Among the many talented Korean directors who got their start during the Korean war and made a name for themselves in the 1960s, Yu Hyŏn-Mok is unique in his ability to marry the formal elements of filmmaking with the themes he addressed in his films. His mastery of the formal side of filmmaking and his refusal to compromise artistically or politically allowed him to create poignant, hard-hitting films throughout his career. In his best known film outside of Korea, Aimless Bullet (Obalt‘an 1961), all the elements of the film, from the script to the mise-en-scéne to the themes, and the historical context of the film's release come together to give Yo Hyŏn-Mok's signature formal devices added power and effectiveness.
In this post I will look at one device in particular Yu Hyŏn-Mok uses in this film (and in the majority of his other films) to help build meaning and reinforce the themes. This device is the visual motif of strong vertical and diagonal lines that fragment the frame and enclose the characters and cut them off from each other.
It's important to note that while Yu Hyŏn-Mok uses this visual motif in many of his films, the meaning of the visual motif often diverges wildly from its use here in Aimless Bullet. So it should be remembered in the followed discussion that the visual motif has no intrinsic meaning; it acquires meaning through the context of the film. In what follows I hope to show the process by which these visual motifs acquire meaning.
Introducing the Visual Motif
In the opening credits of the film we see Rodin's The Thinker in front of strong vertical and diagonal lines illuminated by traffic lights passing in the background. As Darcy Paquat puts it, "The rather heavy-handed symbolism implies a human being trapped in a confined space, where thinking and intellectual struggles are constrained by outside forces" (Bowyer 2004).
Rather than labeling this imagery 'symbolic' and immediately assigning meaning to, I think it is more productive to treat this image, of a person enclosed by strong vertical and diagonal lines, as a visual motif which acquires meaning as the film develops so that by the end of the film we will be able to look back on this image and understand it in the context of the film's themes, characters, and narrative.
Following the opening credits, the visual motif of the strong vertical and diagonal lines appear immediatley in the next two shots, further establishing this motif that will come to dominate the film and reinforce many of the themes.
In this shot, the main character, Yŏng-Ho, and his war buddies are drinking in a bar. The camera looks in at them from outside through V shaped window frames. The characters are precisely arranged in the frame so that their faces are clearly visible to the camera. The frame of the film is fractured by these vertical and diagonal lines that enclose the characters and separate them from each other.
|If you look at the very top of the image you can see two hairs in the frame which have crossed to form an X. If you've seen Scarface (Howard Hawks 1932) you know that this means someone's gonna die!|
As Yŏng-Ho's friend, the Captain, leaves the bar he accidently breaks the windows of the door due to his crippled body. The friends have no money to pay for their drinks or the window and they argue with the waiter about the bill. The frame has now become literally fractured with the waiter visible through the now broken window asking the war buddies for money that they don't have. In this shot the Captain is separated from his friends and listens to the conversation from outside. There are again strong vertical lines on the left of the frame.
With this visual motif firmly established, these diagonal and vertical lines will appear frequently at key moments in the film, and as the themes of the film are developed they become more and more effective. While this motif can be found in many places in the film, I'm going to focus now on three specific instances where the visual motif is explicitly related to the themes of the film and the dialogue of the characters.
The Family Home
The majority of Aimless Bullet was shot on location in Seoul, but the house in Haebangwhere the family lives was constructed especially for the film and a lot of key sequences occur there. It is no wonder then that there are so many visually interesting shots taken inside the house.
This is the first time in the film that the bunk bed is used in this manner, but just a little latter in the film a similar set-up is used again for the main confrontation between Chŏl-Ho and Yŏng-Ho, the two brothers, in which the main themes of the film are laid out.
|Yŏng-Ho lies on the bed on the left while talking with his brother Chŏl-Ho as Chŏl-Ho's wife prepares food to the right.|
At the beginning of this scene the characters are framed so that the diagonal and vertical lines of the bunk bed separate and enclose them. Each of them exists in their own frame; Yŏng-Ho in the lower left, Chŏl-Ho above him and to the right , and Chŏl-Ho's wife in the kitchen to the right. The positioning of the characters has been carefully planned to accomplish this effect.
