Watching Korea with the British Museum

Peter Corbishley reviews the recent Korean Film double bill

On Saturday 6th November 2008, Margaret O’Brien of The British Museum and Jeon Hye-Jung of the Korean Cultural Centre put on a somewhat sparsely attended family programme of Korean films. Margaret O’Brien, who has been Head of Lifelong Learning at the Museum since 2000, presented the two films. Firstly Marathon (Jeong Yoon-cheol) from 2004, and then The Wedding Day (Lee Byeong-il) from 1956. In fact, The Wedding Day was a late substitute for The Way Home (Lee Jeong-hyang) 2002, and was shown second rather than in the order of production. Nevertheless, however accidental the juxtaposition, the joint screening brought out Korean attitudes to disability.

Contrasts between the old and the new in Korea have been filmed over the 50 year period that separates these two films, a time in which South Korea has experienced exponential economic growth. The films on show pointed up another aspect of the change that, on the surface at least, has taken due to that growth. The Wedding Day was filmed shortly after the end of the Korean War in 1953 when almost all South Korean cities had been largely destroyed, while ‘Marathon comes after the world wide sporting events of the Olympics in 1988 and, more recently, the World Cup in 2002. Both films are ‘feel-good’ films. The earlier film The Wedding Day is full of laughter and comedy and Marathon, as the end is never in doubt, full of eventual triumph, reaching redemption in spite of anguish, drunkenness and the good intentions of the staff in the surprisingly well-equipped school for autistic people.

The most obvious contrast between the films as films is that The Wedding Day is in sepia/ black and white tones whilst Marathon is in colour. The colour contrast is heightened by the way in which The Wedding Day begins with credits written in Chinese script and not Korean. Moreover the films are set differently. The first in the countryside, the second largely in the city – except for the transformative moment of the film which takes place outside Seoul. The quaint tones of the earlier film reflect a war-torn Korea looking back to a pristine, almost idyllic rural past. The colours of Marathon, as in the scenes of the autumn trees alongside the marathon route, gives us an urban Korea looking forward to a brighter future but still in touch with nature. The earlier film, popular at home, was also the first Korean film to be recognised in international film festivals, perhaps for its exotic feel. Marathon, in turn, was rapturously received in the domestic film market, but is sufficiently a ‘tear-jerker’ to be well-received outside Korea as the audience response behind me at the Museum clearly indicated, although it less obviously plays to unique aspects of the Korean psyche.

Perhaps, not surprisingly in a Korean context, both films are morality tales. The Wedding Day is a comedy of manners, using rolling slapstick and irony together with scenes in which anyone who marries a cripple is mocked without remorse. Yet the story plays upon prejudice against cripples in order to deliver its critique of human shallowness, hollowness and social pretension. At the centre of the drama is the servant girl, rejected, pitied, put upon and exploited by the ‘superior’ forces of the minor official, his wife and his daughter. Nevertheless she has “the true heart” for which the nobler elements, living in the Bellflower Valley of Korean society, are looking. True love peeps shyly upwards from the downturned face, and the rejected maiden, given her honest and true character, gains her reward. The film is based on a play written in 1944 during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Did the audience, one wonders, see themselves in Ip-bun (Korean meaning the lip-person?) who alone speaks positively about the intended groom when he is rumoured to be a cripple?

Marathon is much more straightforwardly didactic. The film ends with statistics on autism in South Korea and references to how autism should be understood are sprinkled throughout. The film also aims to be highly realistic. The story of successfully running a sub 3 hour Marathon is based on a real-life person. The actor who plays the autistic son spent time learning the mannerisms of the autistic person on whom the film is based. There are also vignettes of clear prejudice against autistic people, including scenes of physical violence on a tube station. However, the combination of high mindedness and realism – as is not uncommon in Korean films blood appears more than once – also expresses larger Korean themes.

Mother and son, together but alone, pass through an ongoing drama of rejection and return, of sadness and hope (한), of sun and rain. She internalises her experience of rejecting her son to the point of an ulcer and depression (화병). He, the autistic marathon runner, achieves his goal lifted up from failure through the energy (represented by a choco-pie!) given to him in the ‘ghostly’ appearance of his mother as he sits down alone on the Marathon. The runner is always in sustaining contact with nature (holding his arm out to touch the feathery grass of Korea – a grass that features even more prominently in The Wedding Day). But, at the end, is also reconnected to the all the people in the film (정) as he touches hands, first of all, with children, then with adults, and, cheered on by the cast, the loneliness of his marathon comes to an end.

There are, that is, decidedly Korean aspects to the iconography and feeling structure of the film, expressing, perhaps, how Koreans, however handicapped and alone they feel themselves to be in the race towards modernisation, will together nevertheless win through. So, whether or not the film accurately recounts the emotional possibilities open to the autistic, the impact of its symbolic overtones may hopefully ameliorate Korean attitudes to disability. But in doing Marathon is part of a mirror that stretches back over half a century and enables us to reflect on what is, and what is not going forward in Korean society.

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