The absurdly long-overdue second installment of Films from the Peninsula has finally arrived! In keeping with this column’s aim of recommending classics in Korean film history (the first of which was Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine), I’ve chosen a film that’s deservedly regarded as the greatest South Korean film ever — Yu Hyun-mok’s Aimless Bullet, a 1961, post-Korean-War film that delves deep into said war’s long-rooted national trauma, and serves even to this day as a symbol of the country’s incredibly tumultuous history.
“The arcs in [South Korea’s] history have been swift, riddled by numerous major incidents… we’re living in such dramatic times, and have such a tumultuous history.” — Bong Joon-ho
One thing to note about the extreme tendencies of South Korean cinema is that they are mostly reflective of the country’s equally-as-extreme past. At the heart of many pivotal events in the Koreas’ modern history are international conflicts that irrevocably scarred Korea as a whole — the Second World War, for instance, saw Imperial Japan brutally invading its neighboring countries, Korea included, in its conquest for a consolidated Eastern empire, and it sought to rid Korea of every trace of its culture in the name of Japanese nationalism. Earning independence after Japan’s surrender by no means served as the end of things, however; the Cold War’s expanding reach split Korea in two through a proxy war we now know as the Korean War fought between North and South Korea, a conflict whose resulting stigmas and national traumas have continued to make Korean unification an enormously difficult task.
It’s somewhat easy nowadays to look at a list of modern South Korean blockbusters and pick out at least one that deals with tensions between North and South Korea, but more often than not, these films tend to examine the ongoing ramifications of the war through a diplomacy-centric perspective. (Take the Steel Rain series, for instance, or the recent release of Ryoo Seung-wan’s Escape from Mogadishu.) That isn’t the case, however, for Aimless Bullet (otherwise known as Obaltan, the pronunciation of the film’s Korean title, 오발탄), based on the novel by author Yi Beom-Seon, which was among the first South Korean films to be released in the war’s immediate aftermath, and focuses more on the physical and emotional scars inflicted on those who were most directly affected by the war, from a time when diplomacy was a total impossibility. The film also released not long after the 12-year-long authoritarian rule of Rhee Syngman, the first democratically elected president of South Korea, and at the tail-end of a six-year period of significant artistic freedom in Korean cinema; it feels inevitable, therefore, than an air of unfiltered malaise not unlike that of post-war cinema in other countries should permeate every inch of this film’s construction.
Aimless Bullet is as haunting as it is a product of its time — a microcosmic look at a family torn asunder by their country’s subtly hostile attitudes towards veterans, the trauma of experiencing the war first-hand, and the sheer pain of continuing to exist in a society struggling to regain its footing. It is not only a quintessential piece of Korean cinema, but also of post-war cinema and Korean film history; one whose raw, indelibly powerful examination into the extreme changes in Korea’s sociopolitical landscape makes it a historically symbolic film, representing Korea immediately following its most traumatic civil war, and a mirror to the South Korea that exists today.
II: The Film Itself
The first few minutes of Aimless Bullet aren’t about the family featured at the core of its story — rather, the film opens on the sight of a group of veterans forced out of a bar after a night of raucously heavy drinking, led by their Commander, Gyeong-sik (Yoon Il-bong), whose injuries from the war have now left him in crutches, and who shows no interest now in maintaining his former military title. As they make their way down darkened late-night streets, they reminisce about their service in the war while simultaneously musing over its futility — one of them forlornly sings ‘Rest in Peace Comrades’/’전우야 잘자라’, a Korean War song that mourns the lives of fellow soldiers lost in battle, littered with lyrics such as “Walking over comrades’ corpses / We move forward and forward” that make this requiem only possible for these soldiers to sing under the influence of countless bottles of liquor. Moments later, Gyeong-sik meets with his fiancée, Myeong-suk (Seo Ae-ja), who’s desperate to reconnect with him after his trauma-rooted emotional detachment, and he forlornly breaks off his engagement with her, calling himself a burden to her as a result of his injuries and scars before walking off solemnly.
It’s only after this dreary tone-setter that Aimless Bullet introduces us to Cheol-ho (Kim Jin-kyu), one of our protagonists and Myeong-suk’s older brother, an accountant burdened with having to support every member of his family in an impoverished village scarred by damage from the war — filmed with a black-and-white format that drowns nighttime landscapes in chiaroscuro-dissected shadows and daytime cityscapes with an unsettlingly ethereal, fog-like haze. For one, there’s his younger brother, Young-ho (Choi Mu-ryong), a war veteran who’s urgently looking for some place to work, but is being turned away at every opportunity — on the other hand, their deeply trauma-wracked mother (Noh Jae-shin) remains bed-ridden, with the only words she wearily utters being a repeated series of “Let’s go!”‘s as she reflexively recoils in pain and fear each and every time. Myeong-suk is also working as a prostitute, taking American clients rather than Korean men because of the significantly greater pay it brings. Cheol-ho is himself stricken by a toothache that impedes much of his daily life, but cannot go to the dentist to resolve it, despite Young-ho’s pleas that the cost of keeping the tooth will likely be far greater than anything Cheol-ho will end up paying, even if the expenses are far beyond what little he already has.
