The Aimless Bullet (1961) in Post-War Korea

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The film sets a precedent when a group of men is tossed out of a bar. They lack the funds to pay their tab and they’re wasted, singing the old war songs they used to know in the military. One refrain goes like this, “We march over the bodies of dead soldiers.”

One of their company is a crippled former commander who bemoans the fact he’s a has-been — a broken bowl of a human being — resigned to a life on crutches. It’s a telling annunciation of the South Korean experience after the war.

It positions itself as an important film on par with The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bicycle Thief, The Third Man, or Floating Clouds. Because it shows a Korea racked with post-war degradation, depression, and economic disparity comparable to the manner these other films provided a lens to their respective cultures.

This is vitally important. Especially for those of us from the western world. It’s difficult to understand the Korean War’s total effects because we were not altogether present to see them out. The U.S. often has the privilege of leaving the battlefields of other countries behind. Even with monetary aid, it’s usually others who are forced to pick up the pieces.

Let’s face it. You can only glean so much about the wartime circumstances from MASH episodes shot in Malibu Creek State Park 20 years after the fact. Rigid historical accuracy was never the crux of those stories anyway.

Once we’ve sorted out our setting, the story is really about two brothers. The older one is Cheolho, and he’s ended up as an accountant of all things. It doesn’t seem like a bad job, but it’s also not terribly lucrative working away on an abacus all day.

After the daily grind, he lives in a glorified shack with his wife, who’s nearly catatonic, a babbling mother with PTSD, a sister struggling to get work, and a little girl always coveting pretty things she can never have. His own private pain is the toothache he’s been living with because he doesn’t have the money to get it checked. It plagues him ceaselessly.

But there’s also his little brother. Yeongho is the handsome one drifting along, trying to find himself a living so he can come through on all the grand promises he makes to his niece. It never seems to pan out.

However, there are a couple of high points in an otherwise dreary and oppressive reality. For one, he rekindles an old flame with a nurse (Hye-ran Mun) he knew during the war. It’s nothing too passionate at first, but sweet and affectionate — the kind of romance that people go to the movies to watch. And it feels like a much-appreciated digression from the rest of the film as Yeongho gets back with the alluring Seolhui, who has a smile to light up the screen.

But even her life is far from idyllic. She manages to get by living in a humble apartment way up high and spends her nights unnerved by her next-door neighbor — an unsettled teen boy smitten with unrequited love — who bursts into her room after hours. Peace is nowhere to be found.

Even in one distinctly self-reflexive moment showcasing the nature of movies, our protagonist makes a go at being a movie actor for a brief stint. He finds himself called upon to play a soldier, not unlike his reality in real life. However, the mention of his real wounds — a pair of bullet scars in his side — literally cut to his core wound as a character.

It absolutely scalds him to be forced to dwell on them in any manner. He’s not about to take part in a film trying to capitalize on his hurt, and he stomps out in a rage. Thus, he still has no job, and he’s still disaffected.

What’s so compelling about Aimless Bullet comes with its brand of Korean neorealism because within my own limited grasp of world cinema, it’s something I’ve never been fortunate enough to witness outside of documentary. But the images, matched with the story, tell us so much about the society — what it was still going through — and honestly, how these types of issues feel universal wherever they take place.

While the metaphors are different, the implications are very much the same between Floating Clouds and Aimless Bullets, and they draw on a similar dynamic. Ironically, whether they’re considered enemies or allies, on the ground level, the world feels very much the same.

People are poor, and they can’t get work. Women scrounge for anything they can get and that means picking up American servicemen who are looking for a one-night stand and a good time. There’s nothing more to it than a business transaction.

Meanwhile, the individual and also their related communities are impacted in the most adverse ways possible. One of the characters bemoans the fact people have become burdens for one another these days.

There’s yet another heartwrenching scene on the streetcar. Two strangers are looking down below, grinning at a Korean woman who is romancing an American G.I. Cheolho cuts between them having experienced something much the same with his sister.

Whether or not he heard them entirely, he’s experienced his share of familial shame, and the moments are instantly linked in our minds. In the very same moment, there’s this conflicting duel going on between some bouncy American tune and a more somber Korean song providing another piece of complementary audio commentary. It’s a devastating reminder of what we have observed with this cultural clash.

Ultimately, the brothers have it out because they are prone to two different philosophies — two different ways of life — and yet neither one seems satisfied. Cheolho questions why they have to forget about their conscience and morality to be rich. Because that’s how the contemporary world around them seems to function.

However, Yeongho decides to take matters into his own hands. He gets one of his old war buddies to keep the engine running for him, an acquaintance Miri can vouch for his alibi, and then he proceeds to slip under the shutters of the local bank as it closes. His intentions are made clear enough even as a procession of Christian passerby sing “Nearer My God to Thee” in a highly ironic touch.

How we get from here to our other protagonist eventually bleeding out is anybody’s guess. I won’t pretend to understand everything. However, it underlines the bitter, persistent adversity that proves the bedrock of this story. One brother on the outside wandering like a zombie and the other wounded to his core.

When the film purportedly got banned in some form because of its finale, this feels like a slight misnomer; it got banned because the entire third act is weighed down by tragedy upon tragedy in relentless, pulverizing succession. Don’t expect any relief.

4/5 Stars

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