By Pierce Conran
Though oppressed by Chung Doo-hwan's administration throughout much of the decade, the Korean film industry was nevertheless able to produce some remarkable films in the 1980s. However, for all their social gravitas and literary refinement, rarely was it the case that films from this period were praised for their technical achievements. Classics from this time such as The Ball Shot by a Midget (1981), The Oldest Son (1985) and Chilsu and Mansu (1988) shone a sober and somber light on the nation's dark social realities but few sought to experiment with the medium. However, this past Sunday, following a special screening at the Korean Film Archive (KOFA), I discovered that within all the weighty and poignant films of the era, there were indeed some people attempting to redefine the boundaries of cinema.
First, a word of thanks to KOFA but particularly to Darcy Paquet, who presented a screening of Lee Jang-ho's The Man with Three Coffins (1987), a film I've been dying to see since I first read about it in Kyung Hyun Kim's "The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema", a great resource during my college years.
My last piece on a classic Korean film was for Between the Knees (1984), also a Lee Jang-ho film. Though thematically rich and more than a little controversial, from a stylistic standpoint it was well staged but straightforward. The Man with Three Coffins, based on a short novel by Lee Je-ha, is a completely different kind of film. With its fractured narrative, monochrome photography, and striking imagery, Lee's film makes for a memorable experience.
In the film a widower travels to the East Coat of Korea to scatter his late wife's ashes, but soon finds himself steered off course in his journey to his hometown (said to be just above or below the DMZ separating the peninsula), when he encounters a nurse aiding an ailing conglomerate.
The film is largely open to interpretation and director Lee has mentioned in the past that he didn't understand everything himself. However, its main theme is the displacement caused by the Korean war. The deceased wife's home lies North of the border and is therefore inaccessible. Most of the film's characters are traveling on various roads but won't ever reach their destinations. In a Korea that suffered an unshakeable division, for many following the war it was impossible to return home. Entire families were, and still are, separated.
One of the more striking aspects of the film is its monochromatic finish. The film is tinted with sepia tone which Lee went to great efforts to create, though the print I saw was not colored exactly the way he had intended. The effect adds an aura of nostalgia to the film, appropriate given the subject, but it also works on an aesthetic level, as, coupled with the film's gorgeous compositions and location photography, it is beautiful to behold.
'The Man of Three Coffins' is played by Kim Myung-gon, who would later write and star in Im Kwon-taek's seminal Sopyonje (1993) and later still serve as Korea's Minister of Culture and Tourism (2006-07). His brooding turn fits in well with the film's atmosphere but it is his co-star Lee Bo-hee, a prominent actress of the 1980s, who steals the show in no less than three roles. She plays the dead wife (in flashbacks), the nurse and a prostitute. Though I don't want to speculate too much as to why she played so many characters, part of this decision becomes clear as the film begins to incorporate a large amount of shamanism. It is suggested that the nurse is a reincarnation of the wife, though from a chronological standpoint, this couldn't be possible.
It may be hard to follow what's going on in The Man with Three Coffins but it's even harder not to get swept up in the film's artistry. Exceptionally cinematic, particularly in its cathartic final minutes, Lee Jang-ho's film is a singular masterpiece of 1980s Korean cinema. In truth I feel a little bad gushing its praises as there currently isn't much opportunity for most of you to see it. However, I can't imagine that too much time will pass before this magnificent title is afforded a restoration.
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