"Like all forms of art, the film that does not recognize people or human endeavor is completely false. It is the same with government.” – Ha Gil-Jong
Ha Gil-Jong (1941-1979) was one of the major Korean artists of the 1970s, a dark, brutally oppressive yet absolutely formative period in South Korean cultural and intellectual history. Equally gifted as a poet and writer as he was as a filmmaker, Ha introduced a new sensibility and sophistication into Korean cinema at a moment when the Chungmuro (the Seoul home to the major production companies) industry seemed, to many, to have utterly stagnated. Ha’s distinct artistic vision was strikingly announced by his first feature, The Pollen of Flowers, which drew openly and unexpectedly from traditions of the European art film, surrealism, symbolist poetry and popular Korean film genres. While Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) clearly echoes throughout The Pollen of Flowers’ feverish huis-clos narrative about a handsome wraithlike stranger systematically bewitching each member of an incestuous household, Ha’s film also creatively engages the mode of “grotesque melodrama” pioneered by his maverick elder Kim Ki-Young. A savage study of sexual deviancy and sadomasochism, The Pollen of Flowers ignited a firestorm of controversy, simultaneously announcing Ha as a radical visionary, an icon for critics and young audiences alike, and a dangerous subversive to be viciously policed by government censors. All of Ha’s films would, indeed, suffer extreme censorship and be severely altered from his intended final versions. Ha’s bitter struggles to maintain artistic freedom are legible in the deep scars that wound, yet never fully compromise, his seven completed films, poignantly embodying the imperiled status of the artist and intellectual in Korea during the repressive Park Chung-Hee dictatorship.
Orphaned as a child by the early death of both parents, Ha was driven by a fierce sense of self-reliance and a close bond with his siblings, especially his younger brother Ha Myung-Joong, who would later become a prominent actor and star in Ha Gil-Jong’s first films. The winding path that ultimately led Ha to cinema began with his undergraduate studies in French Literature at the prestigious Seoul National University, an important meeting place for many of the artists and intellectuals who would become South Korea’s most outspoken dissident voices. Ha’s love of poetry grew only more ardent as he discovered the works of Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Apollinaire, poets he would cherish and frequently reference throughout his films. A year into his studies Ha was swept into the April Revolution, the civilian and student-led protest movement that successfully overthrew the anti-Communist strongman Rhee Syngman, giving way to Korea’s first and only parliamentary government, which in turn was swiftly overthrown, a mere eight months later, by a military coup led by Park Chung-Hee. The exhilarating yet tragic experience of the April Revolution would profoundly shape the political consciousness and imagination of Ha and his generation, resonating deeply within Ha’s films in the recurrent figure of a helpless and defeated antihero.
While increasingly dedicating himself to poetry—self-publishing the now-classic volume A Past Principle for the Womb—Ha also forged plans to leave Korea, securing a job at Air France in order to move briefly to Paris at a time when it was difficult for average South Koreans to travel abroad. From France, Ha set out for the US and found his way to the Film Studies program at the University of California, Los Angeles, receiving an MA for his thesis “An Essay on the Poetic Tendency in Documentary Film,” a project influenced by his time as teaching assistant to legendary British documentarian Basil Wright. Ha stayed on at UCLA to complete an MFA in film, studying alongside classmates Francis Ford Coppola and Jim Morrison, and making a name for himself with a series of avant-garde shorts. His thesis film The Ritual of a Soldier won him a coveted award and job offer from MGM, which Ha refused. Unhappy in a country where he experienced frequent racism, Ha returned to Korea and immediately rejoined the now-expanded circle formed by his artist and intellectual friends.
