Reviewing the Korean Film Archive: A Public Prosecutor & a Teacher

Public Prosecutor
Between the end of World War 2 in 1945 and the start of the Korean War in 1950, Korea had a short amount of time to start finding its independent identity. As we have seen sound was introduced to kickstart the modernising of cinema there. Yet like in the west it took time to completely drown out silent cinema. The technology was nowhere near perfected so there had to be room for both to keep viewers interested. In 1948, A Public Prosecutor and a Teacher the final great Korean film of the silent film era was released. As we know silent films don’t just die out once their golden era ends, filmmakers throughout the years revive the form in a number of ways (Kim Ki-Duk did it with Moebius in 2013). It did however, spell the end for a uniquely Eastern form of cinematic storytelling, the byeonsa.

A byeonsa was a narrator of foreign silent films in Korea. It is a direct translation of the Japanese word Benshi, which were similar narrators descended from Kabuki and Noh theatre. Byeonsa’s were originally used to translate the dialogue and intertitles from foreign films. They also helped spread cinema to all of society as they translated Korean intertitles from silent films so illiterate people could enjoy. Eventually the byeonsas themselves became the most attractive thing about going to the cinema. Instead of just translating, they began to start acting out their own interpretations of lines, adding a more theatrical element to the cinema. The public would go to specific films just because their favourite byeonsa was performing; the actual content of the film was irrelevant.

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Even as the very last film to employ a byeonsa, A Public Prosecutor and a Teacher is the perfect example of why they were so popular. Directed by Yoon Dae-Ryong, it is about a poverty stricken young boy named Min Jang-Son (Lee Eob-Dong) and his generous teacher Choi Yang-Chun (Lee Young-Ae, not the one in Daejanggeum). Jang-Son is struggling to eke out a life as an orphan looking after his sick grandmother when Yang-Chun notices him and starts to help. The story flashes forward halfway through as Jang-Son has grown up to be a prosecutor and works on a murder case involving Yang-Chun and her husband.

This story is secondary to A Public Prosecutor and a Teacher’s historical and cultural significance however. It is full of coincidences and melodrama for the sake of melodrama. Even the filmmaking is as bland as can be. Director Yoon and director of photography Kim Young-Sun shot it in the plainest way possible, looking more like a filmed stage play than cinema. The acting as well is either overly dramatic or delivered as if they were reading the script for the first time.

The star of the show is Shin Chool, Korea’s last byeonsa. He has the job of not only describing all of the action taking place but also of acting out the voice of every character in the film. In this film Shin Chool sounds like an older man, possibly in his fifties or sixties. For a viewer unfamiliar with this type of film hearing him tell us everything is immediately odd but thanks to his unique delivery the viewer quickly becomes comfortable. He delivers every single line with a passion that does not echo from the screen. Even during the most mundane lines he emotes as if on the verge of tears. When the film is at its most emotional, Shin seems to be having a breakdown, his voice turning to a blubbering gurgle. He hocks and rasps as if he has a terrible cold, bringing character to a film so devoid of any personality. There are even moments in between his lines where you can hear him breathing, allowing us some glimpse into what it might have been like to see this great performer live.

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Some moments in particular he brings great life to. The transition between the opening and the fast forward is like a poetry break. Shin speaks of the changing seasons and “the green mountains (that) beautify summer.” Small lines stick out for being more than just expository, “Cigarette smoke is the only thing that can’t speak.” The film also has a few times when it makes use of what a camera can tell by itself. After Yang-Chun has been arrested there is a short silent moment where we see her empty house. No story is being told her but we are given a sense of how she feels inside.

Like Sweet Dream, A Public Prosecutor and a Teacher gives us insights into Korea at a historical time that it’s hard to fully understand the culture there. This film in particular shows us something unique to the east. Thematically it contains a great sympathy for those in poverty, yet again says that women’s place is at home by their husband. Yang-Chun after the death of her husband says there is no point in a woman living without their husband. It is worth a watch however, for the pure experience that few today have probably enjoyed.

Watch the film here.

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Reviewing the Korean Film Archive: Sweet Dream

Sweet Dream
When Yang Ju Nam’s Sweet Dream was found in a Chinese cinema in 2006, it was thought to be the oldest surviving Korean film. This title was eventually taken by Cheongchun’s Sipjaro, a silent film released two years prior to 1936’s Sweet Dream. Sweet Dream does however, remain the oldest sound film in Korea that still exists in some format. It is special for this reason, as it represents a period of Korean cinema that is almost completely unknown to us today. The Korean Film Archive believes that between 1910 and 1940 approximately 140 films were produced, of which only five are available. Sweet Dream is then imperative for those of us who are trying to come to some understanding of Korean film history. It offers a snippet of what life might have been like under Japanese rule and technically shows us that film language still had a long way to come.

