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Festival film review: Bae Chang-ho’s Whale Hunting

Whale Hunting
Our trio of whale hunters temporarily evade their pursuers by boarding a coal train

Based on a story by long-standing collaborator Choe In-ho, Whale Hunting is one of Korea’s seminal road movies. Hunting the whale, in the dark days of the dictatorship, was symbolic for yearning for things beyond the day-to-day. In Bae Chang-ho’s 1984 movie it represented the search for the things that give life meaning; in a song which featured prominently in Ha Gil-jong’s 1975 movie March of Fools it represented a dissatisfaction with the life that the Yushin dictatorship had to offer, a metaphor for wanting something better in life than mere economic improvement.

Whale Hunting: scamming some foreigners
Easy money: scamming some foreigners for some cash

Byeong-tae (the same name as the protagonist in March of Fools) is a hopelessly geeky university student who has fallen in love with an unattainable girl. Dispirited, he drops out of society and falls in with a professional beggar, Min-woo, played by Ahn Sung-ki. The beggar is a worldly, resourceful character, larger than life, always laughing, and always with a solution to any problem. In an effort to wean Byeong-tae off the unattainable student, Min-woo takes him to a brothel, where he immediately falls for the mute, mysterious and beautiful Chung-ja (Lee Mi-sook — who wouldn’t?) who doesn’t seem to belong there. Before he knows it Byeong-tae, aided and abetted by Min-woo, has helped Chung-ja to escape from the brothel and in a chaotic, comic pursuit scene our three heroes evade the pimp and his heavies by stealing an ambulance. Thus begins their journey in which the two men escort the lady to her mother’s house on a remote island called Udo. The real Udo, so called because its shape resembles a cow lying in a field, is situated off the eastern coast of Jeju-do. In Whale Hunting it is just a place remote from Seoul where Chung-ja’s mother happens to live (raising cattle); but unlike Sampo in Hwang Sok-yong’s story and Lee Man-hee’s famous road movie, the end of the journey still exists as it has been fixed in the travellers’ imagination: Udo remains an unspoiled haven untouched by the economic development of Seoul.

Whale Hunting - the original poster
Whale Hunting – the original poster

The journey brings all forms of hardships: not only is the pimp and his heavies hot on their tail, but with no money the travellers need to live on their wits. In a topical nod to the political situation of the times, en route our travellers’ bus is stopped at a random police checkpoint, and the police immediately home in on Byeong-tae: any male of university age could be a commie student activist. Similarly, at the start of the story, as Byeong-tae walks through the university campus with Min-woo, the beggar is recognised by one of the professors and tries to pretend he is someone else, suggesting a chequered past (in activism?) at the university.

Choe In-ho’s original story was set in summer, but Bae decided to move the setting to the winter months to allow the snow-clad Korean landscape to give a sentimental, poetic feeling. At the Q+A following the screening at the London Korean Film Festival someone asked what Bae’s favourite scene in the movie was; Bae answered that the star of the show is the beautiful, brutal winter scenery.

Whale Hunting: hitching a lift
Hitching a lift through the wintry countryside

Whale Hunting topped the box office in 1984. People liked it for its escapism, and for its nostalgia for the countryside. There was a realisation that many people had a tough time making a living in the rapidly developing Korea of the 1980s – a feeling more obvious in People of the Slumand Bae wanted to stress that even though one might not be economically successful, much of the value in life comes from the bond with one’s neighbours. In his debut movie “neighbour” in this context was meant literally, but by the time of Whale Hunting Bae had expanded on this. Just as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, a neighbour is not someone who lives next to you or who comes from your social or cultural background: it is potentially any fellow human being. Thus it is the bond of warmth and mutual support between the trio of misfits in Whale Hunting that enables them to succeed in their journey. Put another way, the whale that is being hunted is not necessarily something far away or beyond one’s reach: it can be found inside the heart.

Whale Hunting: Our heroes arrive at the coast not far from Udo
Our heroes arrive at the coast not far from Udo

Whale Hunting is an amusing, gentle, warm-hearted film: all three central characters are sympathetic, and each gains something from the journey. Even the pimp and his goons find something of value that they did not expect. If you find Ahn Sung-ki’s acting style over the top, his is a comic character and Bae commented in the Q+A that the acting style was typical of the time.

Whale Hunting trio

Kim Soo-cheol who plays the geek Byeong-tae is a noted rock musician, and contributed the score to the film. This is his one appearance in front of the camera.

Bae Chango-ho (배창호) Whale Hunting (고래 사냥, 1984) score-2score-2score-2score-2score-1

2 thoughts on “Festival film review: Bae Chang-ho’s Whale Hunting

    1. Yes, a lovely man. The good thing about the LKFF is the opportunity to meet these people. I was lucky enough to have coffee and cake with him in Regent Street, and then shared a taxi to his screening in Shoreditch.

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