Enough about 2008 already. Now let's move on to 1960...
My idea of a classic Korean film might be something from the mid-90s. As a matter of fact, I think the two 'oldest' Korean films I have seen are 301/302 and A Single Spark, both from 1995 (unless you count the classic North Korean kaiju film Pulgasari from 1985.) Pleasantly distracted by the offerings of Contemporary Korean film, I have rarely given a thought to the history of Korean cinema. It goes without saying that classic Korean cinema doesn't have nearly the recognition of classic Japanese cinema. Part of the problem is distribution, with few pre-1990s Korean films making it across the Pacific. The bigger problem may be that 35% of Korean films made since 1910 are simply gone: products of a fragile medium and a tumultuous century.
Under these circumstances, I was surprised to see Yu Hyun-mok's Stray Bullet (more commonly known as Aimless Bullet or simply by its Korean name Obaltan) out on DVD in the US. It's been out for some time on the Cinema Epoch label that is also responsible for the Chinese Film Classics series. Considered one of the best Korean films ever made, Stray Bullet is a relentless melodrama that owes a large debt to Italian Neorealism. Its examination of social strife is so resolute that reports of it being banned at the time come at no surprise.
Stray Bullet takes place in urban South Korea shortly after the end of the Korean War. The economy and society are reeling from the effects of a very physical yet also a highly ideological struggle. At the heart of the film is one seven-member family desperately living from day to day. Each member represent a different perspective on what can only be called the worst of times.
Chul Ho is the oldest brother in the family and the only bread winner. He works long tireless hours as an accountant for a salary that barely sustains everyone. His misery is only heightened by the fact that he lives with a painful toothache he can't afford to fix. His young daughter is painfully hopeful that she will get a new pair of shoes, and his wife is malnourished and pregnant. She diligently collects her husbands earnings, but barely says a word throughout the entire film. It seems less a case of subservience, than simply 'if you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all.' Chul Ho's brother, Yong Ho, is a war veteran. He spends most of his time drinking with his army buddies and being nostalgic about their time as heroes. Chul Ho and Yong Ho also have a young brother who has given up his education to sell newspapers on the street. Their sister, Myong Sook, is more pragmatic about the situation. Her boyfriend has been emasculated by a war injury and refuses to marry. Giving up hope on ever having a family, she turns to prostitution to support herself. Lastly, there is the matriarch, Chul Ho's mother. Bedridden, she wakes every ten minutes or so to wail, "Let's get out of here! Let's get out of here!" and then falls back into a catatonic state. She is the symbolic cornerstone of the film and an ominous reminder of what the family has already been through.
The set up does not paint a very pretty picture, and it hardly gets any better. Most of the film focuses on Yong Ho's psychological struggle to find a place in society after the war. When a friend sets up an opportunity for him to act in a movie, Yong Ho becomes furious at the director's intentions to trivialize and exploit his experience as a war veteran. In a rare moment of lightheartedness, Yong Ho runs into a nurse who treated him during the war. Their bond seems to open the door to some sort of hope for happiness only to be slammed shut again.
Stray Bullet is a harsh social critique, and is revered because of it. Unfortunately, the print the DVD was taken from is not the best. It's a black and white film, and in cases of extreme darkness the image is reduced to mud. The opposite is also true, where the brightest images simply get washed out. This is all to be expected. Much like Epoch's Chinese Film Classic DVDs, without the funding to restore the films, I'm simply glad that something exists. It states at the beginning of the DVD that it is taken from a festival print that was recovered. The subtitles were burnt into the print, but there are also selectable subtitles in yellow that are probably a little easier to read.
Facts come from Darcy Paquet's research here and here. Also find a robust amount of information on the Korean Film Councils website here.