“I tried to depict the truth, to reveal everything that lay hidden. Some may say it’s grotesque but I tried to show the facts and the truth anatomically” (Kim Ki Young)
In the last couple of years a new interest in Kim Ki Young movies sparkled from the restoration of his Ha-nyeo (The Housemaid, 1960).
One of the most famous Korean films of all time. Kim Ki Young was a very successful director back in the 60’s both from a commercial point of view that in terms of critical response. In the 70’s with the decline of Korean film industry, he had to compromise his work, most of the times to agree with the producers’ wills and needs. By the 80’s his movies were loosing interest and then he was completely forgotten. In 1997 the 2nd Pusan film festival held a retrospective of his films to critically acclaim and since then, Young has been regarded as a master of Korean cinema, even if in restricted circles. Unfortunately just before to go back behind the camera in 1998, Young and his wife while sleeping, died in a fire due to a short circuit of the electric plant of their house. After a ten years hiatus from the Pusan festival, finally Young is getting the attention he deserves on a larger scale and while The Housemaid has been long discussed recently, most of his other less known movies are as powerful as unforgettable.
Yang-san-do (Yangsan province, 1955)
Ok-ran and Soo-dong have been together since their childhood, their families promised a marriage even when they were just newborn. They deeply love each other, and their relationship made of mutual respect is growing with more passion every day since they reached the age of maturity. Moo-ryong is the spoiled son of master Kim, the landlord and ruler of the province. He’s back from Seoul where he was wasting more time with prostitutes than with studies. As soon as he sees the beautiful Ok-ran, he decides to possess her. He tries to rape her, but he’s stopped by Soo-dong that wound him on his left hand. In retaliation, master Kim’s servants arrest Soo-dong and cut his right finger, making impossible for him to hunt anymore, a speciality in which he excelled.
Soo-dong is thrown in jail, but escapes. Now for Ok-ran to marry him is impossible, and her mother decides to accept the offer of Moo-ryong that want to make the girl his official wife. But Ok-ran’s father is against this decision and arrange for his daughter and Soo-dong to escape.
Unfortunately the two are caught after a while, Soo-dong is thrown in a ravine and left for dead, Ok-ran is brought back to the village. Trying to free his daughter, Ok-ran’s father kills one of the guards. Moo-ryong exploit the situation at his advantage and promises the girl to free her father if she will consent the marriage. Soo-dong is still alive and he’s rescued by his mother. But there’s nothing he can do to stop Moo-ryong and desperate he commits suicide. The wedding carriage of Moo-ryong and Ok-ran has to pass through Soo-dong’s grave and his mother stops them to beg Ok-ran to visit her former lover’s tomb.
Sadly at this point the only existing materials of the film are incomplete. The last portion with the ending is lost and it’s possible to reconstruct it only through Kim Ki Young’s original script and his confirmation of its existence before his death: Soo-dong’s mother stops the carriage, but Moo-ryong gives order to move her. All the villagers then sit down as an obscure presence was both forcing and begging them to do so. The guards beat the people but they start to react and rebel. Soo-dong’s mother stabs Ok-ran to death and send her to die on his son grave, she’s killed by Moo-ryong soon after. Then Ok-ran stands up again in general astonishment and Soo-dong’s grave opens and both of them ascend to heaven in a ray of light.
The second Kim Ki Young feature film was harshly criticized at the time of its release maybe for this final part called ridiculous and inconsistent. It’s interesting though that the very same themes so unpleasantly discussed are now the ones that make this film worth watching for film scholars, because there are in it all the signs of what Young’s cinema was going to be. The love scenes, for instance, with their strong emotional and erotic power and the surreal ending in a context anyway grounded in social realism.
The naivety if need be, it’s in the overacting of some characters, specially Moo-ryong. This is a fairy tale showing the final stage of medieval domination of landlords over the villagers, with their imposition and rules, but it’s also an allegory of the tough Japanese oppression over Korea that lasted until the end of second world war.
This is not a masterpiece, but it’s in the list Kim Ki Young compiled of his films that he considered worth watching, a list that includes eleven titles out of thirty two he shot.
Sequence from the film
Goryeojang is a tradition in a remote village. At the age of 70’s the old people leave the place and carried on the shoulders of their sons, go to die over the peak of a dominating mountain. A widow marries in a family of ten brothers. But when the shaman of the village, former stepmother of the ten brothers and sorceress living under a huge tree, tells that the son from her previous marriage Guryong, will kill all of them, the brothers turns him into a cripple. The widow leaves the family as she gets a piece of land as compensation. Twenty years later, Guryong loves Gannan, but marries a mute girl isntead, because she’s impaired like him. The mute is raped by the ten brothers and she dies in shame. Drought and famine descend over the village and the shaman predicts if Guryong will leave his mother on the mountain rain will come. Guryong doesn’t want to and doesn’t care since he has been smart enough to save food in great quantities due to his hard work. But then Gannan, that married a sick man, is accused of her husband’s murder. It’s a plot of the brothers again to force Guryong to do what the shaman predicted. He goes over the mountain and leaves his mother, but when he’s back, even if it’s finally raining, Gannan has been killed. So Guryong decides to get his revenge in the end and furiously slaughters most of the brothers, until one of them praying him to be spared, confesses that all the decisions they took, they did it under the influence of the shaman. Furious against the shaman and tired of all of her pointless predictions that brought misfortune upon everybody and were made only because she could get retribution by watching all the brothers die, Guryong cuts her divination tree that falling kills the sorceress.
Primitive behaviours and ways of life shifting to modern times are the culminating themes of this amazing film that shocked Korean audiences back in the 60’s. The passage from primordiality to modernity is as dramatic as unwanted from the powers ruling the lower classes using ancestral fears and rituals to maintain their “status quo”. Economical interests and religion are strongly connected as they use each other, the first for his purposes of domination and the second to keep a position of relevance in the community. The rebellion of Guryong is the allegory for the modern industrial revolution over the older agricultural system and an metaphor for the uprising of the lower classes against the ancient feudal systems. More, is the final self-determination from a concept of spirituality, shamanism, that going back hundreds of years, have ruled the lives of people in the villages with superstition and violence.
Violence, refused by Guryong at the end when he spares some of the brothers; the death of the shaman is caused by fate, since Guryong rage turns against the symbol of her cult: the sacred tree. The falling of the tree stands for the fall of a whole system that can’t work anymore and must leave room to the evolution of mankind.
Beautifully shot in scope, the film is unfortunately incomplete. The third and sixth reels of the negative have been lost and only recently has been possible to reconstruct the missing parts, due to the discovery of the original reels of audio.
So the movie is presented with these huge portions where only the dialogue and sound effects are left while the screen is black. Not with this standing, this is a great film, that is well worth watching for the key themes mentioned. It is very interesting though, that the story shares so much in common with Narayama Bushiko made just five years earlier in Japan by Kinoshita Heinosuke and remade by Shoei Imamura twenty years later. There are comparisons to the two cultures to be made, an unexplored territory as prominent Korean film critic Lee Yeon Ho brilliantly pointed out in his introduction on Kim Ki Young’s movies.
Sequence from the film
DVDs of the films discussed in the upcoming part two of the article.
Dissecting a society: social statements, ancient traditions and hidden desires of the flesh in Kim Ki Young’s cinema from reality to abstraction.
Part 2 abstractionism: Chung-nyeo (The insect woman, 1972), Yuk-che-eui Yak-sok (Promise of the flesh, 1975), I-eo-do (I-eo Island, 1977). COMING LATE JULY 2011