With Korean cinema celebrating its centenary, the Korean Film Archive has been promoting screenings around the world—most recently, at Il Cinema Ritrovato, in Bologna, Italy. The program, “Under the Skies of Seoul: The Golden Age of South Korean Cinema,” showcased seven restored films from the 1960s. While the styles ranged wildly—from the highly theatrical studio epic Goryeojang (1963), to the edgy, horror-tinged melodrama, The Housemaid (1960), both by Kim Ki-young—most movies offered a glimpse of key social tensions in the country that had modernized rapidly after the Korean War.
Gut-wrenching yet spellbinding, The Housemaid eludes any genre. Kim cuts abruptly from the preamble—a husband and wife musing on the nature of infidelity—to the main plot, in which two young factory workers fall for their music-club teacher. When one of them is suspended after passing him a flirtatious note, the other infiltrates his household pretending to want piano lessons, and then hires yet another wayward colleague as the family’s housekeeper.
What follows is a torrid tale of forbidden love, sexual aggression, blackmail, and, ultimately, murder. Ki-young handles this contorted plot with such assured brazenness—mixing social critique with elements of horror and grotesque—that it’s hard not see The Handmaid as a model for all Korean horror made since. This year’s Palme d’Or winner, Parasite, by Bong Joon-ho, for example, bears great affinity with it. Both films portray a hard-working family whose frustrated economic ambitions turn the whole world upside down. To an extent, Bong’s film is a playful pastiche on the classic story of the unsuspecting family exploited by a social “parasite.”
Kim ironizes South Korea’s consumerism with blunt, at times outrageous wit, as Bong does. And like Bong’s prize-winner, Kim’s masterpiece evinces moral ambivalence: a fallen husband too eager to purge his guilt, a wife whose self-abnegation makes her—depending on how you see her—a martyr or a despot. Kim Deok-jin’s cinematography creates a claustrophobic universe full of spying and of hidden threats.
Similar moral ambivalence powers Mist (1967), a nuanced and understated melodrama by Kim Soo-yong. One of the few still-living directors of the young South Korean cinema that emerged in the 1960s, Kim, who is ninety, has directed one hundred and nineteen films. In Mist, Gi-jun (Shin Sung-il, one of most famous and prolific Korean actors of his time), a managing director employed in a chemical plant by his rich father-in-law, briefly visits his provincial hometown. Using fluid, non-chronological editing, Kim turns his character’s trip into a poignant, bittersweet journey into memory, mixing Gi-jun’s flashbacks with daylight reveries.
Throughout his long career Kim adapted about fifty novels to the screen. In Mist, the novelistic approach manifests itself in the first-person voiceover that locks us into Gi-jun’s point of view. Gi-jun paints his town as a forsaken backwater, but meanwhile questions his own conformism, as a man who feels he has never really taken any risks. Gi-jun soon falls for a young singer, who’s desperate to move to Seoul, and sees in the reluctant Gi-jun a savior. Kim, who could turn out quickly paced studio films, with Mist luxuriates instead in the affair’s endless ambiguities. Vulnerable and hopelessly, demurely romantic, and yet also subtly manipulative, the mistress is a particularly striking performance from the Korean actress Yun Jeong-hie.
Kim Soon-yong’s loose narrative nevertheless feels close to classical storytelling, thanks to his affinity with the Italian Neo-Realism, particularly with Vittorio Di Sica. Lee Man-hui’s narratively slim but emotionally and stylistically riveting A Day Off (1968), on the other hand, sheds all neorealist weight, to emerge as the lithest and most modern Korean film of the 1960s. Like the early Skolimowski, or Godard, Lee nearly flaunts the thinness of his plot, signaling he’s after something else. That “something” is a certain documentary feel we also associate with the early American indies—the city’s streets, parks, lights, the hum of bars, the random, scattershot conversations and tedium, all experienced in real time. A Day Off is a film about the agony of waiting, it main drama best summarized as: Time passes.
In the film, two lovers meet at the Namsan Hill overlooking Seoul (the spot also immortalized by Hong Song-soo). The girlfriend (Jeon Ji-yeon, in her only role) is pregnant and, after a painful deliberation, the lovers agree that Huh Wook (again, the hugely popular Shin Sung-il) must come up with funds for an abortion.
Huh Wook’s disastrous peregrination through Seoul finds him pleading with his male friends, only to realize that the dogged struggle for survival has left them without a shred of compassion. Lee focuses his lens on Seoul’s lumpen proletariat—some who never quite made it, others drunks stuck in shabby taverns, condescending to women though hoping to marry up. This milieu is a sharp contrast to the swaggering, boisterous modernity of the 1960s South Korea. No wonder the censors were not keen on Lee’s film. After he refused to cut some parts, the movie lingered for forty years in archives.
It is a fortuitous rediscovery—a film so simple yet bold truly deserves to be seen. In one of the most poignant scenes in A Day Off, Huh Wook, after stealing money from his wealthy friend for the abortion, ends up on a boozing streak with a lonely young woman he meets at a bar. The two straggle through increasingly dreary dives, staggering about, to the point of a virtual blackout. The subsequent sex scene in an abandoned factory is so bleak—and yet the whole shot through with such a breathless sense of abandon, particularly on the part of the woman—it feels downright revolutionary.
Taking advantage of Kim Soo-yong’s presence at Il Cinema Ritrovato, I asked him about some the unforgettably strong female characters that he and the other Korean directors working in the 1960s created. Kim was adamant that such women were willful inventions, rather than a reflection of the actual deep change in attitudes towards women in Korean society. Fiction outpaced reality. Some loosening of moral codes had come with the war—and we can see hints of this in another film, Bloodline (1963), that Kim presented in Bologna. In it, though Kim portrays the dire conditions of Seoul’s poorest inhabitants, the young women are also seen joining young men in factory work. But not on the breathtakingly egalitarian terms of Lee’s picture.
This brings us to the final theme that emerged in the program: The fragility of masculinity, tested by the Korean War, and by rapid modernization. On one hand, the idea that the society is divided into those who served and those who didn’t serve in the war, the heroes and the losers (which emerges in the films by Kim Soo-yong and Lee, but also, in a more cryptic way, those by Kim Ki-young). And on the other hand, the intense pressure felt by men in the chase for material wealth. The South Korean cinema of the 1960s registers everyone’s—but particularly male characters’—resentment for shouldering most of the burden, and, to some extent, for the space that women had carved out. A cinema fueled by antagonisms—lingering anguish about the past, trepidation about the future—it offers a counter-truth to the triumphalism of the new South Korea; a plea of voices little heard.