I had looked forward to the first movie in the KCC’s Korean Novels on Screen series – Kim Ki-young’s adaptation of Yi Kwang-su’s The Soil – and had been disappointed. Conversely, not being a particular fan of Yu Hyun-mok’s depressing movies, I was regarding the second in the series – his adaptation of Hwang Sun-won’s 1954 novel Descendants of Cain – as likely to be a bit of a chore.
I didn’t manage to re-read the novel in preparation for the screening – all I had time to do was to read my 8-year-old review of the book to remind myself of what I thought of it. In retrospect, I was surprised to find that I had rather liked it, though noting its depressing subject matter. An ideal novel for Yu Hyun-mok to adapt, then…
Probably unsurprisingly therefore, Yu’s adaptation felt faithful to my memory of the novel’s tone, unlike Kim Ki-young’s Soil adaptation, which materially changed the feel of the original. Nevertheless, the results are by no means as depressing as the other Yu films I have encountered.
While there are details of the storyline of Yu’s movie which were not quite in line with my memory of the book, so faithful is he to the book’s overall message that most of the things that I would otherwise have written in this post I have already said in my article eight years ago. So I shall not repeat them. But one thing I note on re-reading that post is that I did not mention the word “communism” once. And similarly, despite the fact that the film is branded as “anti-communist” propaganda (for example in the KCC’s description of the film and in the current version of Wikipedia), like the novel I regard it more as a human drama which happens to be set in that turbulent time of social change just after liberation, rather than a political tract. Of course, none of the bad things that happen in the film would have taken place without the context of the Party extending its radical policies into the countryside, but what is more central to the story is Hwang’s and Yu’s interest in the opportunistic behaviour of individuals when given the chance, and the conflict caused within individuals and communities when centuries-old loyalties and innate human ethics are challenged in a time of rapid change.
One matter of detail I initially questioned in my mind as I watched the film: when the local Party officials assembled the villagers to pass judgement on their supposedly reactionary and oppressive landowners, the flag they planted to give solemn authority to this kangaroo court was the Taegukgi, rather than the hammer and sickle or some other flag less associated with what is now the Republic of Korea. But I was wrong to query this: the Taegukgi was used by the administrations of both north and south immediately post liberation, and the DPRK flag was only born in 1948: Fyodor Tertitskiy in Daily NK has a fascinating story about the Russians not understanding the age-old concepts of yin and yang embedded in the Taegukgi and demanding something a bit more modern for their new client state.
But back to the film. It was unfortunate that the final show-down between three of the main characters had some members of the audience giggling at the less than sophisticated acting. I myself was happily suspending my disbelief at the melodramatic climax, which did not feel too out of context (though I don’t remember it from the book) and which opened the door to redemption and the possibility of a reasonably happy ending for the unfortunate Park Hun, the main landowner, and Ojaknyeo, his faithful maid. A Yu Hyun-mok film with a happy ending? Not quite, but nevertheless this is one film of his that I didn’t come out of feeling totally miserable.
Yu Hyun-mok (유현목) Descendants of Cain (카인의 후예, 1968)