Hyun Mok Yoo’s The Aimless Bullet beckons to be called nothing less than a South Korean realism cinematic masterpiece. It is at times uncomfortable to watch, but anybody looking for a truly reflectionist film will find total satisfaction with The Aimless Bullet. This classic film capitalizes on the impoverished lifestyle of the average South Korean post Second Republic rising. Despite the limitations and financial hardships the time period presented, Yoo wanted to pursue a movie with a more creative and experimental style. He had quite the background in Korean film, having produced many others in earlier and later years (in total 40).
Yoo is known as one of the more poignant directors in South Korean cinema for his realist style. He is very effective at translating the zeitgeist of the nation to the audience because of this. He makes it clear that The Aimless Bullet is set after the Korean War when society was still recovering. Yoo has Kim Jin-kyu star as Chul Ho, the eldest brother and provider for his impoverished family. His brother, Young-Ho, is played by Choi Moo-ryong. Yoo portrays the two different lifestyles of the brothers and how they struggle to provide both money and happiness for their shared family.
This postwar mellow-drama starts off by showing one of Young-Ho’s war buddies drunkenly stammering out of a bar with his crutches. This scene shows us that Young-Ho is a war veteran, and instantly adds depth to his character. As we follow Young-Ho back to his ramshackle house, Yoo introduces us to his family, a truly sorry sight. His niece asks him for gifts he cannot provide; which is a reoccurring theme of the movie. Chul-Ho is the only member of the family with a job; the financial burdens of the house, as well as the majority of the household responsibility, fall on him. In this way, Yoo spares the audience no details as to what life was like during this postwar time period. However, despite the number of postwar East Asian films that center around the family life, this film articulates more clearly the complexities and hardships that surround it.
As the viewer gets further into the movie, he or she will continue to see the reoccurring main theme of the film: poverty and the misery of a family, if not treated with sacrifice, will lead to the dissociation of the family. Young-Ho made the largest dent in his family because he sacrificed everything, leaving everyone worse off. Yoo attempts to demonstrate to the viewer, repeatedly, that there is a balance between how much utility a family member serves, and how much they take from their family. Yoo made this film in such a way that the audience can wholeheartedly empathize with each characters’ situation. By doing this, Yoo helps the audience develop a deeper connection to the movie.
As stated previously, Hyun Mok Yoo is a prominent director in South Korean realism, which is supported by his use of the camera in this film. If one were to pay attention to framing in this film and how the subject distance and position on screen relays certain messages, they would find that the camera brings the theme of poverty and redevelopment to light. The camera makes the story as realistic as it can be. Yoo relies on many low angle shots to make the audience feel distanced and inferior to the subject and conversely high angle shots to make the audience feel superior to the subject. Combining this with the shot distance, the audience will empathize more with the characters on screen.
Overall, I would recommend this film for a lover of East Asian cinema, especially if they’re interested in reflectionism or realism. Sparing no details, Yoo opens the door to the life of a disheveled post-war family. Even though there are many movies whose plots focus on post-war East Asian families, this movie so crisply illustrates the life of each family member and the role they play in each other’s lives. Yoo’s artistic use of the camera only further helps to make the movie seem more realistic and reflective of its time period. I would rate this film a 8.5/10 because of its artistic cinematography, but it is limited to that because at times certain scenes can be hard to watch. I enjoyed this film, but it’s very depressing and hard to watch at times. It is still a cinematic masterpiece, just not one that I particularly cared for.
“Obaltan.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 07 Mar. 2014. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053577/?ref_=ttexrv_exrv_tt>.
The film can be found at the following URL:
Obaltan, or Aimless Bullet, was directed by Yu Hyun-mok and was released in 1960. Yu Hyun-mok directed over 40 movies in his career spanning 39 years, but Aimless Bullet is arguably his most famous and influential work (it has been frequently referred to as ‘the best Korean movie ever made’). This movie was created at a very interesting and pivotal time in Korea’s history. 1960 was a year of severe reform and government transition. The old authoritarian Rhee regime had recently been toppled. During the Rhee government, different industries (particularly the movie industry) were heavily regulated and there was little room for creative freedom. Once the government was overthrown, the sanctions were lifted, allowing Korean filmmakers more freedom to explore their craft. Hardly a year later, a military coup created yet another new government, and the window of artistic freedom closed. In this tiny era of leniency, Aimless Bullet was born. The violent and unstable time of its creation is starkly evident in the movie’s plot. In post-war Korea, the people are struggling to earn a living in a cruel society.
