Tuesday, July 17, 2012

KOFA Treasures: Kim Ki-young's Woman of Fire (화녀, Hanyeo) 1971

Ongoing series on classic Korean film recently made available for free and with English subtitles on Youtube courtesy of the Korean Film Archive.

Aside from a few choice selections, remakes have become something of a bane for contemporary cinephiles.  They are borne out of commercial interests and, for the most part and almost by default, they are unoriginal.  They are also omnipresent on today’s marquees, but this wasn’t always the case.  Despite the good examples that do exist, the announcement of a remake almost never inspires much confidence, but what about when a director remakes his own work?

Surprisingly this has happened quite often, mainly when a foreign filmmaker remakes his own successful work for Hollywood.   Among the oldest examples are Hitchcock’s British and US versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956) or Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born But… (1932) and Good Morning (1959), both Japanese.  Among the most intriguing ones are Michael Haneke’s almost identical versions of Funny Games (Austria, 1997 and US, 2007): the US version was a fascinating meta-narrative experiment that explored our species' fascination with violence, I’m just not sure it’s what the studio had in mind, despite it being a shot-for-shot copy of the original.

Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960) is frequently cited as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) Korean films ever made.  He saw fit to remake it in 1971 with Woman of Fire and again, a further 11 years down the line with Woman of Fire ’82, which I have not yet seen.  Clearly this narrative was of paramount importance to Kim but what did he add to his original work by revisiting it?

Woman of Fire begins with what looks to be a murder scene, the bodies of a man, Dong-sik, and a woman, Myeong-ja, have been found in a house.  At the police station the wife of the man and the friend of the woman have been brought in for questioning.  The story then proceeds via extended flashback and it is here that it begins to align with the first version.  Two girls come to the city from the countryside and while one wants to be a singer the other, Myeong-ja wants to get married and comes to work as a housemaid for Jeong-suk, in exchange for a promise to find her a husband.   Jeong-suk is married to Dong-sik, a composer who gives singing classes at their home.   One of his students makes advances on him and one night, while Jeong-suk is away with their children, Myeong-ja forcibly kicks the young woman out but is then raped and impregnated by Dong-sik.

The differences between the two films include: the already mentioned structure; the splicing in of numerous images that are not part of the story; some slightly more manic and depraved events; and the fact that The Housemaid was in black and white while Woman of Fire is in colour.

Regarding that last point, the film may be in colour but it heavily favours red and blue hues in its striking and vivid cinematography.   The seediness of the dark reds suits the setting and is in stark contrast with the more peaceful blue, a colour that seems to become less prominent as the narrative descends further into insanity.  One particularly striking shot is a fantastic composition where Dong-sik stands by the window framed in blue while the other side of the shot, which features the window of Myeong-ja’s room, is a deep red.  The dark crimson signals his dark passion for her, while also foreshadowing the narrative’s macabre twists.  The calm blue, on the other hand, signifies the cooling of his attraction to his wife.   Myeong-ja then walks in with a red tray and serves the couple a ginseng-infused aphrodisiac, further reinforcing her position as the catalyst for the dark dissolution of the family unit.

Just like the original, Woman of Fire is not a visually explicit picture, and while this is almost certainly a product of the reality of what could be depicted on screen at the time, both films revel in the power of suggestion, which is often far more powerful that the real thing.  Oldboy (2003), one of the most popular Korean films of the last 20 years, is a very good reminder of this.  Kim is very clever in how he depicts certain actions.  For instance the sex scenes typically heat up where we can see the characters until they move, or in the instance of the rape are dragged off, to a mattress that is positioned just behind a blurred window.  We can still follow the action and in our position as voyeurs the notion of forbidden pleasure is amplified.  These scenes, though safe from the censor (relatively speaking) are perhaps more effective than they would be within clear view.

At the heart of Woman of Fire, as well as The Housemaid, is the notion of sin.   The main protagonists are each corrupted and steadily stray from their moral centers as the narrative unfurls.  Throughout the film sin is almost depicted as an infectious disease.  Myeong-ja and her friend catch the bug early on while they are still in the countryside.  They pass by and admire a pair of young steelsmiths who hammer away at red hot metal with their shirts off and a moment later the men run after them and attempt to rape them.  Myeong-ja brings this malaise into the middleclass home and upsets its social order, contaminating its residents with her sin.  Other characters, such as the precocious singer and a man looking to avail of a prostitute, also pass through the home, corrupting it further in the process.  During a few of the film’s most important scenes, characters express a desperate thirst and clamour for water, as if in a final attempt to purify themselves, but it is already too late.

Both of Kim’s films present the girls from the countryside as depraved characters who clash with the propriety of the urban middle class.  At the start of Woman of Fire, a detective expresses his disdain for country girls who come to city and live off their bodies.  However, by the narrative’s end it is clear that be they repressed or not, each character, no matter their background, is governed by their dark desires.

Kim’s extraordinary film is well served by its striking cinematography, full of expressive colours, dutch (heavy) angles and vivid staging.  He builds tension and even terror through the various, carefully orchestrated elements of his mise-en-scene but also with his charged use of montage, where he splices in vivid images, which evoke passion, lust, death and despair, during some of the film’s crucial moments.  It may not have quite the immediacy of the original but make no mistake about it, Woman of Fire is a classic of Korean cinema, courtesy of one of its finest craftsmen.

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