Korea at the Crossroads
Korean Cinema Now (and Then),
Museum of Fine Arts Houston, May 31-June 15, 2008
Naturally the single most notorious bit of lore from the life of director Shin Sang-ok, and certainly the most extreme, is his infamous kidnapping from Hong Kong and forced immigration to North Korea, under the direct supervision of future “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il. Shin’s wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, was similarly abducted (in fact she was taken first), and although there are numerous high-quality examples of Shin and Choi’s work together that would undoubtedly have drawn the attention of a savvy formalist like Kim, the events are thrown into new relief upon seeing Shin’s 1958 masterwork A Flower in Hell (Jiokhwa). With its jarring formal economy in the service of a classic melodramatic tale of two brothers torn apart by a faithless woman, the film appears like some long-lost bridge between the radical end of American B-movie production (especially Sam Fuller and Edgar Ulmer) and the anti-imperialist modernism of Nagisa Oshima.
Shin, who died in 2006, has long been acknowledged as an axiom in Korean cinema, producing and directing some if not most of the major films of the 1950s and ’60s. Although his career was cut short by the increasing strictures of government censorship—Park Chung-hee eventually closed Shin’s studio outright in 1978, a year before the dictator’s assassination—Shin consistently infused his films with a clear-eyed, unsentimental worldview that has made his work a touchstone for the South Korean new wave of the 1980s and '90s. But what no doubt impressed the young party operative was Shin’s casual use of the post-war American occupation as the backdrop for Flower’s ostensible love-triangle storyline. A true dialectician, Shin demonstrated that virtually every deception, every misplaced emotion or cheapened human relationship, was silently, insidiously determined by American influence. To borrow the language of the Marxists, A Flower in Hell is immanent critique of the first order, and a sizzling potboiler to boot. The plotline is rather unremarkable. But it is in the unusually astute handling of the material, and in particular Shin’s recognition of its larger expressive possibilities, that the film achieves its greatness. In and around the culture of a U.S. army base in Seoul, Young-shik (Kim Hak) is a member of a gang of thieves who pilfer supplies from the base and sell them on the black market. His girlfriend, who goes by the Westernized nickname “Sonya” (Choi), is a taxi dancer and prostitute, one of a number of such women who cater to the GIs. Young-shik’s brother Dong-shik (Jo Hae-won) comes to Seoul from the hinterlands to seek out his wayward brother and bring him home. But the temptations of the city, and of Sonya in particular, come between the two men and despoil Dong-shik’s rather lunkheaded innocence.
As Darcy Paquet has pointed out in his essay on the film at koreanfilm.org, A Flower in Hell is unique and invaluable as both artwork and artifact, since from the very first shots, Shin provides us with essentially documentary views of Seoul under the occupation. We see GIs moving through city streets with the swagger of authority, their presence felt at all times throughout the film, and although the central action of the film settles on the base, we never get to know any of the Americans. By contrast, virtually every female character in the film is a call girl or cabaret performer (basically the same thing in this world) catering to these greenback-wielding Americans, and even in the brief time many of the women appear onscreen, Shin takes care to individuate them. Meanwhile, Korean male groupings are criminal and clandestine, relegated to the shadows. Yes, postwar Seoul is filled with ordinary Koreans scratching out a living in various above-board ways, but Shin zeroes in on a sealed-off universe that, while patently metonymical for the entirety of occupied Korea, also possesses the force of unadorned fact. Add to this the brisk, observational style of the opening sequences, and Shin has effectively isolated a topsy-turvy world of foreign exploitation, made it seem as natural as oxygen, and established it as a viable microcosm.
