Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Cage of Conscience: Visual Motifs in "Aimless Bullet"

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 Haebangch‘on where 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. However, the visual motif I am discussing doesn't appear in every shot inside the house, and in fact it doesn't make an appearance until the second half of the film. 

There are two scenes in particular that utilize the strong vertical and diagonal lines afforded by a bunk bed in the room to highlight the themes that the characters discuss. In the first of the two scenes, one of Yŏng-Ho's friends comes to tell him that the Captain has left Seoul without leaving a forwarding address. The night before Yŏng-Ho had accused the Captain of ruining his sister's life and, following their argument, the Captain ran into Myŏng-So as she was being propositioned by US soldiers. 

We see the conversation of Yŏng-Ho and his friend unfold through the frames of the bunk bed, which fragments the frame and cuts them off from each other. The question arises whether or not the Captain was able to escape from the misery they are experiencing in Seoul by killing himself or by running away. They are unable to come up with an answer.


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.

This post is part of the 2011 Korean (Film) Blogathon hosted by

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Housemaid (1960 / Kim Ki-Yŏng)

I watched the 1960 Kim Ki-Young film "The Housemaid" online as part of the Korean Film Class I'm taking. There was a pretty good online discussion about the film and I've collected a few of my posts here. The first time I saw "The Housemaid" was at the Pusan Film Festival a couple of years ago. I went down there with my friend Jacob and a few other people and had a really good time despite the fact that "The Housemaid" was the only film I saw all the way through at the festival! (I also went to the outdoor screening of Mamoru Oshii's anime "Skycrawlers" but the projector broke half way through the movie...) The first time I saw "The Housemaid" I was quite baffled by it, but having seen it several times since then I've come to really like it.

"I made a set for the two-story house, which I thought to be a miniature of the world. I made all accessories and furniture for the film on my own, and especially I worked hard on lighting. Viewers of the film praised the beautiful scenes, and asked me what was the secret; however, I did not readily give the answer." 
—director Kim Ki-Yŏng

I thought this quote was really interesting. If you notice the artwork and the objects in the house they really are quite strange and bizarre and you can tell Kim Ki-Yŏng put a lot of thought and energy into setting them up. It certainly adds to the unsettling feeling of claustrophobic fatalism the film has.
Curtains covering up a wall with pictures nailed into them, a creepy doll...
A really weird pattern on the wall, a creepy bust...looks like a Dungeon
The piano room...more weird walls and some medieval looking dishes on the wall...

and what is that thing in the lower right hand corner?
It looks like a screen made of magazines...
There's another screen next to the piano as well as some Jangseung and masks above the piano...

The Janseung on top of the piano...
"In 60s or 70s, piano symbolized the wealth since people in that period could not afford the piano at their home, but Dong Sik was the pianist and had several pianos in his home." 
-comment from student in class
I also thought the piano was important (it plays a role in the recent remake of the film as well) and it's interesting that when the Factory Girl brings the Housemaid over to the house for the first time she atonally hits on the keys while the Music Teacher talks in the other room. She does this a few more times in the film, hitting the keys atonally while the other characters are able to play music on the piano. Clearly she doesn't belong in this bourgeous setting.

On the DVD of this film there is commentary with Bong Joon Ho (who directed "The Host", "Mother", etc.) and a Korean film critic and one thing Bong points out is that the movie is constantly recycling shot set-ups so that in the film the camera does the same tracking shot (where the camera moves on a track) over and over again. Recycling set-ups (using the same camera placement and lighting over and over again) usually occurs in low-budget films or films shot on a tight schedule but the film critic speculates that Kim Ki-Yŏng did this not because of budget constraints but rather to create a sense of claustrophobia.

It's interesting to compare this to "University of Laughs" where, as Prof. Yoo pointed out, there is also a claustrophobic feeling due to the vast majority of the action taking place in a single room. In both cases you have a single setting giving a film a sort of claustrophobic feeling, however, I think that "University of Laughs" was consciously avoiding monotony by using editing and camera work to keep the film from becoming claustrophobic and boring. For example, the film employed a large number of camera set-ups (showing lots of different views of the room) and in certain sequences (where the censor becomes lost in his 'role' as the police officer) the editing and camera work gives energy to the film and makes us forget that the action is still taking place in the same room. 

In "Housemaid" however, the repetition of camera set-ups combined with the single location was embraced in order to give the film a very claustrophobic feeling that mirrors the fatalistic views of the characters (once the husband has the affair it seems like everyone is on a course they can't control and are resigned to their fates). 

