by Allan Fish
(Korea 1949 76m) DVD0 (South Korea only)
Aka. Ma-eum-ui gohyang
It’s just karma
p Kang Shin-won, Lee Gang-su d Yun Yong-gyu w Gwak Il-byeong ph Han Hyung-mo ed Yun Yong-gyu m Park Hye-il
Choi Eun-hee (widow), Yu Min (Do-Seong), Byun Ki-jong (chief monk), Oh Heon-yong (temple worker), Kim Seong-yong (mother), Nam Seung-min (temple cook), Seok Gyum-seong (widow’s mother), Choi Un-bong (Hwang Seon-dal),
It happens to all film lovers, that moment where, from literally out of nowhere, you are reminded just how little you actually know. Just take a moment to think on just how many masterworks from various countries that are still unheard of in the west. One hardly needs to travel far, for what do we really know about the Buñuel-less Spanish film of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Juan-Antonio Bardem and a couple of individual films aside? Or Czech, Hungarian or Polish films of the 1930s to 50s, aside from the odd one? What of Greek cinema before Cacoyannis, Costa-Gavras and Angelopoulos, Romanian cinema before the 1960s, Bulgarian cinema arguably in any era. Of the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Finland, Austria and Switzerland, aside from the odd cherished export. Or Yugoslavia before Petrovic and Makavejev? Australia and New Zealand pre-1970, the majority of Africa outside of Chahine, Mambety and Sembene, non-Bollywood India aside from Ray and Ghatak, Argentina aside from Torre-Nilsson and Solanas, Brazil before Cinema Nuovo; one could go on forever.
Then there’s Korea, that divided peninsula, with its demilitarised zone and the inspiration to dozens of awful American war films. In the last decade or so we have seen numerous talents come from Korea – Park Chan-wook, Jang Sun-woo, Lee Chang-dong, Im Kwon-taek, Bong Joon-ho, Kim Ki-duk, Kang Ge-gyu, Kim Ji-woon, Na Hong-jin – but such flowerings rarely come from nowhere. It’s simply that much improved overseas distribution has led to Korean cinema becoming, if not flavour of the month, then at least meritorious of its own section on the menu. Yet still, chances to see Korean films made prior to 1990 are few and far between. Kim Ki-young’s masterpiece The Housemaid is now available and along with a couple more of his works, as is Yoo Hyon-mok’s Stray Bullet, Park Sang-ho’s affecting The DMZ, as well as the works of Kim Soo-yong. But these were all made after the divide. What do we know of Korean film before the divide, before the prefix ‘South’ was added?
The answer to that is pathetically little. Korean films survive back to 1936, to Sweet Dream, but if I was asked to pick the favourite of early Korean cinema, my choice would be this Yun Yong-gyu’s A Hometown in Heart. As I write, though, despite its DVD release in 2011, it’s not even listed on the IMDb and nor is its director. It’s a truly lamentable state of affairs, for while it may not quite be Ozu or Mizoguchi at the peak of their powers, this is still a remarkably affecting study of childhood loss. Its simple story, of a young boy abandoned by his mother to live with a distant relative in a Buddhist temple and his dreams of her returning, allows much time for introspective reflection, as well as uncannily looking ahead over half a century to Kim Ki-duk’s not dissimilarly themed Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring. This is a view of childhood that, while instantly recognisable, is quite unlike any other you will have seen with a central performance of such disarming naturalism from Yu Min as to make you want to adopt him yourself. Nor does it take the easy option; for Yong-gyu doesn’t go for an easy happy ending. The boy doesn’t end up with his mother or with the lovely widow who offers to adopt him, but ends up running away, walking away down a lonely track into a future that, even without the intervention of the war would have been uncertain, but which with it becomes twice as poignant. Superbly photographed, it’s been too long neglected in the archives and should, in time, become recognised as one of the best humanist films from outside of Japan.