At first Chŏl-Ho chastises Yŏng-Ho for not getting a job after being out of the army. The scene continues, their argument becomes more intense and, in the same shot as before, Chŏl-Ho walks to the right side of the frame as seen below.
Now the brothers are separated not just by the diagonal lines, but also by the strong vertical line in the center of the frame. Chŏl-Ho's movement also puts him in front of his wife so that Chŏl-Ho and Yŏng-Ho are the only characters in the frame; focusing our attention on them as their argument continues. Notice also that Chŏl-Ho is at the top of the frame as his brother listens intensely in the bottom of the frame. This position is reversed as Yŏng-Ho starts to passionately express his frustration at their situation.
|"Why do we have to live in a cage, a cage of conscience?"|
Now Yŏng-Ho is at the top of the frame talking to his brother who listens in the bottom of the frame. It is here the Yŏng-Ho utters his classic line about the "cage of conscience" connecting the vertical and diagonal lines enclosing the characters to one of the main themes of the film; the cage of conscience.
The older brother Chŏl-Ho is constrained in his behavior to do the right thing and accept the terrible conditions under which he lives. As he says, it is 'all he knows' and he is unable to come up with any alternatives. Yŏng-Ho can't stand to be confined by this cage and in the following scenes will make an attempt to break free of the cage and take what he wants without thinking about conscience or morality.
What the character actually says ("왜 우리라고 좀 더 넓은 테두리까지
못나가라는 법이 어디 있어요?") is perhaps better translated as "Why can't we go beyond the boundaries of the law?" which is quite a bit less poetic and philosophically stimulating than the "cage of conscience". I will bracket that for now and come back to it another time.
The Bird Cage
The imagery of the cage makes a literal appearance a little later in the film when Yŏng-Ho goes to meet the nurse he knew from the war. When he arrives at her apartment the landlord informs him that she is dead, having been killed in a murder-suicide by a alcoholic poet who lived next door to her. When Yŏng-Ho initially approaches the landlord he is seen feeding his caged birds, separated from Yŏng-Ho by a vertical line down the center of the frame.
In despair over the loss of the nurse, Yŏng-Ho becomes further set in his desire to break free of the boundaries of the law and escape from the "cage of conscience". The further use of cage imagery at this point becomes ironic, pointing to the fact that while Yŏng-Ho may desire to break out of the cage in which he finds himself, escape is impossible.
Yŏng-Ho calls his friend arrange the jeep that he intends to use as his get-away car after he robs a bank. In this shot the cage imagery is explicit as he appears literally become trapped in a cage. While some may see this shot as "heavy-handed", I think it's use is more subtle when seen in the context of the film and the previous uses of the visual motif. As Yŏng-Ho plans the bank robbery in an attempt to break free of the constraints put upon him and his family, this shot ironically shows that his attempts at achieving freedom are doomed to failure because no matter what he does he will always be trapped in a cage; his actions will always be constrained and limited by society.
There is no Escape
After the bank robbery, Yŏng-Ho's friend drives the jeep off leaving him alone and Mi-Ri bumps into him after following from the studio worried that he will do something rash. He runs away from her and the police with a bundle of money under his arm and we are treated to chase through downtown Seoul circa-1961. However, no matter where Yŏng-Ho runs the strong vertical lines that surround him constantly bring to mind images of prison or a cage.
Whether running through a construction site (below) or under near then cement covered Ch'ŏnggye Stream (above) he cannot escape; Seoul itself has become a cage to confine him.
Finally, exhausted, he shoots his gun futilely (aimlessly) into the air and collapses upon the top of a metal ladder with the police and Mi-Ri below him. The vertical lines of the ladder railing again bring to mind the images of the prison as he breaks down in tears.
The visual motif of strong vertical and diagonal lines may have seemed in the first few scenes as a stylistic device or as "heavy handed" symbolism. But as the film progresses these visual motifs acquire increasing meaning and significance so that by the end of the film they have a devastating effect on the audience. Yu Hyŏn-Mok's mastery of the formal techniques of filmmaking allows him to bring the variegated elements of filmmaking together to create powerful effects, which Aimless Bullet amply demonstrates.