Aigoo! Yu Hyun-mok, master of Korean realism, is so depressing

Kims DaughtersWhen asked to look back at his career, Yu Hyun-mok, one of the four greatest directors from the golden age of Korean film, said that he was proud of two achievements:

  1. That he was always an innovator;
  2. That he never filmed a melodramatic love story.

In the latter achievement lies the key to Yu, as the romantic melodrama is standard Korean cinematic fare. Yu was never a commercial director. His most successful film, School Excursion, was a sympathetic and humorous look at tradition v modernity, as a group of children from a school in a backward, rural part of the country visit Seoul for the first time.1

Yu Hyun-mokYu eschewed another familiar theme in Korean film at the time – that of nationalism. Instead, Yu is best known for Obaltan, Aimless Bullet, which is acclaimed by many as one of the best, if not the best, Korean film of all time. It focuses on the lives of an ordinary family struggling to exist in post-war Seoul.

The struggle of ordinary people as Korea emerges into modernity is to a certain extent taken up in Kim’s Daughters, the first film in the Yu double bill on the Tuesday night. Shamanism still has a hold over Kim’s wife, while Christianity is an emerging influence on some of the younger characters. And an irreverent scepticism inhabits the freest spirit among the daughters.

But the mood… The same dirge-like music that is found on the Obaltan soundtrack also predominates in Kim’s Daughters, marking the family’s laborious trudge through the troubles that afflict them. Aigoo! Every sentence uttered by Kim’s wife starts with an Aigoo! Plagued by a curse which has lingered over the house in Tongyeong on Korea’s South coast, since a relative committed suicide there 50 years beforehand. “Only after human beings endure and overcome indescribable sorrow and horror can they stand firm against tragedy,” says one leading character, twice, as if to make sure we’re getting the message. And twice we see the same old lady scooping the water out of her leaky fishing boat, imprisoned in an unbreakable circle of logic and futility: she can’t fish because she’s bailing the water out, but if she stops bailing the boat will sink. “If she doesn’t bail out the boat, many people will die”, the observer adds, on both occasions.

One of Kim's daughters about to meet a watery end
One of Kim's daughters about to meet a watery end

Life is a never-ending experience of fruitless labour and pain: a dutiful wife has to stay with her impotent husband despite the regular beatings she gets, while it seems to be perfectly acceptable behaviour for a husband to slaughter a man for paying a social call on his wife. The paterfamilias is dying of stomach cancer while his business is in terminal decline, and a moneylender seems to be trying to fleece him of his land. The Japanese are grabbing all the best fishing grounds so it’s difficult for a Korean to catch anything, and his daughters can’t seem to marry properly. Madness and death, including a couple of axe-murders, pile on the misery. Aigoo indeed. 97 minutes of gloom passes like 197, and yet nevertheless the plot seems abbreviated and truncated so that you can’t figure out who married whom and why one of the characters ended up in prison. To be fair, there were probably a couple of cuts from the 1960s censors which chopped up the narrative, so it is difficult to tell what narrative jumps were intended by the director.

Your trusty reviewer was more than depressed enough after Kim’s Daughters and didn’t have the emotional reserves for a further 127 minutes of Martyr, the second leg of the Yu Hyun-mok double bill which followed immediately afterwards. One aficionado commented afterwards:

[Kim’s Daughters], although very interesting, was quite depressing and difficult to sit through. Martyr was even harder, but still a very compellling film even if I didn’t necessarily agree with what he was trying to say.

And another added

The second film was better, though no more cheerful. You need to stick with Yu though, Philip! He’s the grand master of Korean realism!

Yu BookBut the evening was not all doom and gloom. The highlight was Daniel Martin’s informative introduction to Yu Hyun-mok’s life and works (we could do with more of these screen talks at the KCC screenings), and KOFIC had kindly donated a dozen of their books on the director which were handed out to the early birds. One of the themes LKL constantly harps on about is the need to educate and inform audiences on what they are viewing, and I can therefore give the KCC, KOFIC and the Barbican full marks for their efforts. I can also enthusiastically endorse the objectives of showcasing in this festival the works of the past great directors. Yu was a perfect choice for this year’s festival, as he died in June this year a few days before his 85th birthday. And many audience members came out of Kim’s Daughters with extremely positive reactions.

I have to say, though: it just wasn’t my cup of tea. One can have too much Han in one sitting.

Kim’s Daughters and Martyr screened at the Barbican on 10 November as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2009. Obaltan / Aimless Bullet screens tonight, also at the same venue. It’s a must-see.

  1. Much of this background material comes from Daniel Martin’s excellent introduction before the screening at the Barbican. []

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