Sunday, November 18, 2012

KOFA Treasures: Kim Soo-yong's The Seaside Village (갯마을, Gaenmaeul) 1965

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

During this year's 14th Udine Far Easy Film Festival I had the great privilege and pleasure of attending Darcy Paquet’s 1970s Korean cinema retrospective. As it turns out, among the ten features presented, some of my favorites were island dramas.  The three that were programmed (Iodo, 1977; Splendid Outing, 1978; and The Divine Bow, 1979) were fascinating works that were both quasi-horrors and compelling films about women, which highlighted their marginalized roles in society.  Characters in these films, especially women, were either transplanted to remote fishing islands, which for them became sites of horror, or grew up there without ever leaving, any attempts at escape doomed from the outset.

Kim Soo-young was behind Splendid Outing, a film that shares an enormous amount in common with Bedevilled (2010), to the point where it would not surprise me if it was actually the blueprint for Jang Chul-soo’s incendiary film. However, long before that, Kim made The Seaside Village, a stunning and deeply textured work from 1960s Korean cinema, which dabbles in some taboos that would likely not have been tolerated by the government at the time.

The Seaside Village is a frank and heady examination of sexuality that also serves as powerful feminist text, and a surprising one at that considering the era it was produced in.  Island dramas are no strangers to representations of sexual frustration and the cloistered location in Kim’s film, as well as its lack of male suitors, bring physical desire to the fore.  The island is permanently battered by wave after wave, a well-recognized metaphor for sexuality.  The ocean symbolizing motherhood while the lapping waves represent our perpetual swells of desire.

A remote fishing island is home to a largely female-population. Men are frequently lost to the ocean as stubbornly going out to sea in the face of great danger. Young widows are made and quickly learn the hardships of life. The protagonists on this island, who are for the most part widowed women, cannot escape their corporeal longings. One such widow (becoming one after a mere ten days of marriage) soon falls into the clutches of a predatory male suitor. They soon leave for the mainland but the young girl receives more unwanted attention.

The most surprising and memorable element of The Seaside Village is it’s coy brush with lesbianism. With so many widows on the island and so little opportunity for them quell their desires due to its depleted male population, their bond with another becomes more than friendship. Their interactions, such as during their breaks as they lie on another and freely touch each other’s skin, take on a very physical nature.

Having to date only seen a few Korean films from the 1960s, films like The Seaside Village have shown me how technically competent the Korean film industry already was some 50 years ago. I used to think the country’s cinematographical advances were only a recent phenomenon and my first taste of earlier works from the 1990s and 1980s only seemed to confirm this. However, digging further back has revealed a wealth of sublime mise-en-scene. Kim Ki-young’s vivid cinematography and now Kim’s brilliant and lyrical compositions have shown me that modern Korean cinema’s technical astuteness does indeed have some root in the industry’s past even if this aesthetic tradition was somewhat abandoned during the intervening decades.

In many ways the film foreshadows Splendid Outing and other subsequent Korean island dramas, such as Kim Ki-young’s Iodo (1977) and Im Kwon-taek’s The Divine Bow (1978), not least for its island fishing community setting but also its exploration of gender roles and representation of shamanism. Further proof that Kim Soo-yong is a filmmaker (among many other older Korean cineastes) who deserves be discovered by a wider, international audience, The Seaside Village is a stark and beautiful gem of classic Korean cinema.


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