The story centers on the life of Cheol-ho (played by Kim Jin-kyu), a clerk at an accounting office who is working to support his extended family: his pregnant wife, his two children, his brother and sister, and his mother. Each of these characters experiences their own internal personal struggle, which then affects their interaction with each other. Cheol- ho’s wife (Moon Jeong-suk) is extremely pregnant and ill, but still tends to the inhabitants of the house, especially her mother-in-law (Noh Jae-shin) who has become senile and frequently shouts “Let’s go!” as if they are in danger. Cheol-ho’s brother Yeong-ho (Choi Mu-ryong) is an out of work veteran who struggles to come to terms with his changing position with his society. Where he was once a highly respected soldier, he is now unemployed and on the low end of society. His struggle with adjusting to his new position forces him to make decisions and act in a manner that is not considered honorable, as one would expect with a soldier. Cheol-ho’s sister Myung-sook (Seo Ae-ja) is struggling with repercussions from the war as well. Her fiancé, who had become crippled during the war, feels so emasculated that he no longer wishes to marry her. With her family struggling to survive and her love withdrawing from her, Myung-sook becomes a prostitute to provide for her family. Cheol-ho’s children also struggle with their living conditions. The older child, a son, is forced to work as a paperboy in order to provide the family with extra income. The younger child is a daughter who is very perceptive for her age and is aware of the position of her family. She asks her uncle for new shoes and for fun trips. But when he promises her these things, she responds that he is a liar. As Cheol-ho watches his family try to make the best of the situation that they are in, he wonders how they could have avoided this hopeless situation. Didn’t they follow all the rules? Didn’t they do what they were supposed to? Cheol-ho and those around him struggle to answer these questions throughout the film.
The film makes no effort to shy away from any dire situation that the characters are experiencing. There is implied death and despair as the characters struggle to earn a meager living. The bleak environment of these characters actually caused the film to be banned in Korea, with only one copy shipped to the United States to be fitted with English subtitles. What makes this movie so compelling is that it shows that even when someone does the right thing for their entire lives, it might not be enough. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of hardship that drives characters to the edge, and creates characters that feel incredibly human and relatable. They make bad decisions for what they feel will assist in their situation, and you can’t help but hope for them to succeed. In addition to the plot and characters themselves, it contains masterful control and manipulations of camera angles and lighting. The mood created by the dimmer lighting and setting creates a melancholy feel to each of the scenes. This is not a movie that is packed with action, but is a deeply emotional will take hold of your sympathies and grip them right up until the final seconds of the film.
Obaltan, also known as Aimless Bullet, is a 1961 Korean film directed by Yu Hyun-Mok. Yu’s filmmaking style has drawn comparisons with the Italian Neo-Realists, and this style is on display in full force for Obaltan. Like the Neo-Realists, Yu’s focus is on the poor, the downtrodden, and the wounded. Obaltan is set in post-war Korea, in the brief time between two regimes, and foreign servicemen appear. However while the memories of the war are ever-present, and some of the characters are veterans, the war is truly more of a backdrop against which Yu weaves a tale of disappointment and struggle.
The story’s central characters are a pair of brothers, Chul-Ho, a married accountant with a pregnant wife, and Yong-Ho, an unemployed ex-soldier. The two brothers try to bring themselves prosperity and happiness, but their circumstances conspire against them. Chul-Ho, dutiful and hard-working, simply works hard and hoping for the best, struggles with a toothache throughout the film, putting off getting it fixed in hope of being able to provide gifts and food for his family. His demanor contrasts with Yong-Ho, filled with anger and pride, and unwilling to turn his war experiences into a commodity.
Other members of Chul-Ho’s family also appear. His aging, senile mother screams “Let’s go!” in nearly every scene she appears in, while his pregnant wife puts on a brave face, even as her and her husband fret about medical bills. Chul-Ho and Yong-Ho’s sister, Myong-Suk, who ends up working as a prostitute for the American soldiers stationed in Korea. The last important character is Kyong-Sik, a war veteran who was crippled in the war and walks with crutches. Kyong-Sik and Myong-Suk are in a relationship, but after he discovers her new profession, their relationship disintegrates.