One last thing I wondered what people thought about the framing device of the film? I'm assuming everyone has seen the film already if they're reading the comments so I won't worry about spoiling anything, but the main story of the film is presented as a dream or fantasy sequence that a 'typical' Korean family patriarch has when reading the newspaper article about a maid who has an affair with someone. Director Kim Ki-Yŏng says "Viewers of the film said that the story could sufficiently occur in reality; at that time, many such incidents occurred. Many households could afford to hire housemaids for low costs; but housewives were worried about such situations at the back of their minds."

Is the framing device supposed to be ironic and making fun of the bourgeois family? To modern audience I think it comes off as extremely campy, especially when he looks at the camera and says 'It's only natural for men to think of Young Woman. Ho ho ho!'  The audience I saw the film with laughed quite a bit at these sequences at the beginning and ending of the film. Does this framing device undermine the message of the film? Is it necessary? I think it's one of the most unique parts of the film so I'm curious if anyone has any thoughts about it. It's also interesting that the 'real' house in the framing device is just as bizarre as the 'fantasy' house. Maybe it would have been more effective if the decorations in the houses were different?
"This film reminded of the film "Psycho" straight from the start...Psycho is equally as strange, weird, creepy, and has the same can't quite understand feel and it's a classic." 
-comment from student in class
I think this is a really astute comparison. These films also feel very similar to me and there are a lot of interesting commonalities between the films:

  • They were both released in 1960 (Psycho in June and Housemaid in November)
  • They were both made for low budgets (Psycho was self-financed by Hitchcock independently of a studio)
  • They both give a disturbing glimpse into psycho-sexual madness and obsession
  • They both feature really creepy, meticulously designed sets (think of the birds in the background of the parlor scene of Psycho)
  • Even their critical receptions are rather similar (both were very popular but didn't get critical respect until long after their releases)
  • Etc.

The parlor scene in Psycho.

I would be very interested to see an in-depth comparison of these two films. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Radio Dayz (2008, Yun In-Ho)

I was living in Seoul when Radio Dayz came out and I remember deciding not wanting to see it because it looked too much like Woody Allen's Radio Days or David Lynch's On The Air. It turns out to be more similar to On The Air than a Woody Allen film, albeit with much less zaniness than the David Lynch show. I would actually say in terms of construction, sense of humor, theme, and production values it's very similar to Welcome to Dongmagol. Despite my initial hesitations about watching it, I enjoyed the film though and, since it was for class, here's the response paper I wrote up immediately after watching the movie. Pretentious? Maybe, but I was trying to work in things we had talked about in class and looked at in the readings.

Following up on Prof. Yoo's discussion of Time and Modernity there are some interesting scenes in the film which directly relate the radio to time and hence to modernity and modernization. In the early scene where the owner of the radio station confronts Lloyd about the ratings being low and Lloyd suggests having a live broadcast, the radio station owner says that the purpose of the radio is to tell time. And he is upset with Lloyd because his rooster, while amusing, failed to accurately tell the time. Here we have the traditional way of telling time (it’s morning when the rooster crows) in direct opposition with the modern way of telling time (using a clock/watch). And we also get a sense that it is the Japanese who, through the radio owner, are imposing modernity on the Koreans. So the radio becomes a device for keeping time and spreading Modernity.

In a later scene, when the writer is giving his pitch to Lloyd, he says that the radio drama is a way of “losing track of time”. That is, people listening to the radio become so engrossed in the drama they don’t realize that time has passed. If Modernity is predicated on accurate and strict adherence to time than ‘losing track of time’ would seem to undermine the Japanese Modernization project. So the radio then becomes both a way of transmitting Modernism (associated with the Japanese and keeping strict time) and resisting Modernism (associated with the Koreans and using the radio dramas as a way of escaping the strict measure of time). This is similar to the argument made in one of the readings that while the radio was controlled by the Japanese to a large extent, it was still possible to create ‘spaces’ for resistance and Korean culture.

Finally, when the revolutionary Koreans have obtained a radio transmitter and suddenly have the ability to communicate directly with the Korean nation they realize that they don’t know what to say. One of them finally says “You need to say the time” so the main guy looks at a watch, says the time, and then signs off. Here again we have the idea that the purpose of the radio is to accurately tell the time. Also noteworthy is the failure of these revolutionaries to come up with any alternatives to the promotion of (Japanese) Modernity. (Why don’t they broadcast a message denouncing the Japanese? Or put out a call to take up arms? They can only think of reading the time off of a watch.)

This inability to come up with alternatives comes up again at the end of the movie when the radio station owner gives them a pro-Japanese war effort script and tells them to perform it. The radio owner later says he isn’t worried about them doing something other than the script because they are “unable to come up with any alternatives”.

