Anton Bitel Recommends
Kim Ki-young's Woman of Fire (Hwa-nyeo, 1971)
Woman of Fire (Kim Ki-young). Image courtesy of the Korean Film Archive.
The Housemaid (1960), an archly moralising melodrama about a household torn apart by adultery, is Kim Ki-young's - and arguably Korea's - most famous film.
It was remade in 2010 by Im Sang-soo, but before that Kim himself would reimagine it twice, as Woman of Fire (1971) and Woman of Fire '82 (1982). All the elements of The Housemaid - affair between maid and composer boss, forced abortion, rat poison, madness and murder - are present in Woman of Fire but, shot in colour and opening with a bloody domestic crime scene before working back over what happened, it exploits our familiarity with the original to ring the changes on both its own retelling and the times, even as Kim, who has clearly watched Giulio Questi's Death Laid An Egg (1968), introduces chicken-farming as both subplot and central metaphor for a scandalous love triangle with mother hens and disposable men. This domestic trap could not be more timely for these days of Coronavirus confinement.
Lee Chang-ho's Declaration of Idiot (Baboseon-eon, 1983)
Declaration of Idiot (Lee Chang-ho). Image courtesy of the Korean Film Archive.
Opening with children's sketches of superheroic battles, narrated by a child as a fairytale, presented as an undercranked, often dialogue-free Chaplin-esque comedy caper (whose Tramp-like protagonist walks with an exaggerated limp), and scored with samples from arcade games, Lee Chang-ho's Declaration of Idiot (1983) certainly experiments with its form - but it also uses these light-hearted, youthful modes of expression to sugar darker, more adult themes.
After all, the film begins - and ends - with suicide, and its appetitive, idiotic hero Dong-chul (Kim Myung-gon) attempts early on to abduct and rape his beloved Hye-young (Lee Bo-hee). Yet through the experiences of these two and their friend Yuk-deok (Lee Hee-sung) who - variously as beggars, prostitute, toilet cleaners and literal human punching bag on the margins of Korean society - are exploited or merely overlooked, director Lee surreally stages the dashed dreams of a nation's underclass. Similar systemic socioeconomic fissures are of course now being exposed by Covid-19 - at least in the UK.
Anton Bitel is a part-time Classicist and freelance film critic, contributing regularly to (among others) Sight & Sound, Little White Lies and VODzilla.co. He is a programmer for the London Korean Film Festival.