Aimless bullet, scary housemaid and Korea’s modern history

Two classic films from Korean cinema’s golden age provided a fascinating compare-and-contrast exercise last Monday night at the Barbican.

Encouragingly, the films were better attended than the comparable double-bill last year (Madame Freedom and My Mother and her Guest). Maybe that reflects the growing literacy of UK audiences when it comes to Korean film. Or maybe people are just getting more adventurous: a colleague of mine from work turned up with a friend, at the last minute, when he saw that Housemaid is in Martin Scorcese’s list of top 3 films of all time. He wasn’t disappointed.

Both films show the Republic of Korea at the start of its growth period, but we see different views of that development. In a strange reversal of modern-day / Western pay scales, the accountant lives in a shanty-town with his extended family1, while the seamstress and piano teacher live in a swanky new two-storey house complete with fitted kitchen (and, of course, a housemaid). Both films show little icons of western modernity – the occasional coke can in Obaltan, while in the American-style house we see a jar of decaffeinated coffee in the cupboard, even though the rest of the cuisine is more traditional.

Obaltan
Obaltan

There are aspects of westernism and modernity that will have been shocking or distasteful to a traditional audience: Korean prostitutes soliciting American soldiers in Obaltan, while the very modern Housemaid wears tight-fitting trousers and brazenly smokes cigarettes in front of her boss. (The wife wears hanbok). Another interesting similarity is the role of the taxi: in both films the main actor gets into a cab and tells the driver to drive anywhere he likes, purely as a way of relieving stress.

Housemaid
Housemaid

Puzzlingly, for those who regard Korea’s economic success as being at the expense of ruthlessly exploiting low-paid labour, the conditions in the garment factory are spacious and clean – music and sports activities are laid on for the workers in the evening, and their sleeping accommodation (presumably these are all workers from the countryside who are away from their families) reasonably comfortable. Although a worker can get fired for writing a love-letter to her singing teacher, all this is a far cry from the unhealthy sweatshop conditions we see a decade or so later in the garment district, horrifically depicted in A Single Spark.

Housemaid poster
Housemaid poster

Housemaid exceeded every expectation of mine, and I shall not attempt to review it other than to recommend that you purchase the DVD when it comes out. KOFA, the Korean Film Archive, is gradually working through a lot of Korea’s old films restoring the prints and improving or creating the subtitles. A boxed set of some of Kim Ki-young’s other films has already been released on DVD. The print of Housemaid we saw at the screening this week seemed to be work in progress, with some of the scenes still needing work to stabilise the subtitles and to clean up the scratches. But even in an unrestored state every frame was gripping. The print of Obaltan had the same hand-written subtitles as are on the DVD.

The Barbican and KCC are to be thanked for their courage in putting on these classics, as of course is KOFA for their hard work in restoring the archive. It’s encouraging that their work is being rewarded with growing audiences.

  1. This, on reflection, makes a little bit of sense: in my early career as a chartered accountant looking after Korean bank clients I was warned that Koreans regarded accountants as being on a par with the office cleaner []

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