This was a title in the Berlinale Classics programme. I was directed by Kwon-taek Im, a leading South Korean film-maker. He started in direction in 1962 and for two decades turned out genre films at a prolific rate. By 1979 he started to assert what we might call an ‘auteur’ vision and his later films have been successes on the International film circuit and have won prizes at major film festivals.
This film comes from the turning point in his career. From one side it could be seen as a genre film but it also bears the hallmarks of ‘art cinema’ in both the psychological portraits of two protagonists and in the way that contemporary social contradictions are played out in the narrative.
“Ill and indigent, ex-policeman Song is under lock and key in a rehab centre. There he meets another human wreck whom he recognises as his old adversary Jagko.” (Retrospective Brochure).
One can see genre influences in a drama constructed round a life-long rivalry and revenge drama. But the film makes this story complex. In the initial opening sequences the two protagonist are completely unsympathetic. But as the nature of their mutual antagonism only emerges slowly the film develops a question which the audience are likely to become interested in resolving.
Song is an ex-policeman, now ill and dying from his ailments; during the Korean war he was an officer in the South Korean [USA sponsored] army. Jagko has gone through a number of identities and employments since the war when he was the leader of a band of communist partisans. At one point Song was successful in capturing Jagko but when the latter escaped; Song paid a price in his loss of his position.
The film starts in the present and then combines episodes in the rehab centre with flashbacks, both to the war and the experiences of the two men in the succeeding years. The flashbacks to the war are especially generic and resemble battle scenes that I have seen in other Korean films. The sequences in the intervening years are often more complex. Song is continually catching glimpses of Jagko before he disappears again. In one quite long sequence Song spies on a couple in adjoining room, where paid sex is on offer, because he suspects that the man is Jagko. This is both voyeuristic and has a hint of exploitation; we see the women completely naked in a shot that stands out from the cutting of the film. The final resolution of the film maintains the perspective of both men as victims.
The film was shot in anamorphic colour and the widescreen cinema photography by Jung-ma Koo is extremely effective. The war scenes are colourfully dramatic and use fast editing. The scenes in the rehab centre are more intimate and have a darker quality. The musical score by Kim Young-dong runs a gamut of bravura sounds for the battles and strained melodies for the more intimate drama.
The film clearly delves into the contradictions in South Korea in the late 1970s. There was an introduction by a staff member of the Korean Film Archive who have produced the digital version. This presented the actual war in the 1950s from the point of view of the US-led alliance but was more interesting on the post-war period. Both the North and the South Korean states had authoritative regimes in the 1960s and the 1970s. Even in the supposedly liberal South Korea citizens with connections to the North, [say relatives] had to exercise extreme caution. The director himself, Kwon-taek Im, had family members who were involved on the communist side. So his personal background married with strong social contradictions at the time.
The digital version we saw was not a complete restoration but a digitized version produced for a Blu-ray issue. The colour varied at times and the soundtrack also varied. But it was reasonably good quality with English sub-titles added.