Bae Chang-ho and the 1980s

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No single South Korean director is more identified with a given decade than Bae Chang-ho with the 1980s. He began the decade as assistant director to the great Lee Jang-ho, the focus of our ‘classics’ retrospective at LKFF 2016; he ended it as the most popular film artist of the era, more successful even than his mentor. Key to his career were his own huge resources of determination and passion for cinema, but also the contributions of other people. Lee Jang-ho was one: he had no qualms about sharing the talents of his close friend and top screenwriter, Choi In-ho, or the acting skills of his most famous star, Ahn Seong-gi. Through the years of the decade, the troika of Bae/Choi/Ahn attached to any film project usually guaranteed financial and critical success.

Cinema kid

Bae Chang-ho’s cinephilia is something of a legend. Thanks to a movie-fan mother, Bae was taken along to cinemas all over Seoul while growing up. He claims to have seen Fellini’s La Strada when he was just 5-years old – an interesting claim from the film-maker who would direct and star in a film called The Road (2004) at the age of fifty. While studying business/management at Yeonsei University, he dabbled in acting and shot his first amateur footage. The tale goes that around this time, Bae charged into the offices of a film production company, threw himself down on his knees and swore that given the chance to direct, he would make three hits the first year. The bewildered but kindly head of production introduced him to famous novelist and screenwriter Choi In-ho, who in turn had Bae meet his future mentor Lee Jang-ho. Yielding to reality for once, Bae took a proper job, a plum position with the burgeoning Hyundai conglomerate yet when he heard that director Lee had a film project starting up, Bae resigned his position as Hyundai branch manager in Nairobi and dashed back to the Seoul neighbourhood of Chungmuro, home to many production companies and the all-important bars and cafes where the film world gathered, plotted, celebrated and commiserated.

Minjung

Films from South Korea’s 1980s do not look quite so distant from us as those from, say, the 1960s. Synchronised sound recording was only gradually being introduced, replacing old techniques such as dubbing for dialogue. Colour and wide-screen formats, however, were taken for granted, and styles of cinematography and editing were relatively advanced. Yet to an eye accustomed to the slick, ultra-cool polish of contemporary Korean film with all its post-production computerised wizardry, to say nothing of its intensely marketised stars, the world that Bae Chang-ho and other directors put on screen may look rather rough, a bit too down-to-earth, even crude. It can be hard, however, to separate style from theme and content.

Working with Lee Jang-ho as assistant director on his come-back hit A Fine, Windy Day (1980), and then his next film Children of Darkness (1981), Bae met Lee Dong-cheol. He had lived in the slums of Seoul, even working as a tout in a red-light district in Seoul, before becoming a writer. He was closely linked with the rising ‘People’s Movement’. This was a loosely articulated but deeply committed aggregation of students, intellectuals, artists and workers who – in the name of the people, the minjung, the real Korea of workers, farmers and progressive thinkers – campaigned, protested and agitated against hard-line authoritarian governments, greedy corporations, and their neo-colonial coziness with US money and power. One of Lee Dong-cheol’s collections of vignettes, focused on life at the bottom of society, which would provide Bae Chang-ho with the elements of a story that became his first film, People in the Slum (1982).

The film is very much in the spirit of his mentor’s previous two films and in that of the minjung moment. The rough-look of the film, like that of the films by Lee Jang-ho or other memorable ones made at the time such as Lee Won-se’s A Ball Shot by a Dwarf (1981), is in purposeful harmony with the tough lives still lived by many ordinary Korean people. When critic Lee Yong-cheol recently declared that ‘the 1980s was the last era in which Korean popular films lay close to people’s lives’, he had in mind precisely this conjuncture between cinema content and cinematic style, mediated by the spirit of the minjung movement.

Government censors got the message. It was still the case that a film script had to be submitted for review before shooting, then the finished film would be subjected to a second review. The censors were not much interested in films about poor Koreans and what their stories might suggest about the country’s social health or economic success even after years of at times gruellingly forced modernisation. They made many demands for changes to the script. Following certain hints from the censors, and after discussing the problem with his producer, Bae decided to tone down the social criticism in his script and blend the tale of his three main characters into more of a melodrama.