It should be noted here that these opening moments, with their almost late-actualité character, also inculcate us into a faith in what we see, such that Shin’s later, more expressionistic visual flourishes and melodramatic maneuvers maintain a certain force of credibility. That is, A Flower in Hell keeps one foot firmly planted in a recognizable sociopolitical universe. As a result Shin’s more extreme lunges toward cinematic affect—Dong-shik’s sudden flashback to childhood, for example, or the dramatic shifts in perspective during Dong-shik’s fight with Young-shik, a passage composed od angles that recall the best of Soviet montage—inform the political subtext even as they jolt the senses. This is immediately evident when the film introduces its putative protagonist, Dong-shik. His arrival in Seoul is intercut with the grainy documentary material. In his first moments, the country boy almost literally hops off the proverbial turnip truck, tries to thwart a mugging, and gets thrashed by the locals for his troubles. These scenes are presented in the dense, high-contrast cinematography that characterizes the majority of A Flower in Hell; of particular note is the use of a low-angle close-up that frames Dong-shik’s swimming head against the blank sky.
In purely visual terms, the image resembles a James Dean publicity still as it might have been shot by Robert Bresson. But thematically, the use of low and high angles continually suggest characters being either pinned hopelessly to the ground (mere functions of their surroundings) or exhibiting a will to transcend. This motif could be heavy-handed, but Shin’s formal control is deft and casual. Neither is Dong-shik merely hemmed in by his unfamiliar new environment, nor is he entirely free of its determining forces. Instead, we witness a clean, precise compositional language that communicates the specific circumstances of a life at an uncertain juncture, to say nothing of a larger problem in the theory of subjectivity—the irresolvable tension between objective social structures and human agency. In maintaining this tricky balance, Shin’s MVP is most certainly cinematographer Kang Beom-gu. Shooting his first feature, Kang moves easily between the Griersonian observation of base life and the sharp, sculptural framing of the love triangle, producing noir-in-broad-daylight compositions that flatten space with bold chiaroscuro and construct the 1:33 rectangle of the academy frame-ratio as a prison of erotic energy.
And so, against the backdrop of total American control, two brothers are locked in mortal battle; a woman’s duplicity shows flickers of humanity that belie the wreckage in her wake; the purity of country life is so easily despoiled as to call into question any quaint homilies about honest bumpkins and the big bad city; and one woman, who has essentially acted as a silent witness to all of the cruel, dramatic goings-on, gets a second chance at life. Shin and screenwriter Lee Jeong-seon cram so much incident into A Flower in Hell’s 88 minutes that the film’s harsh reduction of exposition is no surprise. But as in certain B-modernist masterworks, Flower’s clipped syntax and abrupt editing schemes tend to produce cognitive collisions that generate intellectually prismatic perspectives on the material at hand. Shin understood that the heightened affect of melodrama can work in tandem with the tense shorthand of the B-picture to transmit anxiety to the spectator as a direct bodily experience.
Despite its family resemblance to a strain of American outsider cinema, A Flower in Hell bears true comparison with films whose very DNA was radically opposed to American colonization, cultural as well as territorial. We initially expect that Dong-shik’s rural naïveté will provide some kind of answer to the corruptions of the soul/Seoul. Instead, he himself becomes “infected” by the corruption around him, although the film leaves it as an open question whether the new environs only activated certain tendencies already dormant in the country boy. And yes, the rather improbable, tacked-on conclusion offers an escape to the boondocks. But as in the great films of Turkey’s Yilmaz Güney and India’s Ritwik Ghatak, the mutual misunderstandings of urban and rural culture—indeed, the inability to achieve a critical totality of cultural perspective—is the greater political failure. A Flower in Hell demonstrates that these great cine-radicals had an early comrade in Shin Sang-ok.
RELATED CALENDAR ENTRYMay 31-June 15, 2008 Korean Cinema Now (and Then)
FURTHER READING"The Director Who Snagged Me," by John Gorenfeld (Salon)
Tony Rayns's obituary of Shin Sang-ok (The Independent)
Michael Sicinski is a film writer and teacher based in Houston, Texas. He is a frequent contributor to Cinema Scope, Cineaste, and GreenCine Daily.More articles by Michael Sicinski