Cheol-ho’s toothache, not to mention his financial and emotional malaise of existing in poverty within a devastated country, eventually serves as the symbolic complement to the film’s eventual focus on Young-ho — a character whose representation of Korean War veterans and their inability to re-assimilate into everyday life remains a harrowing reminder of how cruelly yet systematically institutions and individuals exploit traumatized survivors of war. Perhaps the first — and the most metatextual — major example of this is a sequence where Young-ho, after meeting with an actress named Miri (Kim Hye-jeong) to get a job as a performer, ends up on the set of a film where the protagonist just so happens to be a disabled war veteran.
In the moments that follow, the film’s director and Miri speak with off-putting aloofness about how Young-ho and his scars from the war make him pitch-perfect for the role, considering themselves lucky to have found him for his bullet wounds — but Young-ho reacts with indignant rage, asking that the director change the story so that the protagonist has “no eyes, no nose, and no legs,” and all that remains of him to capture are his scars, before storming off and returning to square one. It’s a stirringly telling moment early on in the story: Yu’s decision to incorporate a film production into his narrative of exploitation and destitution may very well be a critique of the industry’s propensity at the time to propagandize and glamorize the still-open wounds of the Korean War, but it also serves as a confident affirmation to the audience of its refusal to do just that, instead presenting the bloody, unglamorous realities of post-war trauma and abandonment in the aftermath of a war with no real conclusion.
Aimless Bullet is a paralyzingly bleak film — a work comparable to the likes of Bicycle Thieves and The Deer Hunter — so much so that its release was marred by a ban from the South Korean government, and only managed to receive international attention after an American consultant negotiated for its premiere at the 1963 San Francisco International Film Festival. Lined along the grimy slums of post-war Korea are desolate apartment buildings, pitiably scant labor protests, harrowing sights of death and suicide, American soldiers garishly lusting after Korean women, and so on — all of which is framed through a blend of neorealist and expressionist styles that at once capture these sights in blunt detail while also displaying them through masterfully deployed visual tricks meant to impress their respective images into the audience’s memory. The only real relief one may perhaps derive is in the blossoming romance between Young-ho and former nurse Seol-hui (Mun Hye-ran), but even that is persistently stained by the latter’s next-door neighbor, whose disturbingly stalker-esque obsession with her robs her of any semblance of privacy and solace.
Cheol-ho and Young-ho effectively represent two sides of the same coin, a divide that becomes ever so clearer as the film progresses, yet is rooted within the same sense of exhaustion, bereavement, and uneasiness that they and the rest of Korean society share. Having been robbed of any agency in the war’s immediate aftermath, the two brothers’ drastically differing approaches to how they either resign to or rail against this fate both ultimately lead to pure desperation. It matters little that Cheol-ho’s inability to remove his toothache plagues him with not just physical pain, but the lingering sense that no route exists for him and his family to enact any upward mobility in an economically stratified society — or that Young-ho’s rejection and despair, even despite his persistence, inevitably leads him down the path to violent alternatives because of how institutionalized the country’s abandonment of veterans has become — when the world around them could not possibly care any less. Nothing actionable exists for them to do — no way of living exists for them to take. Legendary South Korean actors Kim Jin-kyu and Choi Mu-ryong bring to life the histrionic cadences of dialogue and acting styles of Korean films at the time in a searingly realistic manner, giving a crushing sense of grounded weight to their every melodramatic line, their weary glances and actions, and their trudging steps from place to place — wandering the labyrinthian, destitute streets of post-war Korea as aimlessly as the bullets of the film’s title, having left only bodies, rubble, nightmares, and bullet shells in their wake.
It goes without saying that national scars such as the ones left behind by the Korean War last for decades on end — it just so happens that the years that Aimless Bullet depicts were the ones in which those scars were freshly opened and copiously bleeding a bright, vivid red. Once the war reached a stalemate, neither side was completely taken over as intended by both the North and South, nor did the peninsula ever reunify — it instead led to a nearly 70-year-long armistice marked by constantly fluctuating nuclear arms tensions between the two countries and punctuated by countless diplomacy debacles involving the United States and neighboring countries such as Japan and China. As a means of deterring a potential offense from the North, all South Korean men are required to serve at least 18 months of military service once they turn 19 years old, with dodging said service being an offense punishable by jail time. Conservative politicians in South Korea — who most recently claimed a significant political victory by electing hard-right, anti-feminist former prosecutor Yoon Seok-yeol into the presidency — have built their entire ideological platforms around staunchly defined anti-communism, the inevitable byproduct of everlasting stigmas against North Korea, and a political credo that has been deeply, deeply rooted in South Korea’s predominantly right-wing culture.
What makes Aimless Bullet so truly, genuinely seminal in the canon of South Korean cinema is that through its unflinching portrayal of a pivotal, undeniably defining moment in Korean history, it has since morphed from a stark work of neorealism to a haunting look at the social dynamics that have dented, hammered, flayed open, and sewn South Korea back together into the resilient-yet-bruised shape it exists in today. One can only wonder, by the time the film reaches its pummeling, despairing conclusion, just how exactly South Korea rebounded from such a crippling era in history, its pleas of “Let’s go!” a howlingly desperate, perhaps even suicidal representation of its people’s utter, total lack of direction at the time. But films like Aimless Bullet are bold enough to consider that historical eras like these cannot be fully recovered from (perhaps a rattling thesis to audiences whose only exposure to South Korea has been the cultural explosion of K-pop, or the cinematic successes of works like Parasite and Squid Game) — that deep down, such profound aimlessness and desperation will continue to persist for as long as these scars on both Koreas’ national psyches and institutions are ripped open and bled out, time and time again.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Aimless Bullet? Comment down below!
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