Director Yang Ju Nam worked for Kyeong Sung Studio, an apparently prolific studio of the time. He worked as an editor and assistant director before making his directorial debut with Sweet Dream. After his debut however, he would go straight back to editing and wouldn’t direct again for another twenty years when he made Exorcism of Bae Baeng Yi in 1957.

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Sweet Dream is about a woman called Ae Soon, a housewife who neglects her familial duties and is punished for it. It is a cautionary tale about the dangers of modernity and has a predictably regressive view of women. As soon as Ae Soon leaves her family nothing goes right for her, she embraces a bourgeois lifestyle of hotels and modern dance. Lessons are imparted onto her more like public service announcements than a traditional narrative film. It even goes as far as having a scene in a classroom where the lesson is about the importance of family and the dangers of the road. Views like this are to be expected from the 1930s but given Korea was under strict censorship from outside forces more hands are at play for a film like this to exist.

Korean culture under Japanese rule was heavily stunted. People were being forced to change their name to Japanese, modernity was being thrust upon them, and there were few ways to fight back. Cinema was not one of them, with most films being produced in Korea apparently being documentaries and adaptations of traditional stories. They, of course, would all have been subject to strict regulation which makes Sweet Dream an interesting case. It specifically warns of modernity while Japan wanted to push it on the Korean people. It’s view of women was one sided in the same year that Kenji Mizoguchi released Osaka Elegy, a biting critique of the oppression Japanese women face, to critical and commercial success in Japan.

In its traditional view on families then, Sweet Dream is somewhat of an affront to Japanese rule. The fear of modernity could be seen as Yang’s disapproval of his colonists. One step back to take two forward. Of course, Japanese traditional values wouldn’t have been too far from Korean ones at the time, making the strong familial themes at play would have seemed agreeable to Japanese censors. Or maybe the censors were too busy cutting out violence and whole unknown segments to notice.

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The film language, however, is mostly inspired by Japanese cinema. Koreans were seeing some western films like the work of D.W Griffith but the form of Sweet Dream shows traces of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. Very much traces though, as the film plays like a 50 minute condensed Ozu film, leaving no room for emotions to be slowly teased out. Here the melodrama is front and centre. In the very first scene, Ae Soon and her husband have a fight with anger seemingly coming from nowhere. It is shot with a plainness that recalls Ozu without the meticulous framing. Instead of being down on the ground with our characters the camera is positioned above looking down on them. Straight away we start judging them and their positions, something the film does with no mercy.

While mostly disappointing, the filmmaking is also where we find the brightest moments of this film. Yang particularly puts effort into his edits, no surprise given his background as an editor. In some scene transitions he uses match cuts to great effect. They transition with the laughter of a man or from two people drinking beer to another scene of a man drinking beer. It shows thought has gone into the form in some cases at least, as it’s absent almost everywhere else. Even the edits are weak in many cases with some shots going on too long or cutting to a scene that has no relevance to the story.

Sweet Dream is a confusing contradiction. Through incoherent character choices and messy filmmaking it puts forward regressive beliefs in the interest of possible subversity. Even if it can be seen as an attack on Japanese rule, the real losers here were Korean women. The importance stressed on family still hurts them to this day. As a piece of history it gives us glimpses into a growing Seoul yet portrays its people as one note. Culturally, it shows us how Korea would begin to love the melodrama. In the following years melodramas would be the most influential films, popular because they contained a multitude of emotions that were suppressed in Korean culture. The next time you watch one of your favourite dramas while emotions are flooding out of the screen, think of Sweet Dream and remember the role that history plays in everything.

Watch the full film here.

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Reviewing the Korean Film Archive: The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well

the day a pig fell into the well
Hello readers and welcome to a new KultScene column dedicated to exposing the annals of Korean cinema. The Korean Film Archive is one of the great resources for Korean cinema fans on the web, and their Youtube channel is filled with touchstones, idiosyncrasies, and modern greats. Best of all, it’s free and subtitled. The quality of the films is not great but it’s hard to complain about that when everything else is so accessible. The aim of this column is to bring such an impressive asset to light while also learning about and critiquing Korean cinema history. Films to come include the oldest known Korean film still in print, work by kidnapped director Shin Sang Ok, and 80s erotica.

