Im Kwon-taek and the wounds of the Korean War

The Im Kwon Taek retrospective has given us all a chance to catch up on some of the films of the master that we haven’t seen before, rounding out our picture of Korea’s national director.

Im is probably best known nowadays for his films which highlight some of the unique aspects of Korea’s cultural heritage: the art of pansori (Chunhyang, Seopyeonje, Cheonnyeonhak), traditional ink painting (Chihwaseon) and the lost labour-intensive art of mulberry paper making (Scooping the Moonlight).

The double bill on Monday 22 Oct (Jjagko and Gilsoddeum) together with the two screenings of The Taebaek Mountains gave an opportunity to consider three films which tackle the wounds left by the Korean War in very different ways.

Jjagko is recognised by his pursuer Song Ki-yol in the hostel
Jjagko is recognised by his pursuer Song Ki-yol in the hostel

Jjagko (Also known as Pursuit of Death, and also known as Mismatched Nose after the unfortunately asymmetric facial feature of Jjagko, the central character in the film) presents the futility of maintaining old hatreds thirty years after the event. Song Ki-yol is a former policeman in the Jirisan area who managed to let a communist partisan (Jjagko) escape from custody. Suspected of being a communist sympathiser himself, he is fired, and spends the next thirty years of his life trying to catch Jjagko and clear his name. They finally come across each other in a refuge for the homeless and Song persuades Jjagko to tell the truth to the police. Jjagko tries to escape again, and the two of them end up wrestling on the floor watched by two younger policemen who think they are a couple of drunken tramps. The life-and-death battle between law-enforcer and insurgent, between left and right, between two men of extreme principle, ends in humiliating farce. The story is told through multiple action-packed flashbacks which explain how the characters got to be where they are today. It is an entertaining, action-packed film which gently puts across a message that we should start to let bygones be bygones.

Hwa-young (played by Kim Ji-mee) looks for news of her lost son in KBS Plaza
Hwa-young (played by Kim Ji-mee) looks for news of her lost son in KBS Plaza

Gilsoddeum is inspired by the KBS show in 1983 which aimed to reunite families separated during the Korean War. This is a touching and sensitive film which deals with separation and division on a number of levels. The early episodes of the show generated huge amounts of interest amoung the general public (88% of the population watched the early episodes), and the square in front of KBS was thronged with people advertising and looking for lost family members.

Im immediately knew that there was an important film to be made about the subject of the search for separated family members, and even before he had any structured ideas for the film went down to KBS Plaza with a camera to shoot some documentary footage. The scenes in Gilsoddeum in KBS Plaza use that footage, with the actors superimposed by being filmed against a back projection.1

Separated parents meet their son in Gilsoddeum
Separated parents meet their son in Gilsoddeum

But Gilsoddeum is about more than families separated by the conflict of war. It’s also about the increasing separation within society caused by the wealth gap between the successful and those left behind. There’s the obvious physical separation between family members who might otherwise be together. But there’s the less obvious social divisions which have opened up in such a short time between rich and poor, middle and lower classes.

Im stitched together the true life stories of several families to create the characters in his film. The fictional family portrayed in Gilsoddeum has the mother separated from her illegitimate infant son when she is imprisoned for assisting communist sympathisers. While she is imprisoned the son is adopted and then escapes from his new parents, eventually getting a job helping the US Army; but the young man she eventually meets in the 1980s is a wife-beating drunk living in a shack, while she has a very comfortable modern apartment. Her former lover too has fallen on hard times, and they became separated before the son’s birth because of parental opposition.

Hwa-young and Dong-jin in their time of innocence in their home village of Gilsoddeum
Hwa-young and Dong-jin in their time of innocence in their home village of Gilsoddeum

The film is full of might-have-beens, of yearnings which never come to fulfilment. The mother and father, both now married to other spouses, almost seem to want to get back together when they meet in KBS Plaza, but their paths have taken them beyond the point of return. Their separation from each other in their youth sealed the paths they would ultimately follow. But as they meet, and sit together in a hotel restaurant talking about their lives in painfully restrained dialogue, you wonder what happiness they would have shared together had things been different. Similarly, the reunion with their son is something that almost happens, that you want to happen, but there is not enough proof of familial connection for the mother to want to disrupt her cozy life. As Im Kwon-taek himself suggests in the 2005 Berlin Film Festival catalogue, if she had accepted the son as her own (born out of wedlock to a father who is now married with children), she would have been ruined as she herself is married with children. The film is poignantly restrained but nevertheless full of pain and emotion: it has a universal human message which enables it to speak to non-Koreans much more directly than some of Im’s other films.

Villagers caught between the leftists and the government forces suffer reprisals from both in the Taebaek Mountains
Villagers caught between the leftists and the government forces suffer reprisals from both in the Taebaek Mountains

Taebaek Mountains is one of Im Kwon-taek’s many literary adaptations – this one being based on Jo Jung-rae’s 10-volume epic novel of the same name. Trying to condense such a saga with so many characters into a two-hour film is a challenge in which Im is not entirely successful, and even clocking in at 168 minutes long the storyline feels too disjointed and rushed. But the film is interesting for the span of events that it aims to cover – from the Jeju and Yeosu uprisings in 1948 through to the end of the Korean War in 1953. The action takes place in the Boseong area of Jeollanam-do in the foothills of Jirisan, which was a refuge for communist guerillas and partisans even until the early 1960s when the last one was discovered.

Ahn Sung-ki as the local schoolteacher tries to remain aloof from the ideological battle
Ahn Sung-ki as the local schoolteacher tries to remain aloof from the ideological battle

The tension in the storyline is established from the start by having two brothers ideologically opposed to each other, one being a leader of the leftists and the other leading the anti-communist investigations. Ahn Sung-ki is a school teacher who tries to remain detached from the ideology of both leftist and rightist, trying to explain the farmers’ sympathy with the communist cause in the historical context of the land-grabs made by the Japanese during the colonial period and consequently the urgent need for land reform. But in a world where ideology is everything, and where either you’re a commie or you’re an anti-commie, there is no room for an intellectual who is neither. Similarly there is no room for the young shaman, even though you feel that Im sees in the age-old practice of shamanism some hope for the healing of the wounds caused by the division of Korea.

Can the shaman bring healing?
Can the shaman bring healing?

In all, a fascinating trio of films dealing directly or indirectly with issues arising from the Korean War. Taebaek Mountains tries too hard to cover too much ground, while Jjagko is more commercially minded in its relatively digestible and straightforward narrative. Gilsoddeum is the real gem of the three, and deserves to be much more widely known.

Im Kwon Taek (임권택) Jjagko (짝코, 1980) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne
Gilsoddeum (길소뜸, 1985) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne
Taebaek Mountains (태백산맥, 1994) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne
  1. Source: conversation with Professor Kim Joon-hoon, Im’s long-time assistant director, 27 Oct 2012. []

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