I’m not sure quite how to assess Kim Ki-young’s adaptation of Yi Kwang-su’s 500-page serial novel The Soil (흙, 1932-3). At 125 minutes, it doesn’t sound particularly long. But as we got up from our seats at the KCC last Thursday at around 9:15pm, it felt much later – maybe around 10:30pm. And that wasn’t because the seats were not particularly comfortable. The movie had the distinction of feeling too rushed in the earlier scenes, as it tried to get a lot of plot summarised to provide the large cast of characters with their motivations; and conversely in the second half it felt unbearably slow, to the extent that it had audience members shifting in their seats and looking at their watches wondering how long they had to endure.
Film and novel shared one unsatisfactory feature: a hurried and implausibly optimistic ending (though the endings were different); and the main characters and plot themes were obviously similar: the patriotic lawyer Heo Sung who decides to work for the betterment of his village; his beautiful city-dwelling wife Jeong-seon; his childhood sweetheart Yu Sun; various predatory rakes and landowners and some strong supporting female characters. But Kim Ki-young’s version introduces the Church as a key element, which is virtually absent in the novel, and emphasised the nationalist subtext which was much less obvious in Yi Kwang-su’s version.
One interesting addition in the movie is the introduction of the flute loved by Heo Sung’s wife (and hated by Heo Sung himself) and the trumpet that was once played by Heo Sung’s father, a leader of the resistance to the Japanese occupation. We learn that the tune most played by that trumpet was Auld Lang Syne – which doubled, in the colonial period, as both the tune to a favourite hymn and also the tune of the Korean national anthem.
The most significant plot reinterpretation in Kim Ki-young’s film is the focus on Jeong-seon, Heo Sung’s beautiful wife (played by Lee Hwa-si), who in Kim Ki-young’s version is a much bigger, more complex character than the original: vengeful, erratic, unpredictable – she is not someone you would want to antagonise. Heo Sung himself (played by Kim Jeong-cheol) has his moments of emotional instability too: Yi Kwang-su’s sober idealist would not have attacked his wife’s precious wardrobe with a hatchet after discovering her infidelity. It’s almost worth watching the movie again to try to dissect those complex, sometimes twisted psychologies and understand their motivations better. But I’d need a more comfortable chair. The adaptation provides interesting illumination on Kim’s priorities as a film maker (indeed, it is difficult to see how a “straight” version of the novel would work as a Kim Ki-young film), but at the end of the day it is simply not one of his better movies.
Kim Ki-young (김기영) Peasants / Earth / The Soil (흙, 1978)
Maddeningly, it appears that this film is part of a lavish Korean Film Archive boxed set which seems to be unavailable for purchase, anywhere – though maybe if you turn up at the Archive itself they may take pity on you.