The Sublime Cinema of Lee Man-hee By Sergei Lavrentiev
It’s very important to watch the old movies at film festivals. For those who are old enough to have seen them upon initial release it’s a chance to refresh and recheck the thoughts and emotions they experienced decades ago. For youngsters it’s the only opportunity to see on big screen these films which they have only heard about, or maybe watched on TV, VHS or DVD. And for all the film freaks it’s a great pleasure. Especially if these old movies are not well-known, such as the films of Korean director Lee Man-hee, showing in the Retrospective section of 10th Pusan International Film Festival.
In a retrospective there are those films you watch – either for the first or the fifth time – which you know are masterpieces. Watching those films you haven’t seen before, you can be either pleasantly surprised, or perhaps get bored after 15 minutes. In Lee Man-hee case the desire to leave the cinema only overcame me once, when Break the Chain (1971) was showing. It’s a strange mixture of Sergio Leone westerns, Asian slapstick comedies, and Soviet ideological “westerns under the red banner”. Sometimes this story about the hunt for a Buddhist statue with names of Korean revolutionaries on it reminds me of North Korean films about the “anti-imperialist struggle”: Japanese occupants are presented as idiots, leading lady talks about how proud they are to be Korean, and scoundrels become heroes under her influence… Fortunately, that was the only such an experience. The other Lee films became a real jam of the festival program. His Korean War films can also remind one of films from the North of the peninsula, but in a different way. In Pyongyang films soldiers are not presented as human beings. They are presented as part of an ideological machine – they can only do what the party orders them to do. In Lee’s masterpiece, The Marines Who Didn’t Come Home (1963), the central protagonists don’t want to make war. They feel fear, and they want to leave and be with women. They become heroes, but not because somebody has ordered them to fight an enemy. They have seen people tortured and killed by the communists, they are angry at the huge Chinese army fighting on the North side, and they want to leave their post after successful counterattacks. They didn’t want to die and continue their fighting for no purpose.
The Marines Who Didn’t Come Home is a big production. There are lots of people, tanks, riffles, machine guns, and more guns. But at the same time it’s one of the most human war films in the history of world cinema and the final shot with the riffle stuck in the ground is one of the most expressive and potent antiwar symbols in cinema. Lee Man-hee uses black-and-white cinemascope in a very tender, impressive way. In Marines the screen ratio and photography which constitutes the battle scenes is used to create the sense of a deep psychological suffering for each character portrayed in film. In Soldiers Without a Serial Number (1966) the black-and-white cinemascope involves us in a panoramic journey through corridors and large chambers of a castle which has been turned into a communist headquarters, and a basement which has become a prison and torture chamber. The camera doesn’t hesitate to show us that the North Korean uniform is more fascinating than the anticommunist guerrilla’s dressings and invites us to make our own choice – who is right in this conflict?
And, of course, the most impressive, most cinematic use of this ratio and photography, is in Holiday (finished in 1968) (Which also went under the title A Day Off.) This film has its world premiere at Pusan. It was banned at the end of sixties and it’s a great experience to know that not only communists have censorship. A Day Off is typical of its time. No strong intrigue, just atmosphere. Two people meet, fall in love, suffering from how illegal this love seems to the whole world. Woman is pregnant, man must earn the money for abortion. Woman dies, man wants to be killed, but finally decides to continue his life…
There were dozens of such films in the sixties in Britain, the USA, France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Scandinavian countries. Even in Soviet cinema we can find such an examples (and lot of those films where also banned in communist countries). Darkness and decadence – this was the verdict of South Korean censors in 1968 when they saw A Day Off. And they were right. A Day Off is a really decadent movie. But that doesn’t means it’s a bad film. It’s not overly ideological. It draws on style for its effect. And the black-and-white cinemascope cinematography works brilliantly. There are windy streets in a big city. A lone man feeling useless in this huge empty space. He has a real drama in his life. He is suffering. But this giant city is too big to care of one small somebody…
Lee Man-hee was not a key figure in world cinema. Watching his films we can compare them to many other movies and directors. But that’s the pleasure I wrote about at the beginning – to discover again and again that cinema was not born yesterday. It has its own story and history. And the most delightful thing for a film buff is to see something familiar in the films from completely unknown directors and cinematographies.