Melodrama

Almost by default, Bae Chang-ho elaborated a form of storytelling that could explore the experiences of ordinary Koreans – including the poor, the outsiders, the misfits – but presented in the shape of the master genre of Korean cinema, melodrama. Or rather than genre, melodrama might best be thought of as our own experience of certain forms of narrative and intense emotional identification with key character(s). A woman, sometimes a man, is suffering through no real fault of their own. People judge them to be bad, foolish, weak, etc., but we the audience know more: we have seen how this woman/man has been deceived, deeply traumatised, or perhaps left with no choice but to break some law or social taboo. We direct our concern, even anger at the tormentors and are frustrated to tears by our own helplessness before the continued suffering and helplessness of the good, essentially innocent protagonist. We can only hang in there, trusting that the story will lead to some final justice, or at least peace and resolution after the travails of our hard-put-upon fictional friend.

Some of this pattern works for the tale of ‘black glove’ Myeong-suk in People in the Slum, but also helps shape the narrative fate of the two men in her life. It is just as significant for Bae’s very different third film The Flower at the Equator (1983): the story of Seon-yeong, the outwardly cool and stylishly kept woman who will only find her peace in suicide. In Whale Hunting (1984) we know that hapless drop-out Byeong-tae is basically a decent, if goofy, young man, that the ever-resourceful beggar Min-wu seems to carry the burden of a troubled past (perhaps an academic career destroyed by the regime?), and that young Chun-ja is certainly no prostitute. The pleasure of traveling down the roads with them is to experience how the two men manage against the odds and pursuing villains to resolve Chun-ja’s suffering and symbolically to transcend their own.

Bae showed he could make well-crafted, almost weepy melodramas in a range of films such as Warm It Was That Winter (1984), Our Joyful Young Days (1987) and Stairways of Heaven (1991).

Alienation

To the extent that Bae Chang-ho continued his film-making in tandem with friend – and very successful fiction writer/screenwriter – Choi In-ho, it was natural that Choi’s themes would lead him into a range of stories beyond any minjung aesthetic. Choi provided both original story and script for their first collaboration, The Flower at the Equator mentioned above.

Choi was one of the first writers to give voice to the sense of alienation experienced by a generation of people inhabiting the newly risen tower blocks which from the 1970s began to punctuate the skyline of many cities. Beautiful Seon-yeong moves into the nice big apartment her married lover has found as a love-nest; but across the way, in another tower and another box, a desperately introverted man watches her life through a telescope, before becoming a dedicated stalker. The creepy story is still creepy as film. Of course, the cinematic image imparts a visual reality to the woman, here played by popular star Jang Mi-hee, which takes it more in the direction of the kind of eroticism – or exploitation, depending on your point of view – that an easing of censorship strictures made all too commonplace in South Korean cinema of the 1980s.

The best-known collaboration of the Bae/Choi/Ahn troika was Deep Blue Night (1985). Ahn Sung-ki plays Ho-min. He has left a pregnant wife behind and made it to the US, looking to find his chunk of the American dream. There he seduces a rich Korean woman, who he leaves for dead in Death Valley (where else?). Later he meets Jane, a beautiful Korean divorcee who takes part in a false marriage scam. Ho-min and Jane enter into another kind of deadly relationship. The film is far removed from the sad lyrical tone of Choi’s original story. There was nothing erotic about his tale of two screwed-up Korean men driving an old banger down the highways, bitter at the very thought of the Korea they had escaped yet missing it keenly. The erotic trumps the melancholy in a film where a female character takes centre stage and in which the camera is very attentive to the body of Jang Mi-hee.

There is an aspect of simple realism in depicting Koreans overseas. This was a decade in which the gradual lifting of travel restrictions allowed many Koreans to go for the first time to wherever they could afford. They now had the freedom to discover that the world out there, in reality, might indeed not seem welcoming. That did not stop some 320,000 Korean people from emigrating to the US in the 1980s and securing their green cards in ways less dramatic than the one tried by the doomed Ho-min. Other film-makers would follow Choi and Bae’s lead in spinning stories about Koreans’ experience of the US. Jang Gil-su’s America, America (1988) took the two-guys-and-one-girl road movie genre down new highways, while the same director’s Western Avenue (1993) told the saga of a striving shop-keeper family caught up in the LA riots of 1992.

