A genius is born, not made,” pontificates Ohwon, the perpetually soused painter-hero of Im Kwon-taek’s Chihwaseon (2002). But I’m not so sure. MOMA’s retro of 15 of the 67-year-old filmmaker’s 90-odd titles reveals career-spanning obsessions: rituals and class, the treatment of women, war and remembrance, and how these inform and complicate the notion of a Korean identity. For all its flaws, the backlist presents a valuable portrait of a patient artist who, at 67, is working at the height of his powers, in Chihwaseon and especially Chunhyang (both included here).
Gilsottum (1985) is melodrama complete with blood-test eureka (a staple of Korean soaps). A comfortably situated family watches, in near silence, a TV program that attempts to reunite some of the countless families sundered by the Korean War. The father urges his wife to search for her long-lost brother (by adoption)—with whom she secretly had a son, also missing. Connections are made, but after so much time, are these blessings or wounds? One leaves with a searing image: fellow seekers gathered in a plaza, their placards and posters dense with grief, an alphabet of despair.
The Taebaek Mountains (1994) is an ambitious look at how the political chaos (circa 1948) destroys a town in Im’s native Cholla province, as Communists and government forces battle each other, vie for support, and in their zeal, visit horrors upon the populace. Though the acting tends to be of the bulging-eyeball variety, Taebaek‘s litany of atrocities is a potent corrective to the idea that the Korean War began in a vacuum.
The Surrogate Woman (1987) evokes a more distant past, in which a noble family could hire a womb should the wife prove barren. The girl in question is whisked away, blindfolded, from a valley whose natural appearance earns it the nickname “Entrance to a Woman.” A storehouse of superstition (e.g., a fleshy back and a deep navel indicate fertility, whereas hairy nostrils don’t), it’s a grim, inexorably tragic counterpoint to Im’s masterpiece, Chunhyang (2000). Here the eponymous poem-savvy daughter of a courtesan, secretly married to an official’s son, defends her chastity against the brutal new governor while her husband is away. Chunhyang‘s lush look is matched by its audacious yet utterly organic structure: A pansori artist sings the story before a present-day audience. Bound, Chunhyang can still move her head to spell out the character for “One,” to signify her single love, as the torturer’s first blow falls. The singer, speaking her words, replies to each terrible blow with a reaffirmation of purpose (for the sixth, “I have six organs, and my love is in all six”), and the crowd moans in sympathy. You wonder if Homer was half as good.