This theme is very resonant with Korean history at that time where the Japanese essentially handed the Koreans a ‘script’ of what their history was, who they were, and where they came from and for a long time the Koreans were unable to come up with a counter-narrative. However, if the dramas represent a way of “losing track of time” and therefore countering Modernity / Japanese imperialism, then in this case the Koreans, by rejecting the Japanese script and writing and performing their own script, successfully create their own narrative which results, literally, in a ‘spark of love’ above the skies of Seoul and the communion of the Korean people.

Monday, May 23, 2011

My Heart (2000 / Bae Chang-Ho)

"My Heart" was released in the Summer of 2000 and directed by Bae Chang-ho, who was by far the best Korean director of the 1980s (there wasn't much competition) and written together with and stars his wife Kim Yu-mi. I watched it in my Korean Film class. I was surprised how good it was because usually this type of movie can be very emotionally manipulative and saccharine, this movie struck just the right town and was very touching, warm, and full of insights into Korean society. Here is my response to the film that I wrote up for class. I will need to develop some of these ideas into a short paper by next Monday. These were written with an undergraduate audience in mind.

While the confucian society portrayed in the 1920s segment was highly segregated by sex and highly patriarchal, it was women, and specifically the mother-in-law, who inflicted all of the physical and mental violence upon the daughter-in-law. That is, women were inflicting pain on themselves. There are a few clues in the dialogue about why the mother-in-law was doing this; it’s because she herself was treated in this manner (if not worse) when she first entered the husband’s family. So we have a circle of abuse in which the older women inflict pain on the younger women (although this violence is certainly misdirected and is perhaps is an acting out of their frustration at their station in life).

When the husband brings home his classmate, whom he has met at University, the protagonist responds in the same way that she was treated; with violence. She heats the ondol floor to unbearable temperatures to inflict pain on the new woman and express her anger and frustration. She continues the pattern of violence that exists in the household. However, when she follows the woman and her husband into the fields and sees them passionately kissing in the moonlight she realizes that they love each other and one of the following 1) that she has 정 for her husband 2) that she has 정 for the woman because they have common sufferings due to their sex or 3) that they her husband and the other woman have 정 for each other. I’m waffling a bit on this but I’m leaning towards the third possibility.

Whatever the case, her realization has a transformative effect and afterwards she treats women with respect, courtesy, and deference. 정 has allowed her to break the cycle of abuse and to (literally) leave the patriarchal system of relations that perpetuated it. The scene where she watches her husband and another woman together and accepts their relationship is the key to the her character and to the movie. It is the point at which she goes from a 2-dimensional character meant to illustrate Joseon neo-Confucian society to a fully formed character capable of free will and independent action. This transformation is accomplished through 정.

I was curious how she was able to move to all these different houses? It seemed like whenever she left she ended up in a new house. Where did these houses come from? And then when she moved in with the potter she just left her old house and moved into his. Did she sell the house or just abandon it?

What the film seems to be saying is that the only option for positive action available to women at this time was to exit the system. There was no way to live happily within the Confucian system and so an exit was necessary. We see the protagonist exit the situation she was in twice, once after her husband divorces her and again after her next husband dies.

We also see the girl who comes to stay with the protagonist exiting the terrible relationship she has ended up in by being sold to the cow raising person (cow farmer?). Unfortunately the girl was only able to exit for a short time before her husband finds her and takes her back whereas the protagonist was able to permanently escape the neo-Confucian patriarchy.

It is ironically only when the protagonist is outside of the patriarchal household that she is able to follow the Confucian tenets of loving your husband and loving your son. She does both honestly and with real affection and 정 and the film is perhaps critiquing the Joseon society which held up Confucian values but, through the patriarchal social order, prevented these values from being organically expressed as they were with the protagonist.


At the end of the movie, the scenes between mother and son were very poignant and touching, but they were almost ridiculously so. I kept thinking that the Confucian rules had gone into a feedback loop where no progress could be made. There needed to be some external element added to get out of the loop.

What I mean by this is that the son was following the Confucian tenet of honoring your parents. He wanted his mother to eat first, he wanted her to have all the best food, he wanted to take care of her as much as possible. But at the same time the mother was following the Confucian tenet of providing for and loving your offspring. So the mother wanted the son to eat first, and have the best food, and she wanted to take care of him as much as possible. Both of these rules can’t be obeyed and, in effect, they cancel each other out. (i.e. if no one will eat without the other person eating first than none of them will eat!) As I said, it was very poignant, but at the same time it was almost annoying how much they cared for each other.


