absents himself in recognition that age has to give way to youth, pushing the youngsters to pursue personal happiness rather than serve outdated ideas of duty or filial obligation. Jeong-hui’s goodness wins out, but only because it was recognised by Bang who decides to set her free by cancelling not only her literal debt, but the entire idea of indebtedness in giving her permission to seek her own happiness rather than feeling obliged to prioritise that of others. 


A Sister’s Garden is the third of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

A College Woman’s Confession (어느 女大生의 告白 / 어느 여대생의 고백, Shin Sang-ok, 1958)

Five years after the end of the Korean War, South Korean society was both economically unstable and battling the increasingly authoritarian government of Rhee Syngman. Nevertheless, there was perhaps an aspiration for a brighter democratic future which many hoped would materialise after the protests which eventually brought down Rhee’s regime in 1960 but unfortunately led only to the even more repressive Park Chung-hee era. Released in the same year as Flower in Hell, Shin Sang-ok’s A College Woman’s Confession (어느 女大生의 告白 / 어느 여대생의 고백, Eoneu Yeodaesaengui Gobaek) is perhaps a reflection of that aspiration in its broadly humanist condemnation of an inherently unfair, rigidly patriarchal society which forces good people to act in ways which offend their sense of justice solely in order to survive. 

From a poor family, law student So-young (Choi Eun-hee) finds herself in dire straits after her grandmother who’d been supporting her and paying her tuition fees suddenly dies. She tries to find a part-time job that will let her carry on with her studies, but is either turned away or placed in difficult situations with men who abuse her trust. A sleazy boss interviewing her for a secretarial position pauses after hearing she’s a student after part-time work to suggest a “night job”, crudely leaning over as he offers her money to become his mistress. So-young slaps him across the face and leaves, but faces something much the same from the husband of her landlady who promises to stop pressuring her for the back rent in return for sexual favours. She turns him down too, but even though he backs off in fear she’ll tell his wife that he tried it on, his suddenly relaxed attitude only makes her landlady suspicious. 

At her wits end and about to quit school, So-young turns to her comparatively better off friend Hee-sook (Kim Sook-il) who dreams of becoming a novelist. Hee-sook brings up a diary she’s been reading that was found in some old furniture sold to her family’s store which recounts the sad life story of a girl who was seduced and betrayed by a man who left her to marry a wealthy woman. With too much time on her hands, Hee-sook has identified the man in the diary as prominent politician Choi Rim (Kim Seung-ho) and taken it upon herself to send him a letter telling him that he has a daughter named So-young from the love of his youth. Despite the fact that the diary says the woman’s baby died, Hee-sook suggests So-young pose as Choi’s long lost daughter so he’ll support her through the rest of uni. So-young is not convinced, but finds herself heading over to visit Choi after exhausting all her other options and being reluctant to go back to the boarding house without money. Choi absentmindedly turns her away, only to think better of it and send his secretary after her, but she ends up getting hit by a car trying to avoid yet another creepy old man who sees her in distress in the street and offers her money for sex. 

Creepy men are indeed everywhere. Even the wily Hee-sook finds herself bothered by an unpleasant man in a cafe who repeatedly pesters her even after she makes a point of ignoring him and pointedly switches seats. He doesn’t give up even after So-young arrives, abruptly offering to buy both women dinner, after which Hee-sook ushers So-young out declaring that this cafe is too “weird” to stay in any longer. Men are, it seems, content to exploit the desperation of vulnerable women for their own satisfaction. As So-young puts it in trying to defend another woman after she’s successfully become a lawyer, “vulgar men see women only as objects to satisfy their sexual desires”. 

This feeds back in to the sin the otherwise kindhearted Choi is trying to expiate. He made a choice in his youth, sometime in the colonial era, to abandon a woman he claimed to love to make a dynastic match. Though it’s not clear whether or not he knew there was a child, he seems to harbour a deep sense of guilt over his decision to essentially use two women in different ways. Faced with the “resurfacing” of So-young, he immediately explains everything to his wife (Yoo Gye-seon) but tries to pass it off as “all in the past” while earnestly asking her to help him make amends by accepting So-young into their home in place of the daughter they apparently lost. She fires back at him that it must be very convenient for men who can forget about things that are “all in the past” while women have to live the rest of their lives with the harm that they cause. Choi doesn’t argue with her, but nor does he ask for forgiveness, only understanding. Mrs. Choi answers that she ought to tell him no in revenge for the all the wrongs he’s done her (this appears not to be a terribly happy marriage), but agrees that it’s not So-young’s fault and so of course she can come because “it’s the right thing to do as a human being”. 

Mrs. Choi, however, remains suspicious, unconvinced by So-young’s story but also by her distance from her. That could of course be explained by embarrassment in being the child of the “other woman”, but Mrs. Choi is right to sense guilt in her reserve as she becomes ever more conflicted about the necessity of deceiving people who have been nothing but kind to her. It’s this sense of guilt which is intensified after she becomes a lawyer and achieves her dream of helping other disadvantaged women by defending a single-mother, much like the woman from the diary, who was seduced and betrayed by a man whom she later killed in a crime of passion. In her passionate defence of the extremely repentant Soon-hee (Hwang Jung-seun) is who is around the same age as she is, So-young reflects on the relative similarities between them and that the only reason they are standing in their respective positions is circumstance. 

“The purpose of the law is not only punishment but to awaken goodness in all our hearts” So-young reminds the judges, determined to offer “an earnest plea on behalf of desperate women”. Soon-hee admits her guilt and asks for no leniency, but is brought to tears as So-young outlines the social factors which explain why she found herself stabbing the man who had caused her so much suffering and then got on with his life without giving her a second thought. Her only transgression being sex before marriage, Soon-hee did everything else right but was condemned to a life of poverty and forced to consider sex work in order to buy medicine for her sickly baby. As a pure hearted woman, she can’t go through with it and considers robbery instead (apparently a “lesser” crime) only to bump into an old friend but be too ashamed to ask her for help. 

Earlier on, after her graduation ceremony, So-young had explained her ambitions to help women and children in poverty to Choi’s kindly secretary Sang-ho (Choi Hyeon) who has obviously taken a liking to her. He’s broadly supportive, but reminds her that if she wants to improve society perhaps she should think about fostering greater social change through political action (as he is perhaps doing), but she shakes her head and points out that he’s never known what it is to be hungry or desperate and that there are people who need the kind of help that only she can give them, such as women like Soon-hee. Yet in defending another woman she’s reminded only of her own “sin” in having wilfully deceived Choi and his wife, burdened by the need to keep her secret and convinced the only thing she can do is to confess all. 

Yet Mrs. Choi proves unexpectedly supportive, explaining that she’s known all along that So-young lied and has come to love her as a daughter anyway. She can see how happy she makes Choi who is proud and excited to have such an amazing young woman in his life, and finding out the truth would only break his heart. So-young’s confession would be for herself alone, to ease her own conscience, while the burden of carrying this secret is perhaps the price of her happiness. In an odd way, So-young has repaired their marriage, and with her success in the courts has perhaps completed the integration of their family with the implication that Sang-ho may later join it too. Fiercely condemning the evils of a patriarchal society, A College Woman’s Confession suggests that the literal truth might not be as important as the emotional, and that a rigid morality serves no one, while offering the vision of a brighter, more equal society founded on compassion and understanding rather than cold authoritarian paternalism. 


A College Woman’s Confession is the first of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream 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.

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.)