Serendipitously, two very fine Korean movies open today in New York.
In keeping with the high standards of the Korean film industry that I have called attention to in past reviews, one is a documentary titled “Old Partner” showing at the Film Forum. The “old partner” referred to in the title is a 40 year old ox on his last legs, the prize possession of Choi Won-kyun and Lee Sam-soon, husband and wife farmers, who are stooped over from old age and backbreaking work. The general mood of the film evokes Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, written in 1750 as a kind of resigned protest against industrialization:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
In the same manner as Gray’s poem, there is a muted but recognizable rejection of industrialism’s benefits. Choi refuses to use insecticide because it threatens to poison his ox. He also refuses to use a rice-harvesting machine because too many grains will be lost. Even though he is in his 80s, he prefers to gather up the rice by hand. His wife, who is forced to work alongside him, nags him throughout the film. Sell the ox. Get a machine. Use insecticide. He ignores her all the while, facilitated no doubt by the fact that he is nearly deaf. Meanwhile, the only sound he strains to hear is the bell attached to his ox’s neck that provides a kind of soundtrack throughout the film. Its constant tinkling reminds you more of a Buddhist temple than hard labor, accentuated by the sight of the beast’s oddly beatific gaze.
Choi travels everywhere in a cart drawn by his beloved ox, even to the nearest city where he observes a demonstration by local activists against the importation of American cattle. They chant “No to Mad Cow!” Choi says not a word as he trudges slowly by, but it is clear that he is in sympathy, as is the film’s director no doubt.
An interview with director Lee Chung-ryoul is worth quoting in its entirety:
Where did the idea from the movie come from? Why do you think it was important to make this film?
I happened to visit a cattle market for coverage in 1999 where I saw an ox shed tears looking at his former owner as he was being pulled away by his new owner. That moment reminded me of my father’s ox from my childhood.
Before industrialization, the business of the Korean countryside was the sole domain of oxen and our fathers. They were heroes, idols and the driving force of Korean agricultural development. Since industrialization, however, they had nothing to do. Oxen became only beef; our fathers retired and aged with an aging town.
The situation makes me sad. So I wanted to recollect the devotion and beautiful sympathy of farmers and oxen in this film, and the scenery might be the last moment of this age. This film is dedicated to the oxen and our fathers devoted to this land.
How did you meet this farmer?
For five years, I traveled around the nation to find a proper ox and farmer. In early 2005, someone told me there was a proper man and an ox in a small town in Bong-wha. I was so lucky to encounter them.
What elements of the South Korean culture are portrayed in the movie?
Before the introduction of farm machinery to the countryside, our farms totally depended upon oxen. This film portrays the core of Korean agricultural practices. Also, it shows aspects of traditional Korean culture, such as patriarchy, unequal conjugal relationships and the commitment of parents to educate their children at any cost. It also shows the affection for oxen, who are considered family members and collaborative partners, not just animals.
* * * *
While “The Chaser” could not be farther apart from “Old Partner” in mood and subject matter, it too expresses the supreme filmmaking talents coming out of Korea today. Directed by Na Hong-jin, this is an ultra-noir tale of a detective-turned-pimp’s attempt to track down a serial killer who has made victims out of a couple of his prostitutes and has rendered a third close to death with his favorite weapon, a hammer and chisel.
Jung-ho, the pimp, is anything but a hero. His main motivation is to track down who has been dragooning his prostitutes and selling them on the flesh market, refusing to believe that a serial killer is at fault, even after he has apprehended the man quite by accident—literally so through a fender-bender. As the cops come upon Jung-ho who is standing over the bloodied victim, he demands to know where Young-min—the killer—has sold the girls. Even after Young-min confesses that he is indeed a mass murderer at the local police station, Jung-ho refuses to believe his ears. It is clear that this cynical flesh merchant, who his now half-dead call girl nicknamed “Filth” on her cell phone, can only see things in terms of money. As such, he is the quintessential denizen of a society that has lost its moorings.
In the press notes for “The Chaser”, we learn the social context for this sizzling crime story:
The public’s interest for serial murder cases which brought fear to a society is immediately forgotten even before the tears of the victims or their families have dried up. In an individualistic society indifferent to others and centered on individual materialistic gains, questions such as, “What kind of people were the victims? What efforts have I or society has made to save them?” have never even crossed the minds of what society has become today. This type of society which has come about and looked at by one ordinary person is the starting point for THE CHASER. Not simply exaggerating the subject matter of a shocking serial murder case, this film paints one man’s breathless shocking efforts to save one person whose precious life is at stake while fighting against preposterous circumstances and a faulty social system.
It is not hard to understand why Korean filmmakers would embrace the noir genre. In the United States, it reached its zenith in the post-WWII years as Hollywood screenwriters, especially leftists like Abraham Polonsky, discovered that the optimism of the New Deal was giving way to the Cold War and conformity.
In Korea, there is evidence everywhere that the once bright future of a star Tiger economy has been dashed. The first hammer blow took place in the late 1990s and a new round of contraction appears inevitable.
Leaving aside the socio-political backdrop, “The Chaser” is a tightly wound thriller that avoids the typical clichés of Hollywood slasher movies even though it is not above some truly gruesome images. As Jung-ho, the detective turned pimp, and Mi-jin, the serial killer, Kim Yoon-suk and Ha Jung-woo turn in bravura performances.
“The Chaser” opens today at the IFC Theater in New York and is strongly recommended.