Upon his return Ha joined forces with likeminded critics and filmmakers including Lee Jang-Ho and Kim Ho-Seon to found the Young Sang Sidae (Visual Era) group, a collective centered around a short-lived and eponymous publication (1975-78) dedicated to critically reviewing and engaging contemporary films. Led by Ha, the collective of writers and directors also regularly screened and discussed avant-garde cinema and dedicated itself to inventing creative new ways to give authentic cinematic voice to their generation, despite the pressure to compromise exerted by the motion picture industry and censorship authorities. Inspired by the Nouvelle Vague and the New American Cinema, Ha championed an auteurist idea of art cinema unheard of in Korea’s commercially orientated film industry. Ha, moreover, argued for a mode of cinema urgently engaged with its contemporary moment and set in opposition to the stagnant mainstream, not simply through subject matter, but through film language itself, which he felt needed to be constantly reinvented. The purest expression of the collective’s spirit is found in the early films of Ha, Lee and Kim Ho-Seon and their similar embrace of experimental techniques to inject a new urgency into their explorations of contemporary youth and urban life. An especially vivid expression of the Young Sang Sidae spirit is Ha’s best-known film March of Fools, a critical-yet-affectionate portrait of drifting university students that unexpectedly became Ha’s first commercial hit.
Unfortunately the success of March of Fools raised the stakes dangerously for Ha, with his next two films, the daring folktale The Ascension of Han-Ne and his romantic comedy I am Looking for a Bride meeting fierce resistance from the censors and a puzzled reception by critics and industry producers who demanded youth-oriented films and refused to green-light any future projects. Desperate for work, Ha accepted the entreaties of veteran producer Hwang Gil-Song to direct a sequel to Lee Jang-Ho’s popular Heavenly Homecoming to Stars, finding consolation in Hwang’s hiring of the source novel’s writer, and Ha’s friend, Choi In-Ho, in addition to famed cinematographer Chung Il-Sung. After the tremendous success of Heavenly Homecoming to Stars 2, Hwang pressured Ha to direct an additional sequel, this time to his own March of Fools, and Ha reluctantly signed on, making what would be his last work, Byung-Tae and Young-Ja. Already a hard drinker, Ha drowned his frustrations in alcohol, triggering the brain aneurysm which that would take his life at the early age of thirty-eight, just as the censored version of Byung-Tae and Young-Ja was opening to great acclaim in Seoul theaters. Just before he died, Ha recalled attending a public screening of his last film and bursting into tears as he recognized his own lost youth in his stubbornly innocent characters.
Ha has been remembered and revered by many as a tragic figure, a Jean Vigo of the Korean cinema, a youthful artist who emerged sui generis to shatter taboos and invent bold, poetically inspired cinematographic forms before his sudden death. Yet the mythologization of Ha as a romantic figure risks undercutting his deeply principled and political mode of filmmaking and the ways his films strategically engaged in a clear yet complex dialogue with their contemporary moment. In this way, for example, Ha’s first two films—The Pollen of Flowers and Vow of Chastity, AKA Her Fidelity
—can be taken as a richly ambiguous allegorical diptych, each a portrait of a closed community ruled by a tyrannical male who treats with special cruelty the women he reduces to sexualized objects to be abused and discarded. One can, and should, read in these films strong critiques not only of the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship but also of Korea’s troubled and deep history of systematic misogyny. Such pointed yet symbolically nuanced interventions recur throughout all of Ha’s films as expressions of the politically astute art cinema that remains his greatest legacy, resonating in Korean cinema today, in the work of such directors as Lee Chang-Dong and Bong Joon-Ho.
While offering the first US retrospective of the films of Ha Gil-Jong, this program also contextualizes Ha’s work within a larger series of films by his contemporaries, both fellow April Generation filmmakers such as Lee Jang-Ho and Kim Ho-Seon, as well as older directors including Ha’s idols Kim Ki-Young and Yoo Hyeon-Mok. Seen together, these films trace profound shifts across Korean cinema of the 1970s, revealing the emergence of a new political and aesthetic consciousness in Korean filmmakers as they began to reinvent genre and narrative traditions, led by the singular vision and example of Ha Gil-Jong. – Haden Guest
Special Thanks: Jung Min-Hwa—Korean Film Archive; Sun Joo Kim, Susan Laurence and Jina Kim—Korea Institute, Harvard; Soon-Mi Yoo
All prints courtesy the Korean Film Archive.
