Han Su-ok, a young schoolteacher, arrives in an isolated mountain village to take up her first job in an elementary school. As she gets off the bus, the village initially seems deserted, like a ghost town, hemmed in by the high forbidding walls of the surrounding mountains like a prison. You wonder what sort of film it is you are about to watch: certainly, you have a feeling that the woman is going to have strange and unnerving experiences there. Su-ok is relatively affluent and middle class: respectably dressed, in 1980s style, with lipstick, pleated skirt, medium heels on the shoes, and carrying a Burberry suitcase. If she represents modernity and relative privilege, the village seems to be stuck in a primitive and rural past, disconnected from anywhere.
Virtually the first character she sees is Ggaecheol, who is looking at her in a sinister manner, almost pinning her down with the sexual energy of his eyes. This character’s musical leitmotiv is dark and threatening organ music in the soundtrack. Today it sounds rather kitsch, but you can put that feeling aside. Ggaecheol, a man of few words and who is dressed in shabby clothes, is played by a very handsome-looking Ahn Sung-ki.
We soon get the picture that this is a very unusual village, in which all the families are connected to each other either by blood or marriage. Everyone knows everyone else, and knows their business. You might regard that as either comforting or suffocating depending on your point of view, and both are expressed in Im’s film. Ggaecheol is the only inhabitant identified as an outsider. He is not a member of any of the intertwined families in the village, having just turned up in the village one day in the past and never left.
The villagers know him as the village idiot, though putting him in this role seems more to be a way of distancing him from the polite society of the the village rather than a comment on his mental capacity, for he seems to have most of his wits about him. He sleeps rough and occasionally scrounges food or a room for the night from a villager, but never imposes himself on any family too much. He demands his food or board roughly, never saying thank-you, but never causing trouble. He maintains a careful balance between distance and dependence.
While Ggaecheol is accompanied by sinister organ music, Su-ok’s soundtrack is up-to-the minute (ie early 1980s): slightly cheesy electronica music that she listens to on her transistor radio as she writes letters to her fiance who is on military service.
Though outwardly highly conservative, the villagers exhibit behaviour below the surface that is anything but. The serving maid in the village inn seems to be everyone’s sexual property, while there seem to be other examples of bedhopping too. In fact sexual tension seems to be everywhere.
Outside of this structure are both the idiot and the schoolteacher. The latter is living apart from her fiancé, while the idiot is paradoxically rumoured to be both extremely well-endowed and also impotent.
The quiet of the village is shattered when one young husband is found beating Ggaecheol for sleeping with his wife. The schoolteacher independently confirms that the idiot is anything but impotent, and concludes that he has probably slept with most of the women in the village, but never too often with the same woman. It is a state of affairs that the villagers acquiesce in, though initially it is never certain why they tolerate the idiot’s behavior.
Towards the end of the film, Su-ok discusses her thoughts with a fellow teacher. The theory discussed is that the women in the village need an outlet for their sexual frustrations but are unable to sleep with anyone in the village because they are “family”; and the men keep quiet about their wive’s occasional dalliance to avoid the shame of admitting that his wife is an adulteress.
The scenario of the film sticks very closely to the short story An Anonymous Island by Yi Mun-yol, though Im Kwon-taek introduces into the the narrative a sex-crazed barmaid who is the counterpoint to the predatory Ggaecheol, and is more explicit about the existing sexual tensions in the community.
Yi Mun-yol portrays a community whose womenfolk would never stray from marital fidelity in the village where a relative would always find out and denounce them, and who need the “anonymous island” of this sexually energetic stranger who will satisfy their desires (and his own) with no further complications. In Yi’s story, Ggaecheol is a sexual predator who knows exactly when his advances will be most welcomed. But for the menfolk anonymity which Ggaecheol offers is corruptive: a woman can sleep with him and know that her honour is safe because no-one will find out.
Im Kwon-taek’s version shows the consequences that the villagers suffer when they don’t abide by the rules (don’t sleep with the neighbour’s wife), but nevertheless it’s clear that extramarital hanky-panky is not unusual occurrence. This makes the role of Ggaecheol slightly problematic in that he is not the only outlet for the women’s energies – though he is the only “safe” one. Instead Im seems to be suggesting that the old ways of the village are stifling and unsustainable, and the community needs this anonymous outsider less as a midnight cowboy and more as a source of mysterious energy and vitality.
Helping the sexually charged atmosphere of Village in the Mist is Ahn Sung-ki, who has never looked more virile than he does in this film, and a delicate-looking Su-ok, played by Jeong Yoon-hee, whom most of the contemporary audience would have known as a rumoured mistress of the late President Park Chung-hee.
What is not clear is whether the experience of this mysterious isolated village in the hills can provide a lesson in morals for the schoolteacher and for us, the viewers? Are we to open our eyes to a new non-Confucian sexual order where we are happy for womenfolk to enjoy themselves out of wedlock? Are we to welcome into our midst sexual predators and do nothing about it? Are we to search for an anonymous island that can provide escape and revitalisation in our ownlives? The film leaves us pondering about what the lessons might be. And maybe the pondering is what we need, and not any answers.
Im Kwon Taek (임권택) Village in the Mist (안개 마을, 1983)
Village in the Mist screened on 19 October 2012 at the ICA, the first of the 15-film, 2-week retrospective of Im Kwon-taek’s films at the ICA and BFI.
Yi Mun-yol’s An Anonymous Island, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl, is available online to subscribers of the New Yorker magazine (and this link might work for a version for non-subscribers). It is also available via List magazine, though I’m not sure whether that’s the full story.