I had seen a few Korean movies in Paris, but those were for the most part international festival darlings like Oldboy (올드보이) by Park Chan-wook, Binjip (빈집) and almost everything else by Kim Ki-duk, The President’s Last Bang (그때 그사람들) by Im Sang-soo, or French favorites like Le Jour où le cochon est tombé dans le puits (돼지가 우물에 빠진 날, The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well) and Conte de cinéma (극장전, Tale of Cinema, see my review of a later Berlin-screening) by Hong Sang-soo. These were recent productions about contemporary life in Korea or, in a few cases, about more recent historical events, such as the assassination of “president” Park Chung-hee.
The one and only movie I saw in Korea, however, was from the 60s and had just been rediscovered when I attended a screening in 2006. It was Holiday (aka A Day Off, 휴일, 1968) by Lee Man Hee (이만희 / 李晩熙, 1931–1975, see a more extended essay on the “forgotten master” at KoBiz). Due to censorship, the movie could not be shown publicly after production, got lost and had just been rediscovered and brought to the big screen then.
Today, I went to see Homebound (귀로 / 歸路, 1967, screening info) that, as it turned out, opened the full-scale retrospective “A Time of Cinema” (영화의시간), held on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Lee’s death. He died at the early age of fourty-three, but his output is tremendous: In a span of less than fifteen years, he shot over fifty movies, about half of which remain. Twenty-six films are shown at the Cinématheque KOFA until May 14. There are usually three screenings a day and all of them are free of entrance, some screenings also feature English subtitles (marked in the schedule). Several events, as well as a photo exhibition at the Cinema Museum one floor above accompany the retrospective. (See also a report on a Lee Man Hee-retrospective at the London Korean Film Festival 2011)
Homebound turned out to be a fascinating melodrama, old-school in black and white, with much rainfall, close-ups of clocks, and cigarette smoke. The constellation is simple: An invalid and traumatized war veteran (Kim Jin-kyu 김진규) who writes newspaper serials and a beautiful wife (Moon Jeongsook 문정숙) who sacrifices her life and ambitions for her husband. She delivers his manuscripts, which replicate the story of the impotent husband and his idealized wife but fail to gain popular success, to the news office in central Seoul, where she eventually meets a daring journalist (Kim Jeong-cheol 김정철), from the society section, nonetheless. As time passes, the two develop a strange relationship, close to an affair, but the attachment of the wife to her husband undermines the romance, although everyone (even her husband, by giving his serial novel a new twist) suggests to her to find another man.
And then there is the setting, downtown Seoul in the late 60s, the train station, a nearby church (the office highrise in-between, where I used to work for a year or two, has not been built yet), surrounding restaurants and bars, as well as the smokey newsroom… Masses of people walking by, dressed in traditional clothes or salesman-attire, taxis and limousines, buses and a streetcar (didn’t know they still existed at that time), and a surreal car chase in the middle of a six line road at night. Besides the story, which, despite the very simple setting, is emotionally quite complex, the historical impressions alone made the film worth watching.
Anyway, having attended the screening in quite casual clothes, I felt underdressed and didn’t join the numerous actors, directors, film critics, and other contemporaries of Lee Man Hee, who were present at the opening, in their attack on the buffet. I will surely return to the cinema, though, for more imagery of Seoul in the 1960s and some more great movies to come!
PS: Just found out that the film is available online at Youtube, courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. You have to prove that you are older than 19 years to see it, though. There is also a blogpost with some film stills and the original poster, as well as the recording of a talk (in Korean) on “Korean society and womanhood, seen through movies” by Prof. Kim So-yeong (김소영), held after a screening of the film in 2013.
– 23 April 2