Directed by Ha Gil-Jong. With Ha Myung-Joong, Nam Goong-Won, Choi Ji-Hee
South Korea 1972, DCP, color, 89 min. Korean with English subtitles
Ha’s taboo-defying first feature boldly announced his subversive intention with its feverishly stylized and symbolically overripe story of a corrupt bisexual businessman smitten by his young male secretary but also blindly devoted to his pampered mistress, who he keeps in a luxurious suburban hideaway together with her comely younger sister and a strangely inquisitive maid. The businessman’s fateful decision to bring his handsome protégée into his mistress’ nest triggers a frenzied psychosexual cyclone of jealousy and self-immolating desire that threatens to destroy everything in its wake. Ha’s inventive dialogue with Pasolini’s Teorema drew the ire of critics who simplistically accused him of plagiarism while somehow missing Ha’s pointed homage to Kim Ki-Young’s Freudian horror psychodramas (clearly signaled by the figure of the rat-wielding jealous maid, played by venerable character actress Yeo Woon-Kye). While frequently cited as the first Korean film to openly feature a homosexual relationship, The Pollen of Flowers must also be recognized as a lethal attack on the Park Chung-Hee regime, not-so-subtly evoked by the mistress’ mansion, which shares the same “Blue House” moniker as the official South Korean presidential residence. The role of the bewitching young secretary is given haunting authenticity by Ha’s talented brother, Ha Myung-Joong, who also rescued the struggling production by mortgaging his own home. The moody score by psychedelic rock legend Shin Joong-Hyun evokes the fever-dream trance sustained throughout Ha’s dark allegory of abusive power and frustrated desire.
Directed by Kim Ki-Young. With Nam Goong-Won, Jeon Gye-Hyeon, Yoon Yeo-Jeong
South Korea 1971, DCP, color, 98 min. Korean with English subtitles
The second part of Kim Ki-Young’s so-called “Housemaid Trilogy,” Woman of Fire is a lurid, frightening and audaciously stylized reimagining of his 1960 cult classic, a reconfiguration and sharpening of the razor edges of The Housemaid’s vicious love triangle, now relocated to an industrialized chicken farm run by a controlling wife who hires a young country girl as maid and chaperone for her composer husband, who she suspects of infidelity. When the girl falls victim to the urbanite composer’s advances, the dark forces smoldering beneath the flimsy façade of bourgeois domesticity are unleashed to devastating effect. Woman of Fire perversely embodies the politicized mode of “grotesque melodrama” invented by Kim Ki-Young, who carefully intensifies and transforms his twisted tale of murder and raw desire into a fable of seething class inequity. A Godardian rhythm of vivid reds and blues punctuates the film together with aggressive Pop-style photomontages that creatively evoke brutal violence while nimbly avoiding censorship.
Directed by Ha Gil-Jong. With Yun Mun-Seop, Ha Jae-Young, Lee Young-Ok
South Korea 1975, 35mm, color, 117 min. Korean with English subtitles
A beloved classic of Seventies Korean cinema, March of Fools offers a poignant yet cutting portrait of wayward university students and a vivid document of youth culture during the final years of the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship. Based on a popular serialized novel by Choi In-Ho, March of Fools shifts gently between picaresque comedy and melancholy lyricism as it follows two college friends’ frustrated search for love and meaning in a world that seems to have no place for them. Ha’s extensive research in classrooms and Shinchon college bars results in a rich, detailed authenticity: the bell-bottom jeans, draft beer, electric guitars and Western-style ballads that were icons of Seventies Korean youth and its seemingly futile resistance to the dominant regime. Central to Ha’s direct appeal to youth audiences was his striking use of contemporary music throughout the film, including now-classic songs composed for the film by folk singer Song Chang-Sik and promptly excised and banned outright by the censors. Defying the censorship of a full thirty minutes from his final cut, Ha reinserted the removed footage in a clandestine screening unfortunately raided by the authorities, who seized the print and destroyed the controversial footage.
