O Brother, Where Art Thou?: A New Look at the Old South Korea


Simon S. Sheen, of 3 Ninjas fame, is no kin to Charlie, but rather one of the few filmmakers to see just how ronery North Korea’s Kim Jong Il can get. In 1978, the cinemaniac Dear Leader kidnapped the South Korean director (né Shin Sang-ok) and his actress wife, employing them in the North for eight years. The Walter Reade’s S.K. retro offers a pair of early Shins. Living up to its Baudelairean tag, Flowers in Hell (1958) is a tale of two brothers and the hussy who tears them apart, amid the spleen of Seoul, in particular the U.S. military compound and the desperate parasites surrounding it. Country mouse Tongsik comes to the city to search for his older brother, a thug planning a railway heist. Yankee brew causes Tongsik to succumb to his big sib’s lover; this fall from innocence is recorded in the next morning’s outré getup of Hawaiian shirt and argyles.

Shin manages a decent chase scene before busing his survivors to the happy-ending countryside. But all’s not well there, judging from The Houseguest and My Mother, his 1961 chamber piece about a young, painfully proper widow and the too-gentlemanly boarder who loves her. Shin gets maximum impact from the restrained performances, and a little girl’s singsong narration keeps things just this side of wrist-slitting despair. In a beautifully compressed sequence, the widow’s enraptured piano playing, shot at a sinking-ship angle, reaches her secret admirer, who has just lovingly sketched her daughter.

Im Kwon-taek’s lurching The Hidden Hero renders the post-WW II period as an assassin’s fever dream, shaped by the Communist/rightist tensions presaging the Korean War. Though Ho Yun’s quarry is a hypocritically high-living Communist leader, political bloodlust must have been in the air; the film’s 1979 release coincided with the killing of the dictatorial president Park Chung-hee that same year. Dispirited journalist Ho Yun is an antihero right out of Camus, hobbled by wall-to-wall drinking, a toothache, and disgust at both American G.I.’s and the vicious Communist groups.

His molar woes allude to those borne by Chul-ho, the sad-sack accountant in Yu Hyon-mok’s Aimless Bullet (1961), the retro’s must-see. This potent jolt of existentialism (the lead credits awkwardly surround Rodin’s The Thinker) imaginatively portrays a family and society at low ebb, punctuated by a demented crone’s refrain: Let’s get out of here. Yong-ho, Chul-ho’s war-vet brother, hasn’t found work in two years; a tragic romance spurs him to a disastrous stickup. Detailing dead-end poverty, Yu also touches on bohemia and, surprisingly, the movie business. A director tries to cast Yong-ho as a war vet, noting with satisfaction that he has a scar—just like the character in the script. Declaring that his wounds aren’t for sale, Yong-ho quits the world of film; but lapped by shadows, bearing scars drawn from life, Aimless Bullet still finds its mark.

Archive Highlights