A Tendency of Korean Film By Kim Seemoo
by Kim Seemoo
The eleventh edition of the Pusan International Film Festival was full of hundreds of films. With two Korean films presented in the New Currents section, I want to discuss a trend of polarization which can be noted in recent Korean films. Above all, there are two films that attracted over ten million viewers in the section of Panorama, which represents Korean Cinema Today. They are Bong Jun-ho’s film The Host, which was submitted to Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, and last year’s top-scored film, King and the Clown by Lee Jun-Ik. It first showed as the green light of the Korean film industry that two films reached more than 20 million admissions in a few months. However, after the Screen Quota Reduction effected from July, there is less space for low-budget independent films, and some critical voices about the monopolization of the Korean style blockbusters came out.
Family Ties by Kim Tae-Yong had failed to attract common viewers in spite of great critical favor. Even Woman on the Beach, the recent film of the highly regarded director Hong Sang-soo, didn’t hit the box office because of the blockbuster movies. Not included in this festival, Kim Ki-duk’s Time attracted less than 10,000 viewers, even though it had been given favorable receptions from many international film festivals. So, it is very exceptional that Like a Virgin, co-directed film by Lee Hae-young and Lee Hae-jun, made a little success and showed off the meaning of existence of low-budget independent films.
The two Korean films in New Currents, Kim Tai-sik’s Driving with My Wife’s Lover and Park Heung-sik’s The Railroad, haven’t been shown to the public yet, but the possibility of their success is expected to be very remote. It is because there is no striking idol star in them, and the narratives are also far from the tradition of genre films. First, let’s see what those films are about. Driving with My Wife’s Lover is a sort of black comedy that talks about infidelity in a very cynical way. A man named Tae-han who runs a stamp shop in Yang-yang, Kangwon-do, finds out his wife is having an affair and decides to investigate her lover secretly. Confirming that his rival works as a taxi driver, Tae-han goes to Seoul, takes his cab intentionally, and asks for a long-distance drive. Joong-sik, the taxi driver, looks forward seeing his lover who lives in Kangwon-do. During their long dive, Tae-han and Joong-sik encounter various situations. Due to the breakdown of the cab, they spend the night in an isolated district and call for some whores to have a drink party. Having a bath in a scenic valley, they look like old friends, not rivals. At last the cab arrives at their destination, Tae-han gets off, and Joong-sik comes to his lover’s house and has sex. Tae-han of course captures their affair with his hidden camera and gets enraged with vengeance and jealousy.
Then, however, instead of showing up at their bed scene, Tae-han steals the cab and goes to Seoul again. Joong-sik’s wife runs a pub on the outskirts of Seoul. Disguising as a customer, Tae-han drinks till late and happens to have sex with Joong-sik’s wife. Meanwhile, as soon as Joong-sik notices his cab stolen, he takes another cab and comes to Seoul. Watching his wife and his ex-passenger Tae-han having sex, Joong-sik gets shocked. So this film is showing the ironic situation of a man having an affair in revenge of his wife’s affair in comic and bitter ways. One of the main characters, Joong-sik, justifies his adultery by saying that there is no such thing as infidelity, but only love. But when he sees his wife having an affair, he protests that he can never forgive her infidelity. It’s a common saying that “If they do it, it’s adultery; if we do it, it’s romance,” and this film seems to scorn that idea. But this film doesn’t move further. It is neither a satire of the adulterous society, nor a critique of patriarchal monogamy. Therefore the movie ends rather ambiguously. There are some striking scenes in this film, but it gives an impression that something is missing.
The Railroad by Park Heung-sik is a controversial film among the critics of Korea. Some critics say that it is just an average film on the amateur level, and the others say it’s a fine one which is experimental and well-made. The main motive of this film is also infidelity, but there is a big difference between these two films. While Driving with My Wife’s Lover is all about adultery, The Railroad crosses the two themes of adultery and a subway train accident, and presents the subject of recovering. (The debut film of Suh Myung-soo, Butterflymole, shown in the Critics’ Choice section at Pusan, also deals with a subway train accident.) Let’s look into the story of The Railroad. Man-soo, a subway train driver, works sincerely with responsibility and never gives up the hope for the future despite his hard life. Moreover, at one station there’s a beautiful hand that regularly passes him a cup of coffee and a copy of the monthly magazine The Pond, making his labor worthwhile. Then one day, a woman jumps in front of his train to her death. Shocked by the accident, Man-soo gets a special vacation, but he only drinks and suffers from a guilty conscience. Then one night, Man-soo gets fully drunk and boards a train. He misses his destination because he falls asleep.
One woman on that train also falls asleep drunk, and she has her own story. Hanna, the woman, is a German lecturer who is having an affair with a married man who is Hanna’s senior and a professor of the same university. Their relationship started when they were studying in Germany, and it continued after they came back. As her birthday approaches, Hanna suggests to her lover a kind of honeymoon on Jeju Island. But on the D-Day, his wife comes to Hanna and ruins everything she has dreamed of. The wife found out everything by checking her husband’s e-mail. Insulted, Hanna gives up the trip and gets on the commuter train for Moonsan. So Man-soo and Hanna find theirselves at the unexpected destination of Moonsan, and caught in the station because the last train has gone and it is snowing heavily. They stay in a nearby motel and start to open their hearts by telling their own stories.
This film begins by showing two separate episodes. The stories of a woman whose heart has been broken by a love that never became true, and a man fallen into a critical mental state because of an accident that should never have happened, don’t seem to have much in common on the surface. But in the latter part of the film, when the two stories overlap, the film concludes with a happy ending — the recovery from hurt. Hanna, who might be considered a whore, seems to represent the classic character of a prostitute as a man-healer. In brief, Hanna could be the healer for Man-soo, who had suffered more, by lowering herself as a whore. Moreover, she could find the meaning of her existence and be independent by healing others. Therefore, it can be explained why it had to be Moonsan station that they were isolated in, because it is close to the DMZ. Moonsan station, the last stop where the train can’t go farther because of the separation. Isn’t Moonsan station a place desperately in need of reconciliation — to be a stopover, and no longer the last stop? The man and woman fell into the inevitable bottomless pit, and at the edge of the despair they found the hope of cure. From this aspect, The Railroad can be seen as humanistic.
The two Korean films we’ve discussed reflect the social reality of Korea in inner ways, and they are also significant for showing the other side of the Korean film industry.