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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Chilsu and Mansu (칠수와 만수, Chilsu wa Mansu) 1988

Chil-su and Man-su

Park Kwang-su’s debut feature Chilsu and Mansu came at a pivotal moment in Korean history and was one of the films that propelled the Korean New Wave. South Korea had been in a state of perpetual turmoil for decades and the 1980s were particularly difficult following Park Chung-hee’s assassination in 1979 and the tragic Gwangju massacre of 1980. The country was ruled by General Chun Doo-hwan through a despotic rule until 1987 when social unrest reached a boiling point following the torture and death of a university student. After this event Roh Tae-woo and the Democratic Justice Party were able to assume power through a legal and closely contested election. Park Kwang-su was already an influential member of the Seoul Film Group, which he founded, when he embarked on Chilsu and Mansu. Had the film been made any earlier than 1988 it is doubtful that it would have escaped heavy censorship or even have been made at all. Due to the changing political landscape the film was released in its intended form and is now a staple of the Korean New Wave.

The film features two actors who have endured as marquee names to the present day: Park Joon-hoon who plays Chil-su; and Ahn Sung-ki who portrays Man-su. Park was only just starting out in his career but had already received acclaim for previous roles, especially for his part in Youth sketch of Mimi and Cheolsu (1987), for which he won the best fresh actor award at PaekSang Arts Awards. Ahn on the other hand was a well-known actor who had been active since the tender age of 5 and was even in Kim Ki-young’s classic The Housemaid (1960). During the 1980s he starred in some of Korea’s most notable films, including A Fine, Windy Day (1980), Mandala (1981), and Whale Hunting (1984). They would both go on to star together in the smash hit Two Cops (1993) for which they won accolades at the Grand Bell Awards.

Man-su denied his chance to go abroad

Chil-su and Man-su are billboard painters trying to survive off meager work opportunities. Chil-su desperately tries to hide his status as he pretends to be an art student to Chi-na, a girl of higher status that he tries to court, and he also tells everyone that he will soon be leaving for Miami Beach. Man-su is a reserved man who tries to get as much work as he can, he cold calls prospective employers, even assuming provincial dialects[i] until he can find work, and in his off time he drinks heavily. They are both members of the working class and have been relegated to the fringes of society by no fault of their own. Isolation is what brings this unlikely pair together:

“Chilsu and Mansu links its protagonists by their feelings of alienation, one due to politics, the other due to youthfulness.”[ii]

Man-su lives in the shadow of his father, who is in jail for being a communist sympathizer. Having attended higher learning as a youth, he was given the opportunity to work abroad which would have resulted in his having a respectable career when he returned. However, on inspection of his papers he is denied his chance simply because of the political leanings of his father, which he does not ascribe to. This in effect thrusts him to the working class from which he can no longer escape, except through copious amount of soju.

Chil-su on the other hand is a vibrant character who is sociable and seems able to get by, he dreams of going to the Miami he sees in the colorful billboards he is paid to paint, in effect dreaming of escaping to a place that is fictional and which he has a hand in creating. Numerous times during the film he emulates his favorite Hollywood actors, from James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972). His whole life is a lie, especially when it comes to Chi-na, the pretty girl of higher status whom he falls for, as he doesn't give her one shred of truth.

Chil-su tries to court Chi-na

Chil-su often goes so far as to costume himself so as to present a false image. He wears a military fatigue t-shirt (after he lies to Man-su about his position in the armed forces) and one adorned with an American flag (a place to which he assures everyone his passage is imminent). He even gets Man-su to play a part in his game as he dresses him up as a Parisian artist and they go to a nice club.

Park also finds other ways to visually link his characters together. They work side by side up in the sky as they paint billboards, largely ignored by society. By the narrative’s end they are so inextricably bound that they travel together on a tandem bike, experiencing the emotional highs and lows together. For example, as they return home for the final time before the climax they cycle along a wide, busy road and the bike twists which brings both of them down together. As they briefly land on their rearends, they see cars anonymously drive by, symbolic of a society which passes them by.

Chilsu and Mansu begins with a civil defense drill and we meet our protagonists separately in shots that are both framed by windows they are stuck behind. Man-su looks out the window forlornly and then up at the sky, a minute later we meet Chil-su, who is asleep on a bus before being woken by the conductor and told top disembark due to the drill. This gives us a clear image of who these characters are, Man-su is aware and jaded while Chil-su is unaware and transient due to his youth.

Man-su looks up at the sky

While the film deftly portrays the plight of two divergent members of the working class and the societal marginalization that binds them together, it is the extended climax, which serves as its greatest asset and the one it is justly revered for. Darcy Paquet states that:

“The sequence seems an appropriate symbolic starting point for the Korean New Wave, which was founded on the notion of giving voice to the oppressed, and which also had its share of confrontations with the state.”[iii]

In this sequence Chil-su and Man-su are taking a break from working on a billboard perched above a tall building. They are sitting atop it, feet dangling and drinking soju. Having given up hope on his dreams of being with Chi-na and moving away to the States, Chil-su confesses all his lies to Man-su who in turn takes all his pent up frustration, stands up, and begins to shout at everyone below. He is not saying very much in particular but people begin to notice and soon the police and military intercedes, since, as Nancy Abelman and Choi Jung-ha note:

“…the social gaze at these workers – a gaze that has posited them as protesters about to throw a Molotov cocktail – politicises them, making social activists of them.”[iv]

The conclusion to the film serves as a harsh indictment of Korea under military rule. Two oppressed individuals who have no intention of protesting or being involved in any social unrest wind up dead and in jail due to a paranoid institution which suppresses, and censors, any activity which could be construed as anti-authoritarian. As Kyung Hyun-kim summarizes:

The audible voice of authority...

“The moment they begin to verbalize their frustrations, in their effort to reconstitute their masculinity, they are found guilty by the state, subject to arrests and even death for a crime no one­­ – including the state – knows exactly how to identify.”[v]

Both Chil-su and Man-su may not have a political agenda as they vent to the world from the top of their billboard but although their words do not signify political protest, Park, having placed them in this circumstance, does politicize them, just as the crowds and authority that gathers below have. In the end, since they are unable to successfully integrate with society, Chil-su and Man-su can no longer attempt to do so and their actions unwittingly take them out of it. Chilsu and Mansu spoke to a generation upon its release and paved the way for further works of the Korean New Wave and many elements of this type of social commentary have survived and are featured in a variety of ways in today’s, admittedly far more commercial, Korean film industry.


[i] Kyung Hyun Kim, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 145

[ii] David Desser, “Timeless, Bottomless Bad Movies”, in Seoul Searching: Culture and Identity in Contemporary Korean Cinema, ed. Frances Gateward (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 77.

[iii] Darcy Paquet, New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves (London: Wallflower Press, 2009), 23.

[iv] Nancy Abelmann and Jung-ah Choi, “’Just Because’: Comedy, Melodrama and Youth Violence in Attack the Gas Station”, in New Korean Cinema, ed. Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Stringer (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2005), 140-141.

[v] Kyung Hyun Kim, The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 151

...vs. the silent voice of the oppressed

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2 comments:

  1. I am a bit of newcomer to the world of Korean cinema, but 2 days ago I had the chance to see Chilsu and Mansu at my local Korean Culture Centre. I thought it was a great movie, especially when you realise the importance of the film. I like your articles and subcribed.to you.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words and I'm glad you enjoyed the film! I'm assuming you saw it at the KCCUK, I was there too as I was in London for a few days. The film was even better for me the second time around.

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