Directed by Kim Ho-Seon. With Yeom Bok-Soon, Song Jae-Ho, Choi Bool-Am
South Korea 1975, 35mm, color, 103 min. Korean with English subtitles
The remarkable debut film of Ha’s friend and fellow Young Sang Sidae founder Kim Ho-Seon (b. 1941) is a striking feminist intervention that carefully transformed its seemingly template story of a young woman’s “fall” into an urgent plea for desperate Korean women pulled into predatory and exploitative traps. Adapting a best-selling book by Cho Seon-Jak, a writer especially sensitive to women’s stories, Kim Ho-Seon gave further sociological and sympathetic dimensions to the original story of a young woman’s struggles to fend off the men who prey upon her innocence. Emotionally searing yet never exploitative, Yeong-Ja’s Heydays is emblematic of the Young Sang Sidae Group’s desire to use popular cinema to raise consciousness and advance more avant-garde modes of art cinema. The film’s startlingly vérité-style opening featuring a back alley police raid of scantily clad prostitutes summarizes Kim Ho-Seon’s signature brand of distancingly raw sexuality and visual shock tactics, an avant-garde edge honed while working as assistant director for firebrand veteran Yoo Hyeon-Mok. The tremendous box office success of Yeong-Ja’s Heydays unfortunately gave birth to a wave of less progressive and crassly titillating “hostess melodramas” that continued to be made into the 1980s and with which Kim Ho-Seon’s film is often mistakenly grouped.
Directed by Kim Su-Yong. With Yoon Jeong-Hee, Shin Seong-Il, Ju Jeung-Ryu
South Korea 1977, DCP, color, 76 min. Korean with English subtitles
One of the most vital and haunting visions of everyday life under the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship, Night Journey is a portrait of soul-crushing conformism and psychosexual repression centered upon two unmarried bank employees who live together yet are forced by social pressures to conceal their “unofficial” relationship from their office. Kim Su-Yong succinctly diagnoses a malignant moral and cultural decay in the embittered couple, whose drunken quarrels are their only release from their daily grind of mind-numbing money counting, humiliating sexist innuendo, and the rigidly enforced ritual of after-work drinking. A stylish and effective adaptation of Kim Seung-Ok’s (b. 1941) eponymous novel, Night Journey offers the figure of the restless wife, given poignant intensity by Yoon Jeong-Hee, as a cautionary emblem of the frustrated dreams shared by a generation unable to escape or even express their true anguish. Completed in 1974, Night Journey was rejected outright by censors who decried its bleak pessimism and only released the film in a truncated version four years later. A kindred spirit to the Young Sang Sidae group, Kim Su-Yong was mentor to Kim Ho-Seon, who worked as an assistant director on Night Journey.
Directed by Yoo Hyeon-Mok. With Ha Myung-Joong, Kim Jin-Kyu, Ko Eun-Ah
South Korea 1975, 35mm, color, 95 min. Korean with English subtitles
One of the pioneering figures of modern Korean cinema, Yoo Hyeon-Mok (b. 1925) anticipated and complimented the search of the Young Sang Sidae directors for a wholly new film language with his radical breakthrough film Aimless Bullet (1961) and late career masterworks such as Flame, which earned Yoo a coveted Daejoong Film Award, South Korea’s equivalent of the Oscar. In Flame, Yoo makes daring use of jagged first-person flashbacks to reanimate 20th century Korea’s traumatic history of colonial subjugation through the dark paranoia and confused past of a mysterious, unidentified soldier wandering through a barren mountainscape and struggling to understand the violence and betrayal that made him a fugitive.
Directed by Ha Gil-Jong. With Ha Myung-Joong, Park Ji-Yeong, Lee Young-Ok
South Korea 1973, 35mm, color, 96 min. Korean with English subtitles
The lesser known of Ha Gil-Jong’s early masterworks is Vow of Chastity, a dark revenge saga set during the ancient Three Kingdom Period (220-280 AD) yet pointedly contemporary in its harsh critique of military authority and brutality towards women. Recalling the earlier “acid Westerns” of Monte Hellman and the New American Cinema Ha discovered in Los Angeles and championed as a film critic, Vow of Chastity refashions recognizable genre tropes—here from Hong Kong and Taiwanese martial arts films—into incendiary political metaphor, giving powerful yet ambiguously allegorical valence to its story of a returned soldier’s discovery that his family and village have been ravaged by a cruel warlord. Ha’s younger brother Ha Myung-Joong again defies dominant screen stereotypes as the embittered and ghostly solider who embodies the crushing defeat that remains the major theme of Ha’s films. So brutal and disturbing were extended scenes of savage pillaging and rape by unfettered soldiers that twenty minutes were cut by government censors, who were unable to pinpoint the film’s subversive attack on the oppressive Park Chung-Hee regime. The central role of music in Ha’s mood-driven cinema is showcased by the starkly emotive and historically accurate soundtrack that he commissioned from gayageum legend Hwang Byungki and famed pansori singer Kim So-Hee.