On the technical side of things, I noticed that the 180 degree rule was broken three times in the film. Twice when the mother-in-law was yelling at the daughter, and then once at the end while the protagonist is eating with her son. The first two looked very deliberate, but the last one might have been by accident?

You can read about the 180 degree rule on wikipedia ( but basically it describes a normative way of shooting a scene and it is almost always followed in movies like this one where the style of the film is meant to be as unobtrusive as possible (the ‘invisible style’ of the Hollywood studio system). The rule is sometimes broken for effect, and I think that’s what is going on here. Possibly to cause an unsettling, disjointed effect during the scenes with the mother-in-law.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Aimless Bullet (1961 / Yu Hyŏn-Mok)

I just wanted to comment on one scene from Aimless Bullet where Yŏng-Ho  (the brother of the accountant) is offered a movie role by Mi-Ri (his actress friend whom he said he would marry once he gets a job). 

He goes to the audition and Mi-Ri and the Assistant Director talk to him about the role. He is to play a soldier who was shot in the stomach and while he is recovering at a hospital he meets a young nurse and they fall in love (similar to Hemingway's Farewell to Arms). This is, as we have just seen, exactly what has happened to  Yŏng-Ho in the movie. He was shot in the stomach in the war and while recovering at a hospital he meets a young nurse and they fall in love and now he has met the nurse again and they are rekindling their relationship.

The part of Aimless Bullet about Yŏng-Ho's relationship with the nurse is basically picking up where the fictional film account leaves off. The similarity between Yŏng-Ho and the fictional character he is to portray is in fact the reason Mi-Ri recommended him for the role ("This part is just made for you. It's an ex-serviceman. He has a personality just like yours.") . Yŏng-Ho memorably refuses the role shouting "My wounds aren't for sale!" and, trying to leave the building but finding the door locked, he smashes the glass with his fist and rushes back to his war buddies. 
The assistant director and Yŏng-Ho
There are a number of things that are really interesting about this scene. First is the fact that  Yŏng-Ho's refusal to accept the role is due to his refusal to accept money for his wounds; his refusal to commodify or commercialize the sacrifices he made for his country. But since the film we are watching is telling almost the exact same story as the fictional story that Yŏng-Ho condemns, what does that say about Aimless Bullet

As the audience of this film we are forced to ask whether the film we are watching is also commercializing the suffering and pain of War and Poverty like the fictional film in the movie. Because of the realism of the film (the use of real characters and locations) it would be particularly problematic if Aimless Bullet is indeed cashing in Korea's wounds for money. This bit of self-reflexivity is very subtlety done 

I think director Yo Hyŏn-Mok would answer that he was intending to criticize commercial films which glorified war and overlooked the 'scars' or negative aspects of war in order to make entertaining films. His film, I think he would argue, is not intended to make money but rather to artistically portray the plight of Korea at that time. The fact that the film was essentially independently produced and none of the actors or crew received payment for their work backs up this argument. Aimless Bullet was a film that the cast and crew felt had to be made and was not intended to make money. 
Mi-Ri tries to talk Yŏng-Ho into taking the part
The second really interesting thing about this scene is that in addition to  Yŏng-Ho's disgust at being offered a part which commodifies his wounds, he has additional reasons for getting angry and refusing the part. In Aimless Bullet  Yŏng-Ho has promised to marry Mi-Ri once he is able to find a job. However, while he is looking for a job he runs into the nurse whom he has met while he was wounded in the hospital and they start to develop feelings for each other. After this run in with the nurse though, Mi-Ri finds  Yŏng-Ho the part in the movie which, if he accept it, will mean that he now has a job and can marry her. 

However, the part he is offered is that of a wounded soldier falling in love with a nurse in a hospital, which is exactly what has happened to  Yŏng-Ho. His first reaction is shock ("Does the script say all that?") and a lot of the shock no doubt comes from 'selling his wounds' but also the fact that the similarities also touch on  Yŏng-Ho's unfaithfulness to Mi-Ri. It must seem to him as if she has somehow found out about his affair with the nurse and is accusing him surreptitiously through this script. This is reminiscent of the 'play-within-a-play' in Hamlet where Hamlet hires performers to put on a play about a king's assassination to gauge the reaction of his step-Father (whom he suspects of murdering his father to take the throne). 
Earlier in the film the Nurse and Yŏng-Ho are reunited and they go to her apartment together
If you watch the scene again with this in mind you'll notice that Yŏng-Ho doesn't get upset until the nurse has been mentioned. He calmly answers that he does indeed have scars on his stomach just like the character, but as soon as it is mentioned that his character meets a young nurse in the hospital he stands up and starts to raise his voice yelling "Does the script say all that?" to which the assistant director replies "Precisely! Well, art follows life!". It is at this remark that Yŏng-Ho gets really mad and tells the assistant director off and refuses the part. What makes him mad is not just the showing of his scars for money, the reason he gives for refusing the part, but also his bad conscience at being unfaithful to Mi-Ri. 