One other form of alienation tackled by the troika was physical disability. In Hello God (1987), Ahn Sung-ki took on the role of a young man whose life has been stunted by multiple sclerosis. He sets off on his own, determined to visit the ancient capital of Gyeongju. On the way he hooks up with a flamboyantly seedy failed poet, a man who harbours a traumatic past, and a young unmarried woman whose pregnancy makes her fear returning to her parents’ home. Two mismatched guys plus one large young woman make for a nicely offbeat road movie. Viewers may nowadays find Ahn’s portrayal of an MS-affected man a bit unsettling. But it isn't so different from the highly-praised role that Moon So-ri contributed to Lee Chang-dong’s contemporary classic Oasis (2002).


Historical drama

Choi In-ho produced the scenario for Bae Chang-ho’s first historical film, Hwang Jin-i (1986). The real Hwang Jin-i is known only through a handful of extant poems and musical scores, so Choi and Bae could let their imaginations fill in the blanks. Once again Jang Mi-hee brought her star status to a Bae film, this time for the role of a famous sixteenth-century courtesan/gisaeng. The cinematographer was one of the greatest in film history, Jeong Il-seong. Jeong would shoot some of the most visually stunning films of the decade, beginning with Im Kwon-taek’s masterpiece Mandara (1981).

Historical drama and the erotic were no strangers in this era. Lee Jang-ho’s Eoh Wu-dong (1985), screened at last year’s LKFF, is only one striking example of a mix that proved very profitable. It has been claimed that in fact the lack of overtly sexual scenes in Bae’s film disappointed some viewers at the time. What audiences saw was instead a slow-paced exercise in visual style: Jang Mi-hee’s beauty, as much in her hanbok as her body, perfectly framed by Jeong in lingering poses indoors or Jang filmed in long takes through a long lens as she wanders fields or shorelines. Where the year before with the same star, Bae’s Deep Blue Night (1985) had earned a record Seoul box office of 500,000 tickets sold, this graceful historical tale sold barely one-fifth the tickets.

So it wasn’t until 1990 that Bae returned to Korea’s past for his material. He wrote the scenario for The Dream along with aspiring assistant director Lee Myung-se. Lee had been his AD since Whale Hunting days. There was a long tradition of dream narratives in Korea and a famous modern short fiction by Lee Kwang-su to draw upon. There had also been two film versions of the short story made before by the most formidable film-maker of the recent past, Shin Sang-ok. Bae and Lee Myung-se shifted the emphasis of their version of The Dream to aspects which Shin had skipped over or prettified in his gorgeous, big-budget epic of 1967 (a rare early Korean entry at the Venice Film Festival). Yet once again audiences reacted negatively to the hit-maker of the 1980s in his guise of film artist. It was for Bae a disappointing end to an extraordinary decade.

The other side of the camera

Back in his university days, Bae Chang-ho had considered trying for an acting career, before risking everything on the chance to direct. Bae showed the same sort of generosity towards his talented assistant Lee Myung-se that Lee Jang-ho had once shown to Bae. He contributed to the scenario for Lee’s own debut film, the offbeat comedy-crime caper-road movie Gagman (1988) – a kind of homage to Scorsese’s King of Comedy. Not only that, Bae took one of the three main roles, playing Do-seok, a movie-mad barber. It is great fun to see him all but stealing scenes from his friend and long-time collaborator Ahn Sung-ki. His finest acting so far came in a late work, the small-scale elegiac film The Road (2004). Bae’s portrayal of itinerant blacksmith Tae-seok and of his hard life roaming the impoverished countryside in the decades after the Korean War seems far removed from contemporary South Korea and from its newly confident film industry; as though long-suffering Tae-seok wanted to take him, and us with him, back to a simpler, more innocent homeland of melodrama. Maybe back further, to that spirit of the minjung.


- Dr. Mark Morris, Asian Cinema Expert and Festival Advisor