We’re starting with someone who is continuing the great trend of international acclaim for Korean cinema, Hong Sang Soo and his 1996 debut The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. Hong is one of the many Korean filmmakers who went to study film in the US in the 1990s. It was there where the most recent wave of Korean films developed their styles, similar to K-pop in that they collide eastern and western sensibilities to make something uniquely Korean. Hong is known for his on the surface simple but deeply thoughtful films that tackle adult problems. You may also know him for his alleged affair with actress Kim Min Hee, whom he worked with on his most recent film Right Now, Wrong Then. Take note, as this piece of information is not as irrelevant as it may seem now.

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The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well is split into four different segments with characters overlapping in each. The first is about author Hyo Sup (Kim Eui Sung), a deeply pathetic man who is having two simultaneous affairs. The second is about Tong Yoo (Park Jin Sung), a businessman who struggles with his own desires to have an affair and the fear that his wife is seeing someone else. The third is about cinema ticket seller Min Jae (Jo Eun Sook) who is one of Hyo Sup’s girlfriends and how she finds out about his other affair. The last is about Bo Kyung (Lee Eung Kyung), wife of Tong Yoo and the other mistress to Hyo Sup. While not quite as complicated as it might sound, Hong does not stop to explain things in great detail.

Each character was developed by a different writer but when filming came Hong went with an improvisational style. The unique scripting hardly shows as each actor seems perfectly balanced within the film. Due to Hong’s style they have to use their bodies more than their faces as close ups are rare. Kim Eui Song gets the most to do but still excels in his quieter moments, displaying a pitiful man like no other. Lee Eung Kyung also stands out with her constant unaffected but painful performance. Her character, Bo Kyung, is the most tragic of the piece due to her inability to act. Her segment involves a lot of walking around doing nothing yet we can feel her disposition changing as the film crawls to an end.

This world where seemingly everyone is having an affair seems like a complex and unbelievable one (although reality may be just as strange given a report that says half of Korean men cheat). Hong however, fills it with tiny details and minor characters who breathe life into it at every opportunity. Shot with a masterful straightforward eye, there’s rarely more than three shots for each scene with most of the action taking place in wide shots This way the secretive characters can’t hide from the viewer. When Hong does cut within a scene it’s nearly always to go in close on small details like a hand picking up a cigarette or playing with a bug. Through these gestures we get insights into the characters that their words don’t tell us. Each one has other things on their mind than what’s happening in front of them.

Taking cues from Italian neorealism, Hong also likes to linger on shots even after the main character has left the frame. It positions us in a world that is alive. A delivery boy getting on his scooter, a couple arguing in a hotel corridor, life outside the main characters exists and maybe they should take note to realise their selfishness. Minor characters with lines are also given personalities that come across well, particularly a waitress who fights back without hesitation and a girl who coughs a lot in one scene simply because she happens to have a cough not as some warning of her impending doom.

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Through this supremely crafted world our view of the characters can be laser focused. Hong’s opinion of these tangled people is obviously bleak. Each one possess a trait that prevents them from being honest with anyone around. Hyo Sup especially is seen as a destructive force to all. Despite his two girlfriends he seems a profoundly lonely man; he asks one publisher out for drinks but is rejected. He is offended when some of his friends didn’t invite him out but wriggles his way in anyway. This scene, where he goes out with some old college friends is one of the best. Hong makes great use of the Korean dinner table as they all sit around sizzling meat drinking soju. There’s a great tension to having the meat right in the centre of the frame, Hyo Sup’s own feelings bubble along with it. He is even framed to the right so we don’t have a full view of his face.It’s no surprise then that these feelings eventually pop dramatically.

Tong Yoo and Min Jae are the most ignorant of the lot. Tong Yoo’s segment shows him trying to make some sort of deal but continually being pushed back. His lack of reaction is telling in why Bo Kyung started having an affair. His part is the weakest as it slows things down too much after Hyo Sup’s dramatic start. There is one great moment where, as he is debating whether or not to have sex with a prostitute, he starts to fidget in bed. His body convulses wildly showing a man who is clearly troubled despite his seeming indifference. Min Jae’s naievty proves to be her downfall not with more than one toxic male.

As a whole it comes together devastatingly in the final segment. Despite being a bit too long and having some misplaced motivations for smaller characters, it’s a debut that sets out a great director’s career. It’s interesting that Hong’s affair scandal only came out recently as this film feels apologetic. Hyo Sup seems like a stand in for Hong, a portrayal of self-hatred that didn’t hold back. A man dealing with his flaws out in the open is immediately powerful but also a possible turn off. The way Hong does it however, is precise and powerful. His filmography is singular in this era of Korean cinema for being small in scale but deeper than any of his peers can attest to.

Full movie here.

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