Bae Chang-ho’s debut feature, People of the Slum (1982), is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Lee Dong-chul. The film tells the story of a complicated love triangle. Myeong-sook, played by Kim Bo-yeon, lives with her second husband, the idle and dissolute Tae-seop (played by Kim Hui-ra). Living in the same house in the run-down part of Seoul, the riverside slum that is Kobang-dong (the name itself sounds like “slum”), is the six-year-old Jun-il, Myeong-sook’s son by a former marriage.
Myeong-sook works hard to keep the family together: as the movie opens she has been up since before dawn doing the laundry; Tae-seop wakes up with an exaggerated yawn, and crosses off another day on the calendar: there is a significant date in eight weeks time, but we don’t yet know what it is. Tae-seop is hung over. The family is eating breakfast together, the man of the house rather grotesquely wearing nothing but red Y-fronts and a white T-shirt. He grumbles that there is no hangover soup for breakfast, his wife chides him for using the housekeeping money to pay for drinks, the boy is cheeky to him and greats threatened in return. The boy screams defiantly and retreats to his room.
The tempers flare quickly, but equally as quickly calm returns to the household, and before long Tae-seop is professing his love for his wife, asking for two months’ grace (those mysterious eight weeks) before everything will be alright.
So much is contained in that opening scene, echoes of which will be found throughout the film. Not least of this is the frequent flaring of tempers between neighbours, arguments that soon die down to be replaced by the ongoing bond between people who live in close proximity to each other.
Into this community comes a visitor – a dashingly handsome taxi driver, Ju-seok (played by Ahn Sung-ki, a stalwart Bae’s films from the 1980s) – who recognises Myeong-sook in the street quite by chance. It emerges that he is Jun-il’s father, and he has been separated from Myeong-sook and his son for around four years. The present-day narrative is then interspersed with the backstory of this couple: we discover that Ju-seok is a reformed pick-pocket who has been in and out of jail; his most recent brush with the law, which resulted in that four year separation during which Myeong-sook lost the will to struggle to survive on her own and hitched up with Tae-seop, was born out of economic hardship. Bae clearly wants us to sympathise with Ju-seok, who is completely endearing in the way that he now tries to re-connect with his son.
Meanwhile we also discover that Tae-seop himself has a troubled past – his nights are disturbed by nightmares, and the ever-approaching date to which he is counting down is when he can no longer be prosecuted for a past crime. He has hidden his secret from everyone in the village, even his new wife; his drunkenness and his inability to deal forcefully with the father of his stepson are his ways of keeping out of trouble until he can be free of his past.
Poor Myeong-sook is torn between the two men: how is she to choose between her first and only love (and father of her child) and the man who took her in and gave her and her son some form of security over the past four years, when she was effectively damaged goods? It is a moral dilemma of the type that would fascinate Bae over the years, and to which he would return in films such as Jeong (1999). Myeong-sook’s proposed solution is to stick by her obligation to Tae-seop and send Jun-il away with his father Ju-seok.
The crisis which comes before the end brings a satisfying resolution to the dilemma, and in a plot twist that we find again in Whale Hunting, the warm-heartedness displayed by (in this case) two of the characters brings a change of heart in another character; redemption and forgiveness allows everyone to move forward. The final scene, which Bae wanted to make open-ended, was given a happy conclusion at the request of the producers, but either ending works just fine.
Clearly Bae is interested in the motivations of his main characters. But also he is interested in painting a picture of a community. The film opens with a voiceover in the words of the novelist Lee Dong-chul: “This is my frank memories of friendly neighbours, the Kobang town people. They are warm and loving people, living together with their own stories in the same place.” Bae assembles a sympathetic cast of characters, some of them lovable rogues: the drunken, foul-mouthed but pretty twentysomething who has her lascivious eyes on the tinker; the tinker who is trying to improve himself by setting himself up as evangelical pastor; the widow who spreads gossip but who entertains everyone by her singing and dancing (though her mockery of people with learning difficulties might not be to contemporary tastes); and the street urchins with the sense of both caution and pragmatism. “Don’t get into that cab,” warns one: “he might be trying to kidnap you”. “Don’t be stupid,” answers the other: “who would want to kidnap us?”
In the Q+A that followed the screening at this year’s London Korean Film Festival, Bae said that his aim was to depict the poverty of those left behind by Korea’s modernisation honestly, and that the audiences of the time were captivated by the realism – and that was after the censors submitted the final print to at least 50 cuts. Twenty first century audiences can also enjoy the panorama that Bae paints in his debut picture, as well as appreciate the warm-heartedness of his story-telling.
Bae Chang-ho (배창호) People of the Slum (꼬방동네 사람들, 1982)