Each year the LKFF includes a few golden oldies among its line-up of the latest commercial and art house offerings. This year the festival gave us the opportunity to get to know three films by veteran director Chung Chang-wha, made before he was scouted by Shaw Brothers in 1969.
The earliest film to be screened was Bonanza (1961). Director Chung explained that in the impoverished situation in which South Korea found itself after the Korean War, everyone dreamed of schemes to get rich quick. Bonanza is an antidote to those dreams, when a gold prospector who finally strikes it very rich discovers that family is more important than material wealth. The film is entertaining, with fun character actors. Set in post-war Busan, the film foregrounds the emerging gangster culture of Korea’s port city but also interestingly the hard lives of those who give up everything in the hope of finding riches in the wilderness.
Sunset on the Sarbin River, despite being packed with interesting historical and narrative elements, felt over-long. A young Korean with a Japanese name of Masumoto feels driven to join the colonial army and become more Japanese than the Japanese. His motivation for this seems partly to prove that Koreans are just as good as Japanese, and partly perhaps through a belief in Japan’s pan-Asian propaganda. But discrimination against Koreans in the Japanese army, whether officers or lower ranks, is never far away.
In an interesting and extremely awkward historical touch, Masumoto is put in charge of the Korean comfort women, who are brought in to give the officers a “conjugal” visit the night before they leave on he Burmese forests. Needless to say he does not exercise his own conjugal rights.
The least satisfying aspect of the film’s story was the implausible love affair between this martinet Korean lieutenant and a glamorous Burmese freedom fighter. Of course, this being a Korean movie everyone was not destined to live happily ever after, but at least there were some suitably heroic patriotic deeds before the final reel was over.
The most fun of the three movies was Swordsman in the Twilight, an historical martial arts movie set in the time of King Sukjong, against the backdrop of royal concubine Jang Hee-bin’s power grab and deposition of Queen Min. Our hero is loyal to the Queen and fights against the evil forces of Jang’s allies – which even his elder brother is forced to join. The arch-villain looks the part, with his sinister eyebrows and pointed chin he could pass for Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon. He is also a master swordsman, though not much of a gentleman. Of course, good prevails and scores are settled in the end, after much suffering and hardship. Director Chung had to fight his own battles to get the film made: Korea had no tradition of such movies and as director he was also martial arts coordinator and choreographer. His choice of location for some of the big action sequences is interesting – a royal tomb guarded by statues of various animals. In Hong Kong movies in later decades such props would no doubt be destroyed in the mayhem as hero and anti-hero battle it out, but in this 1969 film the statues remain intact – maybe the location was in fact a genuine historical site.
The three films were introduced by Dr Mark Morris who also hosted the two Q&A sessions with the sprightly 87-year-old director. Thanks again to the KCC for supporting the promotion of classic films alongside the more recent ones.
- Sunset on the Sarbin River
- Swordsman in the Twilight