The Hand of Fate (運命의 손 / 운명의 손, Han Hyung-mo, 1954)

Hand of fate poster 2The kinds of directors who tend to garner retrospectives and reappraisals are perhaps those who lean closer to our own ideological biases. Even in the tightening censorship of the 1960s, Korean directors like Kim Soo-yong and Lee Man-hee were able to subtly undercut the prevailing conservatism of their times. Director Han Hyung-mo, by contrast, was a committed rightist whose films express a distinct intolerance towards liberalism, women’s rights, and the Communist North. Han, like many directors of his generation, studied filmmaking in Japan near the end of the Colonial era and began his career as a cinematographer. His first film, Breaking the Wall released in 1949, is sometimes described as the first Korean anti-communist film. Returning to narrative filmmaking after serving as a documentarian during the Korean War, Han’s Hand of Fate (運命의 손 / 운명의 손, Unmyeong-ui Son, AKA Hand of Destiny) released in 1954 is not perhaps as rabidly anti-communist as might be expected but makes clear that there can be no redemption for an ideologically compromised woman.

Jung-ae (Yu In-ja), a North Korean spy posing as a bar girl in the South, enjoys a life of comparative freedom and luxury but remains committed to her mission. When the police bring a wounded student, Yong-chul (Lee Hyang), to her door one day as a possible suspect in a robbery she’d previously reported to them, she takes pity on the man and tells the police to let him go. She brings him into her apartment, treats his wounds, and feeds him. For some reason she develops an attraction for the melancholy student and so when she spots Yong-chul working on a construction site, Jung-ae takes him out on the town, buys him a new suit and shoes, and eventually begins a relationship with him. Professional habits die hard, however, and so when she rifles through his wallet she is disturbed to find his military intelligence ID card and discover he is really a spy catcher.

Released in 1954, Hand of Fate is a product of the immediate post-war era and is in fact one of the very few surviving films from that year. Nevertheless, it takes its cues very much from international cinema and particularly from American and European noir and spy films in its fatalistic trajectories and uncharacteristically murky worldview. Though Han includes mild anti-communist sentiment in Jung-ae’s eventual disillusionment with the “Communist Party’s hackneyed methods”, the fact that she is a spy for the North is almost incidental for much of the film, the conflict being not that she is a Communist and therefore evil but on a much simpler level that she is required to straddle a difficult ideological divide. Of course, the force that shakes her loyalty is love and in this Han reaffirms her womanliness in simultaneously making emotion both her weakness and the best weapon against the rigidity of Communism. Then again, rightists aren’t so keen on emotion either and so romance must fail.

Both Jung-ae and Yong-chul come to the conclusion that their only mistake was falling in love – not so much with an “enemy” but across an impossible border presented by the 38th Parallel. The futility of the love is laid firmly at the feet of a destructive division imposed by outside powers which painfully separates two parts of one whole. “We love each other, why can’t we be together?” Yong-chul asks, still unaware that Jung-ae is the female spy he’s been looking for. “You’re so close to me now”, Jung-ae adds later, “Why have we been so far apart?”, lamenting that the wall which has kept them at a distance from one another has been largely illusionary and has now been destroyed if only in terms of personal ideology. Rather than the demonisation of the North which would define the anti-communist film, it is the pain of the division which is the real enemy though in contrast to other similarly themed films, Han suggests a clean break might be the best solution rather than holding out hope for reunification.

Meanwhile, the pair work at cross purposes in misattributing the suffering of the other to culturally defined, gender-specific stigmas. Yong-chul assumes Jung-ae’s misery is down to being a “fallen woman”, that as a sex worker she worries she has lost the right to love him (he is keen to assure her that she hasn’t and there’s nothing wrong her life choices – a liberality that stands in contrast to the film’s subtle condemnation of Jung-ae on just this fact as a woman who uses her body as a tool of war), when really she is caught in an impossible position in having fallen in love with a man she will probably have to kill. Before discovering his real occupation, Jung-ae assumed Yong-chul’s misery was down to his poverty. She feels the manual job he takes to support himself through college is beneath him, indulging in a stigma towards blue collar workers which seems odd for a committed communist, and wants to “save” him by restoring him to his rightful social class with her money which she earned in a way she fears he may think immoral.

Despite Han’s fierce conservatism, Hand of Fate features the first on screen kiss in Korean cinema history but where it is undoubtedly romantic, it is also dark and fatalist. In keeping with the title and the noirish atmosphere, the narrative trajectory leads only to tragedy in which the division will be maintained with the South in the ascendent. Jung-ae’s ideological fracturing leaves her with nowhere to turn, while Han’s overly conservative viewpoint will not allow her to find peace or resolution not only because of her Communist roots but because of being an “immoral” and “vulgar” woman as she describes herself early on. Described as “An epoch-marking, ambitious work in the history of Korean Cinema”, Hand of Fate is indeed a bold experiment, opening with a tense, dialogue free sequence of spy craft and danger even if it later overdoes the expressionism with climactic thunderstorms and overly literal bombs (not to mention the constant hand imagery), offering a dark and noirish vision of a divided future in which the pain and suffering caused by the division will continue with the only “hope” that the wall will eventually become a fading scar.


