Seen in Jeonju

Zero Woman <1979>

16th September 2012

Zero Woman:  Directed by Byeon Jang-ho.  Starring Ko Eun-ah <as Jeong-hee>, Nam Goong-won <as Dr. Kang>, and Yoo Ji-in <as Na-mi>- released September 1, 1979– Running time: 98 minutes

79-008~2Dr. Kang is a professor and researcher passionate about studying the effects of pollution and intent on contributing to reducing it for the sake of the future of life on the planet. However, while his passion for his work is obvious, he is less adept at showing passion for his wife Jeong-hee.  She is an intense, lonely woman whose loneliness, suspicions and inability to navigate through the pitfalls of life are slowly driving her insane. When we first meet her, she is a danger to herself, walking down the center lane of a six-lane highway. She slowly evolves into a danger to others, shooting at the caged birds the professor keeps scattered around the house and then attacking Na-mi, the beautiful graduate student that Dr. Kang brings into their home to help his wife.  Na-mi becomes the focus of her frustration and madness largely because of justifiable jealousy. Dr Kang spends far too much time with his student in a way that cannot really be interpretted as purely innocent although both would deny their is any attraction, initially at least. It is clear that their is some relationshiop developing that goes beyond mentor and student and in fact does cross the line at the height of a horrific thunderstorm that drive Na-mi into Kang’s arms in fear.  Their night of passion causes both participants to feel a degree a guilt. Na-mi leaves for a short time, uncharacteristically without Dr. Kang, to spend time with a fellow grad student whom she knows likes her.  Kang takes his wife on a trip to the country and they spend time in an isolated villa accessible only by boat.  Unfortuanately, their time there is spoiled by the arrival of Na-mi. She and Kang express their feelings for each other with Jeong-hee overhearing all and this causes the already unstable woman to fall irreversibily into a murderous psychosis with Na-mi and her husband as her targets.

While the theme of this movie, anti-pollution, is driven home at several points in the film including the end when an Anti-Pollution Parade marches by the mental hospital where Jeong-hee is incarcerated–the participants carrying signs like “Pollution is the Enemy of Humanity” or “Protect the Environment for a Bright Future” – I think that director Byeon needs to lay the blame where it truly belongs, at the feet of Dr Kang and Na-mi.  Despite Kang’s rambling lectures and beakers of colored liquid proving his ’science,’ at no point does he convince me that Jeong-hee’s problem stems from the environment. Rather it seems to stem from the fact that she is lonely and feels isolated.  These feelings are exasperated by the amount of time Kang actively avoids his wife and refuses to sleep with her using his research as an excuse.  And while he is too busy to spend more than five minutes in the ame room with his wife, he is more than willing to spend time with Na-mi, playing ping-pong, accompanying her to the grocery store and taking her fishing. I was finding Jeong-hee’s suspicions perfectly justified. However, there is no justifying her subsequent actions. Those were just driven by madness..

Jeong-hee proves herself an excellent shot with a rifle during the second bout of madness we are witness to. Not only does she shoot out the windows in her husband’s study and take pot shots at some of the ever-present caged birds, she threatens the housekeeper with the business end of the gun as well.  Surprisingly, the loyal housekeeper does not quit on the spot. Even more surprising, there are no consequences to this rampage. It simply is business as usual in the house and the incident is not mentioned by any of the characters. Her attacks on Na-mi are more creative, such as filling her bad with lab rats, and more brazen, like when she sliced up Na-mi’s shoulders with her wedding ring during a massage. Despite her tendency to be homicidal, Jeong-hee is actually a very simpathetic character.  Na-mi is less so.

Na-mi starts of her relationship with Kang as a bizarre father-figure fixations that later blossoms into a full-fledged affair. It is more than a little creepy and undoubtedly inappropriate..not only because he is married, but she is also his student. Na-mi chalks Jeong-hee’s crazy antics against her up to the older woman’s mental state and never considers for a minute that she may be contributing to Jeong-hee’s growing insanity.  She could have very well simply walked away after the night of passion in the storm with Dr. Kang that she knew was wrong, but she comes running back to him in a very short period of time –going so far as to track down where Kang and his wife went for vacation– and confessing how much she missed him. The neediness of Na-mi and the reasons for her initial attraction to Kang borderline, to me, underscore the fact that Jeong-hee is not the only person in this film with psychological issues.

Kang himself is not free of blame nor clear of madness, although his madness takes a different form than the other characters. If this were another sort of movie, Kang would have been a mad scientist.  His home and office are filled with beakers of impossibly colored liquids that movie scientists often mix at random for purposes of bringing monsters to life or some such thing.  During a massive thunderstorm, he throws open the windows of his home cackling at the power of the storm. And his house is filled with every kind of animal you can think of, both alived and stuffed.  In cages he has the usual..such as wrens, canaries and squirrels.  Later, you start noticing more unusual things such as peacocks, the beautiful, native hoopoe and those green and red snakes that I see once in a while on the campus where I work..<and I just learned they are poisonous!> Posed stuffed around his home are deer, ferrets, owls and the heads of boars.  I could easily see him experimenting on these or making plans to add Na-mi to his collection– he doesn’t of course– the movie chooses to villainize only Jeong-hee.

Poor Jeong-hee.  Kang cheats on her with Na-mi, twice physically and throughout the film on an emotional level.  However, the one time she turns to someone for comfort– when both her husband and Na-mi left her alone on the island home with no way off– the music and lighting unite to villainize her and, before she can do more than unbutton the short of the man–her gardener– whom she has invited into her bedroom, she is caught in the act by Na-mi.  The look of horror on Na-mi’s face infuriated me. Who is she to judge considering what she had already done with Jeong-hee’s husband?  Why does the film treat her action so much worse than when Kang and Na-mi are both guilty of it as well?  Of course, I know why.. a double-standard often exists in these films and this is just one more example.

I had mentioned the music in the paragraph above as it plays a large role in setting the tone, but I had to wonder about it. Had I just been listening to the soundtrack, especially at the beginning of the movie, I would have thought I was in for a horror film. It is a familar tune that I associate with horror/sci-fi of the ’60s where some alien protoplasm or a severed hand is creeping across the floor towards and unsuspecting victim.  At the beginning of the film, it plays as we get a fish-eyed view of a street from the windshield of a moving car.  It does a lot towards letting you know that on some level, this will be a horror movie.

Zero Woman is not available on DVD, not even an unsubtitled one.  I was able to see it on television with my internt TV provider. If it is ever available, it is one I recommend seeing.

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