Korean Movies You Should Watch Before You Die #7

July 29, 2010

This is a guest post by Nick Mann

Obaltan (The Aimless Bullet)


It seems nearly a ‘cin’ (vocabulary I learned on this site, does it apply in this case?) to discuss a nation’s cinema without some knowledge of its roots and influential works from the early years of film. From the very beginning of this series on Korean film my greatest concern has been that I am almost totally unacquainted with Korean cinema prior to 2000. However, after a little exploring on the web it would appear I’m not alone in my bias. I have taken a look at some other English sites and blogs where the topic of Korean film has been discussed (including some ‘Best Korean Movies’ lists), and in almost no case could I find mention of a film made prior to 1990 – rarely did they look back more than a decade.

One site is an exception: Koreanfilm.org. Here one can trace back through Korea’s film history to the beginning of the 20th century. The film reviews go beyond basic plot summary, often discussing a film’s themes and connecting it to other works by the same filmmaker. The critics are clearly knowledgeable and engaged with their topic and some longer essays explore larger cultural and historical influences on the cinema of Korea. This site has been an invaluable resource for me in writing these posts and it was here that I first read about Obaltan, widely regarded as Korea’s ‘best film of all-time’.

Obaltan was made in 1961 and I think the only practical way to acquire a copy is to download it via torrents.* The version I watched was grainy and the subtitles were not great; they got the basic gist across, but a lot of dialog went un-translated.

The plot chronicles the day-to-day struggles of an extended family trying to survive in post-armistice Seoul. I would describe it as The Best Years of Our Lives if it had been directed by Yasujiro Ozu. If you don’t know those references you probably don’t watch a lot of old black and white movies and in that case Obaltan may not be for you. A lot happens, even some exciting things (a murder-suicide, a bank robbery, a tooth extraction, to name a few), but the acting style is very dated and towards the end the film suffers from unorthodox Korean pacing, which has been discussed in previous posts. In this case what would be considered the climax by Hollywood standards comes early, unexpectedly and the story continues for another thirty or forty minutes after that.

Obaltan is quite beautifully directed, and overall an excellent film. But for modern viewers I think the best thing about this film is seeing where Seoul (and more generally Korea) was fifty years ago and how it contrasts with Seoul in the present. Those most familiar with the Seoul of today will likely get more out of that contrast. For example a portion of the climactic chase sequence is shot in 1960-era Cheonggyecheon – not the gurgling brook with walking paths, fountains and tourists it is today, but the underground river/sewer it was half a century ago. The film is filled with similar scenes where the realist, on-location approach brings the city and its people to life on the screen, at a pivotal point in that city’s (and nation’s) history.

Cheonggyecheon - 1960s

For those curious why Korean film has stormed onto the Asian scene in the last decade or so, and why so few films prior to that period are discussed, based on the bit of research I’ve done, I would suggest it has to do with politics. At almost the same time as motion picture technology was introduced to Korea the nation was taken over by Japan and Japanese censorship stunted the growth of a unique Korean voice in the early days of film. Later of course the “Korean Conflict” would interrupt the development of film and even in the decades after the war the film industry suffered from heavy censorship and meddling by authoritarian governments; in fact Obaltan was originally deemed unsuitable for release, based on its dire portrayal of contemporary life in the capital city.

This is only the most basic of explanations and certainly other factors also play a role, such as important films that have been lost or destroyed, cultural priorities, and so on.

Cheonggyecheon - Present Day

*(Obaltan, under the English title ‘Stray Bullet’ is available to buy  from Amazon here. I’m not entirely sure where this blog stands in a legal context but let me just state that, whereas Nick’s consumer habits are his own, I would encourage everyone to acquire this film in a manner that does not breach copyright laws. I don’t even know what a “torrent” is! – David)


One comment

  1. […] 7 Obaltan […]

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