Aimless Bullet is that rare film where all the elements of filmmaking (from camera work to lighting to script to acting etc) come together and reinforce each other to create powerful effects in the viewer. Subtleties in the film like the ones I have discussed above and the attention to detail evident throughout the film are quite remarkable considering the production history of the film and the environment and circumstances in which it was made. While there have been dismissive comments made about the "heavy-handed symbolism" in the film, Aimless Bullet is also able to effectively raise issues and make points in subtle ways such as the ones I have described above. 

This post is part of's Korean (Film) Blogathon 2011.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Personal Top Ten List

These are the first ten Korean films that really got me excited about Korean cinema. They are by no means the 'best' Korean films, simply the ones I watched first that really made me want to watch more. From the list it's pretty easy to see that I started watching Korean films in 2004 and that I first got interested because of the romantic comedies, which at the time attracted me because of because of the frantic pacing and energy that reminded me of 1980s Hong Kong comedies.
    Please Teach Me English Korean Romantic Comedy Dvd (Jang Hyuk) Ntsc All
  1. "Please Teach Me English"(2003) - Still one of my favorite Korean films, the culture of English language schools in Korean is brilliantly captured and it remains the best film on the subject. A great performance by the Australian English teacher as well, which is a rarity in Korean films (this is made up for by the performance of the gyopo at the end who is the worst actress I have ever seen in a major motion picture). 
  2. 100 Days with Mr. Arrogant
  3. "100 Days With Mr. Arrogant" (2004) - As stupid as it sounds the cleaning montage is really what endeared me to the film. And the extremely problematic ending where the female protagonist gives up her independence to continue to serve the rich, unlikable 'Mr. Arrogant' of the title.
  4. Spy Girl
  5. "Spy Girl" (2004) - The concept of beautiful girls working at Burger King and having male 'fans' who visited them there (which I have since learned is based on a real incident) was so bizarre that I felt compelled to learn more about apparently hyper-capitalist South Korea.
  6. My Sassy Girl (2001)
  7. "My Sassy Girl" (2001) - While the movie is way too long and features some very unlikable romantic leads, I was really intrigued by the fact that the movie was based on an internet novel. 
  8. 3-Iron
  9. "3 Iron" (2004) - I saw this at the Seattle International Film Festival and really liked it. Especially the idea at the beginning of putting advertisements on people's doors to see if anyone is home and then breaking into their houses. 
  10. "Chilsu and Mansu" (1989) - This film really set off my interest in the minjung movement, 1980s culture, 70/80 music, among other things and this film vividly captures the 1980s zeitgeist. The opening scenes are some of the best in Korean cinema where a boy and a girl meet at a Civilian Preparedness Drill in downtown Seoul and then he fantasizes about running away with her as he plays video games. Plus the film has an amazing soundtrack by Park Chul-Su. This film really set off my interest in older Korean films, particularly those of the 1980s.
  11. "Sunflower" (2006) - I saw this after living in Korea for a little bit. It's a lot like Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven". And features a classic scene where some high school kids are picking on the main character and rip his shirt to reveal yakuza style tattoos all over his body. They freak out and run away. The ending is also extremely well staged.
  12. Woman on the Beach
  13. "Women on the Beach" (2006) - The simplicity of this movie and the direct cinematography really got to me and I watched it several times when it first came out. This is what low budget filmmaking should be like and aesthetically it reminds me of Ingmar Bergman's "Scenes from a Wedding". This remains my favorite Hong Sang-Soo film, though I haven't seen many of his more recent films. 
  14. Secret Sunshine (2 Disc)
  15. "Secret Sunshine" (2007) - While I was in Korea I was down on Korean film for quite a while. I wasn't seeing anything that really blew me away and I started getting more interested in older Korean films because the new ones weren't doing it for me. "Secret Sunshine" changed all that. One of Lee Chang-Dong's best films and I'm very excited that the Criterion Collection is putting this out as their first Korean film.
  16. Poetry
  17. "Poetry" (2010) - I saw this film just in Korea just after it had played at Cannes and it again affirmed my faith in South Korean film. No matter how many ultra-violent thrillers get made, I can always count on Lee Chang-Dong to deliver amazing films and for me this film really confirmed for me that he is not just a great Korean filmmaker, but a great filmmakers period. Again, I couldn't be happier with his induction into the Criterion Collection.