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

The Housemaid (1960) and a Living Hell


The opening credits are more self-assured and breezy than I was expecting as the brass sounds off against a pair of kids playing cat’s cradle in the family living. Even with the rain outside, it somehow feels like a fitting depiction of postwar modernity in the 1960s. Films like Ohayo and When a Woman Ascends The Stairs capture a similar cross-section of life.

But this is simply the initial feel — the artistic flourishes being implemented. The most obvious element is the opening conceit between a husband and wife. He reads in the newspaper how a man had an affair with his maid. His wife scoffs at the news. Disgusted that such filth would desecrate the home she’s worked so hard to cultivate. Instantly we have the inkling of tension.

By day Dong-sik Kim is a music teacher. It feels like an all-girls dormitory, although it is actually a factory. He’s fairly straight-laced in his work, but it doesn’t stop the girls from having crushes on him. One in particular. It’s another seed of drama the film sows early on. Because if we learn nothing else, The Housemaid‘s forte is draining the reservoirs of theatricality for all they are worth.

If it’s not already apparent, the film has unabashed tinges of melodrama end to end. I know next to nothing about modern K dramas — apart from their reputation — but could they perchance have roots in films like these? Because we have brazen jumps in narrative and scenes where the story changes almost instantaneously from a sudden tragedy or a paradigmatic shift of some sort.

Of course, the vivacious Cho can’t have the composer, but she does something else instead. She starts getting lessons from him and then another idea comes into her head. You see, the family needs a new maid. It’s almost nonchalant how she offers her roommate the position because she knows the girl will be accepted almost without question. Here the film really begins as a kind of domestic thriller.

It’s all because of this peculiar girl who offers none of the warmth or instant charisma of Cho. She looks rather forlorn and dowdy, hardly the domestic type nor personable. Yet sure enough, she’s enlisted as the newest occupant of the Kim’s impressive two-story abode.

Much like some of Hitchcock’s great achievements (ie. Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Pyscho) or even Bong’s recent success Parasite (paying a great homage to the Housemaid), the domestic space becomes such a lethal vessel for dramatic tension.

If used effectively, there’s an inherent claustrophobia, constriction, and isolation such spaces can bring out. And the directors are able to make it a character unto itself, ripe with all sorts of thematic ideas and visual cues to act as an extension of their story.

Instead of a luminescent glass of milk, it is rat poison stuck away in a cupboard proving a deadly fulcrum within the movie. Packed in that tiny canister of household goods is so much threat and menace.

Director Kim ki-young augments his already contentious dynamics through sheer visual motifs. The stairwells become the most prominent piece of the home — a symbol of wealth — certainly but also social mobility and the seesawing power struggle.

Meanwhile, the sliding doors keep the space tight and confined such that you begin to expect the conflict and then feel it in turn. What’s being developed before us is a kind of cinematic language to go with the raging plonking on the piano taken up by several characters, all disposed to releasing their emotions on the keys. The music alone packs enough rage to pump up the blood pressure.

It succeeds in lending a continual fire to this overwhelming even crippling intensity. It reaches the point of being taxing. We are privy to the duplicity of illicit love that feels like two sides of the same coin. Cho’s puppy-like love for the teacher is forbidden but still youthful and a touch of naive.

However, the other is pernicious in a totally destructive manner as is made plainly evident. One day the wife must go off, leaving her husband with the maid in the house. What’s been alluded to the entire movie finally comes into being. She throws herself at him and he does very little to resist. In the heat of the moment, he’s not about to put up a fight. It’s the repercussions that will come to destroy him and cripple his family.

One must acknowledge all of their indiscretions would come to nothing if not for the fact his new “mistress” is now pregnant with his son even as his wife is about to have his child as well. It plays as a salacious piece of scandal and the maid can willfully wave it around as her bargaining chip — a mode in which to blackmail them.

Because she’s running scared even as she jealousy hangs onto the man who wants nothing more than to cast her off. Now he feels shackled by her. In some harrowing way, the film makes it apparent he is all but powerless to stop her as she ruthlessly scraps for herself. It’s the urban nightmare: held hostage in their own middle-class lifestyle with their kids, their TV, and new home, and it all means next to nothing. It becomes this futile trap they’re perpetually stuck in.

The commentary is so closely tied to the persistent intrigue and there’s the key — how this pursuit of upward mobility, of social status in a vertical society, winds up being their very downfall. They are strangled and then undone by the very tokens of wealth they have craved their entire lives. First, it begins with wifely ambitions and then the unseated desires of her husband compounding the situation.

However, there would be no picture without the self-seeking, crazed intentions of the maid. In her own right, she rivals Ellen Harland (Gene Tierney’s character) in Leave Her to Heaven. She’s so possessive, obsessive in her love, it threatens to tear up every relationship in its wake. There is no peace while she’s alive and her unwavering envy only sows chaos before jumping off the deep end entirely.

Because she haunts them — staring at the children through the sliding glass doors, rain pouring down, even as she harries their dejected father to the point of helplessness.

I mentioned the blackmail — the threat of being social pariahs — as being a kind of force holding them where they are. In this manner, one cannot help but think at Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel where some unnamed force keeps a group of aristocrats trapped in a room.

In the Housemaid the narrative devolves into its own form of living hell. You have to see it in order to understand how insidious it really feels. Because this prison (or noose) is not of a supernatural variety — it is very much implemented by the social structure on hand. And ultimately, no stabilizing cop-out ending can neutralize the frankness behind the nightmare.