Directed by Kim Su-Yong. With Yoon Jeong-Hee, Lee Dae-Keun, Lee Young-Ha
South Korea 1978, 35mm, b/w, 90 min. Korean with English subtitles
The deep affinities of veteran filmmaker Kim Su-Yong (b. 1929-) to the Young Sang Sidae movement are apparent in his sharply feminist and hallucinatory late Seventies fable of an overworked female executive haunted by strange dreams, one of which compels her to a remote fishing village where she is inexplicably kidnapped to a remote South Sea island and sold to a peasant farmer. The return of the primitive repressed, which recurs insistently throughout 1970s Korean cinema, takes on jarring new dimensions in A Splendid Outing, whose stark contrast between the archaic rural and the overdeveloped urban ambiguously signals the dangers of South Korea’s accelerated development and its blindness to the extreme stratifications reconfiguring the postwar nation. The role of the beleaguered executive is sensitively played by famed actress Yoon Jeong-Hee—best known in the US for her award-winning lead performance in Lee Chang-Dong’s Poetry (2010).
Directed by Ha Gil-Jong. With Hah Myung-Joong, Hwang Hae, Jeon Young-Sun
South Korea 1977, 35mm, color, 96 min. Korean with English subtitles
Ha’s personal favorite among his own films was The Ascension of Han-Ne, which he brashly declared to be the greatest Korean film of the 1970s, together with Kim Ki-Young’s masterpiece I-Eodo, released the same year. In The Ascension of Han-Ne, Ha embraced Kim’s (and Shohei Imamura’s) abiding fascination with the “primitive” past as an insightfully distorting mirror of the present, delving deep into the folkloric and mythological imagination of 19th century Joseon Korea and cutting right to the bone of the patriarchal Confucianism undergirding Korean society and politics to this very day. As in Vow of Chastity, Ha’s evocation of the distant past is purposefully minimalist and sharply pointed to the present with its story of an innocent young man who rescues a young maiden from suicide only to discover that they both are caught in a viciously incestuous trap of deceit and betrayal controlled by a corrupt shaman. The Ascension of Han-Ne makes clear Ha’s belief in popular cinema’s radical power to awaken consciousness in its transformation of genre formulas—here the ghost story and horror film—into profound questions about the legacy of Korea’s most deeply seated cultural traditions.
Directed by Kim Ki-Young. With Lee Hwa-Shi, Kim Jeong-Cheol, Choi Yun-Seok
South Korea 1977, 35mm, color, 110 min. Korean with English subtitles
“When you autopsy human nature, black blood will flow out. That is what we call human desire.” – Kim Ki-Young
Kim Ki-Young’s visionary cinema surged to a delirious peak with the greatest of his 1970s films, I-eodo, a remarkable study of primal desire and the death drive that was revered as a “transcendent” masterpiece by Ha Gil-Jong. Kim Ki-Young’s penchant for crazed, almost absurdist, narratives is given full range in I-eodo, which follows the unthinkable consequences of a zealous hotel developer’s misguided decision to name his Jeju Island resort after the mythical I-eo Island, which legend claims to be visible only by the dead. Accused of murder, the developer can only clear his name by traveling to the sinisterly beckoning island ruled, he discovers, by a mysterious female shaman. Garishly stylized, I-eodo intensifies its desperate, searching energy through the distorting cinematography of Kim Ki-Young regular Jung Il-Sung, making dazzling use of bright color gels and violent close-ups, and, through its jagged flashback narrative, pulled ever backwards by a series of sharp, traumatic memories. Although the film’s astonishing penultimate scene was, quite predictably, removed by government censors, an uncensored print survived in Japan and provided the source for the restored print screening tonight. Featuring Housemaid star Lee Hwa-Shi, I-eodo affirms Kim Ki-Young’s status as himself a kind of cinematic shaman, able to conjure and reanimate the darkest primal forces from Korean history and culture.