The film tackles a range of themes, though one of the most notable is the treatment of Korean masculinity. In contrast with her brothers and lover, Myong-Suk is arguably the most “successful” character in the film, even if her money is earned through prostitution. The male characters are all emasculated, with Chul-Ho weary of working inside the system, Yong-Ho tired of fighting it, and Kyong-Sik both literally and emotionally crippled. As foreign soldiers occupy their lands for protection, many Korean men, especially former soldiers like Kyong-Sik or Yong-Ho, feel emasculated.
Obaltan is a brave film, looking at Korean life after the war with a sympathetic, discerning eye. The film unfolds slowly, yet inevitably. Obaltan doesn’t delight in great twists or turns that will surprise its audience. Its power is that it unfolds exactly as one might expect, and yet it’s impossible to turn away from. Both filmmaker and viewer become passive onlookers, willing success upon Chul-Ho and his family, but unable to do anything to help him, even as he continues to spiral downward in a tailspin of hopelessness and helplessness. This tone helps the film take a general stance, even as it deals with the specifics of one family, and serves Yu’s greater points about life in post-war Korea. Even at their most heroic, ultimately, the characters are powerless to succeed “their way”. Surrounded by foreigners, they must adapt as Myong-Suk does, even if it compromises their morals and values.
At times difficult to watch, Obaltan is nevertheless considered one of the masterpieces of Korean cinema, and rightfully so. Although indebted to Italian Neo-Realism in its focus on the mundane and downtrodden, Obaltan is all the more heart wrenching for Chul-Ho, Yong-Ho, and the others struggling valiantly against the tidal waves of their stations and situations. A strong story, emotionally-charged acting, and one of Korea’s finest directors at the helm combine to make Obaltan an excellent film that transcends its similarities to Neo-Realism, and becomes something unique and powerful.
A full link to the film (Korean with English subtitles) is available on YouTube.
Aimless Bullet is a Korean melodrama directed by Yu Hyun-mok in 1961. The film follows the lives of multiple people and the numerous struggles as they attempt to function in a damaged Korea. After the Superpowers carved the Korean Peninsula in two, the United States remained a dominant presence in South Korea. This occupation is shown through the emasculation of men in the film. Not only does unemployment and poverty define the lives of many of the male characters, but the only people who succeed are women. Often times, this is through prostitution. One scene in particular depicts Korean women prostituting themselves for American soldiers. This establishes a clear hierarchy in Korean culture, with American soldiers on top, then Korean women, with Korean men on the bottom and desperately struggling to get by.
The current state of Korea is highlighted throughout the film through the repeated image of breaking glass, both of windows and cups. This shows how the country is shattered in the wake of the war. The theme is also seen in the character of the grandmother. She does nothing but stay in bed. At multiple points in the film, she sits up and says “Let’s get out of this place.” She has been mentally broken, suffering from PTSD caused by her experiences of the war. Her scenes articulate and express the feelings of the characters: they want to escape. However they cannot get out of that place and no one does.
The men in the film are similarly shattered, some physically through various maladies and other metaphorically, in their lives. This creates an atmosphere of desperation and depression. Yu Hyun-mok carefully frames his scenes to display this condition. Many times, the male characters are shown in closely enclosed scenes which seem to be almost suffocating. This is true specifically when the men are meeting and talking in the bar scenes. This theme is further shown through the repeated images of caged birds. The men are similarly caged as they are trapped in their current conditions. Towards the end of the film, when the central character begins to break down, he remarks that he has been trapped in a “cage of conscience”. If he has been unethical or immoral, then he might not have ended up in such desperate and miserable straights. The film concludes with a steep decline, ending the lives of several central characters, making it a melodrama.
Aimless Bullet is an interesting depiction of the cultural state of post war Korea. Specifically, the men of this country are shown to be lacking purpose and control, as the title of the film suggests. However, the focus of this movie is the presentation and reinforcement of theme at the expense of constructing and developing the characters. This results in many flat and one dimensional characters being driven by plot and theme rather than showing the organic growth and progression of their lives. Ideas such as poverty and unemployment are communicated over and over again but through basic and sketchy character profiles. These lives simply collapse as the film comes to a close in an exaggerated, borderline ridiculous, tragedy.