One only needs to recall the wife’s desperate assertion to her husband. “My corpse may be silent, but my will won’t be!” In the end, Kim ki-young delivers a shocking portrait boldly mechanizing the multifaceted underpinnings of melodrama as all things romance, thriller, and satire. To this day, it remains an unflinching touchstone of Korean cinema at a time when the world was rapidly changing and still coming to terms with its gains.

4/5 Stars

My Sassy Girl (2001)

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We meet a college-aged Korean guy (Cha Tae-hyun) as he relates his first encounter with the girl (Jun ji-hyun) who would ultimately become his girlfriend. In the throes of a drunken stupor, she flails perilously near the railway as an incoming train comes on so he steps in to pull her back to safety. They board minutes later — he’s still watching her warily — only for her to puke all over a commuter.

Assuming he is the boyfriend, Gyeon-woo is chastized to do something about his girlfriend and so reluctantly he takes her still intoxicated by piggyback to the nearest hotel. This whole complicated scenario happens to him twice and it lands him in jail.  It doesn’t sound like the pitch-perfect moment to start off a romance but then again My Sassy Girl never has perfect pitch and that’s where it succeeds.

The film opens with these exaggerated comically cringe-worthy interactions and yet it settles into something far more fulfilling than its attention-grabbing gross-out antics. While Gyeon-woo gets all but pulled into the scenario you realize that there was a single decision. He cared enough to intervene on this girl’s behalf. Maybe he regretted it but it’s doubtful.

What was his life beforehand? Fairly inane and nondescript. He hangs out with his buddies as they grunt about inconsequential things. His face is prone to glazed over expressions. He’s constantly whining to his mother over the phone after forgetting to visit his Aunt — the Aunt who always pinches his cheeks and tries to set him up with an eligible girl. When he’s not getting swatted at by his mother at home, his father gives him a going over for not getting better grades. He’s a rudderless young man with no true conviction or sense of purpose. He’s in need of some kind of shakeup.

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The Girl (who is never given a name) is actually the one who dictates the sheer unpredictability and consequently, the hilarity of the picture. Jun Ji-hyun pulls off a remarkable part that brims with a feistiness, playful whimsy, and utter solemnity as it cycles between scenes. She smacks him around and bosses him to do this and that based on a momentary fancy. Also, her facial expressions are on point.There’s so much sassafras as we used to say in high school. She willingly calls out people for their behavior in public places as well as their wardrobe choices. The filter is all but lacking. She’s a creature of caprice.

Anything that Geon-woo does to her disapproval prompts her threatening catchphrase, “Wanna Die?” Partially as a veiled threat and partially as a rhetorical assertion. It works in many circumstances. Most importantly she has fun because that is her antidote to try and forget something — to get past some prior hurt — and to reclaim her life as her own.

Like the Japanese film Shall We Dance (1996), My Sassy Girl also garnered an American remake due to its popularity. But the remakes in both accounts cannot measure up to the originals for a very simple reason. These stories are meant for the cultures they came out of or at least they are given greater import in their respective countries of origin. The first film was about freedom of expression in a society that values a certain amount of conformity. My Sassy Girl highlights a character who all but goes against the norms of how people are supposed to act as she carries herself with a certain amount of unpredictable vigor.

There are some clunky seemingly superfluous scenes but our leads have a disarming even unorthodox chemistry about them that weathers it all. One scene, in particular, stops up the film’s middle where they sneak into the theme park on The Girl’s birthday only to be held hostage by an AWOL soldier. It’s ultimately another expression of romantic sentiment but it disrupts the hilarity for an extended period of time. Because those are the moments when the story is at its best.

The direction can also be a bit distracting as the camera swirls around and does this and that with POV shots inserted and lines of voiceover narration but we can attribute that merely to the film’s jarring intentions. They help personify this volatile, idiosyncratic character at its core.

The original slap bet is born on the Subway. Squash games inevitably wind up with the ball nailing Geon-woo in the face. He’s also inept at swordplay and he can’t swim. Meanwhile, she holds aspirations for writing screenplays and forces him to read her work. He notes there’s always a hero coming from the future infused with action-packed terminator or samurai vibes.

All of this movie’s finest moments of romantic hilarity can be summed up in the list of 10 points Gyeon-woo recites by heart relaying how to treat his girl:

  • First, don’t ask her to be feminine.
  • Second, don’t let her drink over three glasses, she’ll beat someone.
  • At a cafe, drink coffee instead of coke or juice.
  • If she hits you, act like it hurts. If it hurts, act like it doesn’t.
  • On your 100th day together, give her a rose during her class. She’ll like it a lot.
  • Make sure you learn fencing and squash.
  • Also, be prepared to go to prison sometimes.
  • If she says she’ll kill you, don’t take it lightly. You’ll feel better.
  • If her feet hurt, exchange shoes with her.
  • Finally, she likes to write. Encourage her.

The latter half dips more deeply into the well of sincerity and though it might seem difficult to buy this sentimental side of the characters, we’ll gladly make allowances because we’ve been through so much with them. It turns out The Sassy Girl has more to her as we always suspected.

In an excursion to one of her favorite spots that is shaded by a solitary tree, they bury a time capsule with letters written to each other. On her behest, they will come back in two years to read them but for now, she must go away and figure things out. It seems a dismal and confusing point of departure for Geon-woo and the audience. But he resigns himself to it and moves forward.

However, the film very much wants to drill into our heads that fate means building a bridge of chance for your love. It gives romance this edge of grand design where all things fall into place for those who are truly meant to be together. Fittingly, circumstance brings them back full circle. Surely, some will need to take this with a grain of salt but no matter, when it’s all said and done, there’s no question that My Sassy Girl is a satisfying rom-com moment after moment. The leads are just too memorable to pass up.

3.5/5 Stars