Im Kwon-taek set himself quite a challenge when he decided to make a movie of Kim Hoon’s Hwajang. It is a dense, concentrated and rich piece of writing – I hesitate to say “short story”, because really there’s not much narrative flow. Instead, there’s well-balanced contrast; there’s inner thoughts and emotions; there are the human sensations of odour and pain.
“She’s gone” is the first line of the story. Oh is the managing director of a large cosmetics company. His wife has passed away in hospital after a two-year fight with brain cancer. What follows is the cremation, and some background story from the last few years: the husband and wife’s hopeless devotion and love for each other and, in parallel, his growing obsession with Choo Eunjoo, the young advertising analyst at the office. We see snapshots of his frustrating life in the cosmetics company in which he is faced with intractable obstacles – trying to negotiate with the various franchises who are constantly trying to erode the company’s margins and withholding payments; trying to buy off the consumer groups who are threatening to sue the company for products that had harmful side-effects; arbitrating between two proposed advertising campaigns that will freshen up last season’s product for the coming summer, or trying to bring to market a feminine hygiene product designed to address a very specific problem that, well, I never really knew existed. Against the background of this frustrating worklife, Oh cares tenderly for his dying wife, who between bouts of excruciating pain seems to excrete and vomit more than she consumes, becoming ever more wasted and dried-out, but still selflessly crying and apologising for the trouble she is causing.
As the wife reaches the end of her life, ultimately passing through the mechanistic, washing-machine like cycle of the crematorium until she becomes a dry pile of ashes, the young woman who is the object of O’s new love is married and has a young daughter. This sense of cycle, of continuation, is brought out throughout the text: Oh’s daughter is the exact image of her mother, as Choo Eunjoo’s daughter is of hers. O’s wife names her Jindo dog Pori, meaning “supremely enlightened”, in the anticipation that he would be reincarnated as a human. But it is this oppressive cycle, the ressemblance of his daughter and his wife, that gives Oh his feeling of blockage and entrapment.
How, without resorting to extended passages of voiceover, do you portray the obsessive, repetitive but also reverent and sacramental nature of the language that Oh uses when he thinks about the young woman that is the object of his love? How do you convey O’s own medical condition, which symbolises the sense of oppression, blockage and entrapment he feels both in his family and work life? How do you convey the different scents with which seem to assail him, from the vile odours excreted by a dying body to the comforting smell of human milk?
How do you convey the recurring theme of water, blue and sea; from the acquamarine colour of the company’s eyeshadow product, the Mediterranean Sea which apart from appearing in the advertising campaign is also a symbol for Oh of something distant and unattainable, like knowledge of the insides of Choo Eunjoo? How to contrast the flowing insides of Choo with the dessicated husk that is his wife’s body, and, between the two, the obstructed bladder of Oh himself – the moisture building up inside his body but unable to escape? How, once again, to convey the odd language that Oh uses when musing about Choo’s organs: the functional but very watery “birth canal” rather than anything more pleasure-oriented? How to bring out the frustrations when company responsibilities get in the way of his private life: even when he’s mourning the death of his wife, his boss nags him to come to a decision on those pointless advertising campaigns.
So much of what makes Kim Hoon’s Hwajang such a special work is internal and intangible, rather than belonging to the external, visual world. Some of the juxtapositions and contrasts are possibly reasonably straightforward to bring to the screen – the contrast between the dessicated flesh of a corpse and the fresh pink moistness of the inside of a baby’s mouth; the lightness of a dying body compared with the fullness of that of a young healthy mother; between pain and love.
But the elements which appear easy to the uninitiated are few and far between. Im Kwon-taek however has a long history of adapting novels for the screen, and this is 102nd film. Depending on how literally Im set about the challenge, Ahn Sung-ki has an even bigger task on this hands as Oh. There’s only so much inner complexity, love and obsession that one can portray in a facial expression, and over-use of the voiceover could get irksome. But I don’t think I can think of an actor more suited to the role. Equally interesting will be how Kim Gyu-ri plays Choo Eunjoo, who in Kim Hoon’s text is a passive object of O’s obsession and does nothing intentionally to attract his attention. Will Director Im give her a more active role in his version? While Kim Hoon’s work is very special – and wonderfully translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton in the collection Land of Exile – one hopes, partly for the sake of the actors, that Director Im will not stick slavishly to the text. If he does, I can’t escape from this thought: how on earth is Ahn Sung-ki going to act an inflamed prostate?
Im Kwon-taek’s version of Hwajang, with the Western title of Revivre, will be shown at the London Korean Film Festival on 15 November 2014. Kim Hoon’s story, Hwajang, appears as From Powder to Powder, translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton, in Land of Exile – Contemporary Korean Fiction (Expanded edition), M.E. Sharpe, 2007