By Pierce Conran
Playing alongside the 50-odd new Korean films playing at Busan this year is a retrospective of the work of Jung Jin-woo, a prolific director and producer active from the 1960s to the 80s. Known as a purveyor of social melodramas highlighting separation anxieties after the Korean War, Jung switched gears in later in his career, when he began to look at the plight of women in his country. Kicking off this chapter in his filmography was 1980's Does Cuckoo Cry at Night, a simple parable with a restrained yet evocative style.
A charcoal maker lives with his mother in the forest and one day the young girl Sooni comes to live with them. It is decided that she will wed the laborer when she comes of age and when that day comes their union marks the start of an innocent and uncomplicated life in the mountains. However, Sooni's beauty is too great to go unnoticed and soon a man from the city takes a fancy to her.
Set mostly in the same forest clearing and featuring only five characters with any real amount of screen time, Jung's film gives his characters and story (which stretches to 120 minutes) plenty of time to breath. While it seems slow at first, the film's evocative air and simple message soon lull you into a calm, almost hypnotic state. As the story takes its deliberate turns, effective metaphors are introduced, introducing some meaty substance into a familiar narrative. The film goes exactly where you expect it to but is never the worse for it. Telling a simple story well is no mean feat and Jung's clear focus and unhurried mise-en-scene are richly satisfying.
The couple's marriage is presented as a positive one yet rather than a story of their love, Does Cuckoo Cry at Night has more to do with the erosion of innocence in a Korea which, at the time, was in the midst of a breathless industrialization. Sooni, seen frolicking in the wooded hills under the moonlight, is the picture of innocence, but the encroaching corruption and consumerist temptations of the city soon branch out to her untouched corner of society. Covetous men leer at her naked form when she bathes in the creek, unaware of the dangers lurking nearby. When she first visits the town's marketplace she is immediately taken with the wares of the merchants, and she takes a particular fancy to a green ring. The seed of consumerism has been planted and the possessory nature of men follows her back to her home. The ring, echoing themes of greed and self-advancement, is an important prop in the film which foreshadows the story's darker turns.
Does Cuckoo Cry at Night is the first Jung Jin-woo film I've had the pleasure to see and its strong narrative balance, deliberate pacing and engrossing atmosphere are enough to make sure that I'll burrow deeper into his work before long.
This review originally appeared on Twitchfilm.com
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