The Hand of Fate is available on English subtitled DVD courtesy of the Korean Film Archive which also includes a special documentary, a video essay by film scholar Kim Jong-won, and an interview with art director Non In-taek, as well as a bilingual booklet featuring a brief commentary on the film and an essay by the Korean Film Archive’s Jo Jun-hyung. Also available to view via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Brief clip (dialogue free)

When the Buckwheat Blooms (메밀꽃 필 무렵, Lee Seong-gu, 1967)

When the Buckwheat Flowers Bloom posterLife’s little ironies conspire against an ordinary pedlar in Lee Seong-gu’s adaptation of the Lee Hyo-seok short story When the Buckwheat Blooms (메밀꽃 필 무렵, Memilkkot Pil Muryeop). Set in the colonial period, the film tracks the long sad story of an unlucky man and his impossible love as he finds himself continually pushed to the edges of a world which is already disappearing. Yet as bad as things are for the heartbroken pedlar, they’re far worse for his long lost lady who finds herself continually handed from one man to another, abused, and exploited with no possibility of escape.

The story begins with three pedlars – Heo (Park No-sik) who hawks fabric, Jo (Kim Hee-gab) who sells paper, and Yun (Heo Jang-gang) who peddles “medicine”. Heo gets into an altercation with another, younger man, Dong-i (Lee Soon-jae), who he accuses of cutting in on his business. Unable to let the matter drop, Heo starts arguing with Dong-i again at an inn at which point he departs and leaves the old men to it. Heading back on the road, Heo entertains his friends with a familiar story – the one about his night in the buckwheat fields with his one true love.

Flashing back almost 20 years, the pedlars are all young men and only Jo is already married with a pregnant wife (Do Geum-bong) he takes with him on the road. In the marketplace one day, Heo catches sight of Bun-i (Kim Ji-mi), a noblewoman fallen on hard times whose father apparently plans to sell her to pay for his gambling debts. Crestfallen, Heo goes back to his business but catches sight of Bun-i once again and “enjoys” a spot of not exactly consensual sex in the middle of a beautiful buckwheat field. Heo asks Bun-i to wait for him, insisting that he will find the money to buy her from her father before he sells her to someone less nice. After trying several madcap schemes to get the requisite funds (including wrestling to win a bull), Heo sells his beloved donkey but is too late – Bun-i’s dad left in a hurry and sold her off somewhere or other but no one knows where. Heo sets off on a five year quest to find her but remains perpetually too late, only a little way behind but always arriving just after Bun-i and the son which is presumably Heo’s have been sold on to their next “owners.”

When the Buckwheat Blooms is very much Heo’s “depressing” (as he later describes it) life story. We see Bun-i on the periphery of his flashback, but he never finds her and so does not know of all she’s suffered since they parted, nor even that she has a child. Much of his melancholia is born of being old and of being poor. It is clear that his life has been ruined through poverty and lack of prospects – no one chooses to be a pedlar (as the pedlars keep pointing out), it’s what you do when you can’t do anything else. An itinerant existence has deprived each of them of a traditional family life. Jo had a wife in the flashback, but she and her children now live in a permanent home which Jo only rarely visits. Meanwhile Yun’s wife left him after the first time he took off for the road, unable to bear the loneliness and lack of stability involved in being a pedlar’s wife. Heo had remained single because of his lack of financial stability, but meeting Bun-i gave him hope for a different kind of life. He planned to give up peddling and set up as a farmer but, of course, it was not to be.

If that weren’t all the times are changing. The pedlars’ business is disrupted by the arrival of a band of fiddlers, but they haven’t just come to make merry – they’re advertising the “future”. They come to sing the virtues of the newfangled “department store” which is apparently a “foreign” invention and stocks “everything” – it has everything the market has and more, only cheaper and better quality. Dong-i, a young man, plans to give up peddling and try his luck in the gold mine, but there’s precious little hope for old men like Heo who have spent their lives living hand to mouth day by day and are now ill-equipped for anything else.

Heo is, at least, an “honest” man – he drinks but not to excess, and is frugal rather than throwing his money away on sex or gambling. Nevertheless, it’s hard to get away from his quasi-rape of Bun-i as she tries to run from him in the forest. The violence of the initial encounter undermines the romance of Heo’s ongoing tale as he hunts down his missing woman, apparently wanting to save her by buying her back from whoever it is “owns” her at the current time.

Told from Heo’s perspective, Bun-i’s feelings do not much factor in to his narrative but her life has been just as miserable as his, if not more so. A once noble lady, she suffers the humiliation of being “sold” by her father, and then sold on numerous times to other men each of whom abuse and mistreat her. By this time she also has a young son on whose behalf she resolves to suffer, even as her various “husbands” threaten to separate them. Bun-i has no freedom or possibility of escape. She is as chained as Heo’s donkey and treated with far less kindness.

Yet it is Heo to whom the central tragedy to ascribed – he yearns, searches, is frustrated and then forced to give up on his dreams while continuing to harbour enough of a spark of hope as to prevent him from moving forward with his life. He is condemned to grow old walking in circles burdened by an unrealisable dream. Once again shooting entirely on location, Lee aims for a more “sophisticated” aesthetic than many of his contemporaries, co-opting a shooting style much closer to European or Japanese film than is usual in ‘60s Korean cinema. A melancholy tale with an ironic, perhaps “happy” ending, Lee’s sad story of missed opportunities and ruined hopes is an oddly apt one for the post-war world but one which finds its share of cheerfulness even in abject misery.


When the Buckwheat Blooms is the second film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.