Directed by Lee Jang-Ho. With Ahn In-Sook, Shin Seong-Il, Yoon Il-Bong
South Korea 1974, DCP, color, 105 min. Korean with English subtitles
The remarkable debut film by Young Sang Sidae member Lee Jang-Ho (b. 1945) is among 1970s Korean cinema’s most stylistically radically films—using dizzying flashbacks, extreme camera angles, avant-garde montage and an often distorted soundtrack to render vivid the intense emotions and circumstances of its now-iconic main characters, the beautiful and long-suffering Gyeong-A and the moody painter Mun-Oh, the latter the seemingly one sympathetic soul in a cold universe. Revered in Korea, Heavenly Homecoming to Stars is, together with March of Fools, a key expression of the emergent youth culture that, like Ha Gil-Jong’s classic, clearly shares its characters’ strong distrust of tradition and authority.
Directed by Ha Gil-Jong. With Ha Jae-Young, Yoon Mi-Ra, Seo Na-Mi
South Korea 1976, 35mm, color, 100 min. Korean with English subtitles
The surprise commercial success of March of Fools encouraged Ha to deliberately attempt a popular genre film, a romantic comedy about a naïve young country bumpkin who travels to Seoul in a hopelessly idealized search for a sophisticated urban bride. After confusing and unsuccessful encounters with several attractive Seoulites, the young hick meets but instinctually resists a country girl, accelerating Ha’s satire of Korea’s industrial urbanization and the unyielding class stratification that was its most lasting result. Unjustly forgotten, I Am Looking for a Bride is a fascinating minor work that exemplifies the new pressures placed on popular genre formulas by Korea’s first generation of self-declared auteurs. The film’s opening sequence is stunning, a lyrical documentary sequence shot on and around the campus of Ehwa Woman’s University that reveals Ha’s deep interest in the kind of docu-fiction pioneered by the Italian neo-realists he so revered.
Directed by Ha Gil-Jong. With Shin Sung-Il, Jang Mi-Hie, Yun Il-Bong
South Korea 1978, 35mm, color, 120 min. Korean with English subtitles
After the poor reception of I Am Looking for a Bride and The Ascension of Han-Ne, Ha Gil-Jong became persona non grata to the Chungmuro studios and was forced by his circumstances to accept the offer to direct a sequel to Lee Chang-Ho’s popular Heavenly Homecoming to Stars. Despite the compromised situation, Ha was reunited with novelist Choi In-Ho (March of Fools) and singer-songwriter Song Chang-Shik, who composed the film’s plaintive theme song. Reviving the ill-fated painter from the original film, Choi and Ha craft a dark melodrama about his love with a troubled young woman just released from a mental hospital. Ha provocatively included open quotes from art films he revered, including a famous moment from David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and a scene in the mental hospital of patients playing volleyball Antonioni-style, without a ball.
Directed by Ha Gil-Jong. With Sohn Jeong-Hwan, Lee Young-Ok, Han Jin-Hui
South Korea 1979, 35mm, color, 115 min. Korean with English subtitles
Ha’s final film predicted a possible new direction, a deliberate melding of commercial genre and art cinema that, in fact, many of his Young Sang Sidae colleagues would later follow. A sequel to March of Fools centered around the lovers united then separated in that film’s iconic ending, Byongtae and Younja uses the wavering course of their unsteady romance to explore the extreme social pressures placed upon college graduates. A philosophy graduate unable to find work or meaning as a professional, Byongtae instead channels his energies into his love for Younja with a blind determination that results in the extended cliffhanger ending, a race against a rival lover to the “engagement hall” where the bride-to-be awaits. Although directed with a gentler touch than Ha’s other films, Byongtae and Younja affirms his deep sympathy for those resigned and almost certainly defeated heroes who represent the struggle of Korea’s new generation. Ha once again quoted provocatively, and with pointed irony, from iconic art cinema: here, Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967).
The screening will be followed by a roundtable discussion with HFA Director Haden Guest; Ji-Eun Lee, Visiting Associate Professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard and Associate Professor of Korean Language and Literature, Washington University in St. Louis; Soon-Mi Yoo, Associate Professor (Film/Video), Massachusetts College of Art and Design; and Alexander Zahlten, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.