Seen in Jeonju

Neumi (1979)

9th January 2010

neumiDirector Kim Ki-yeong is rightfully remembered for his innovative film making throughout the 1960s and 70s.  His most famous movie, The Housemaid (1960), remains on lists as one of the greatest Korean films of all times.  But that was not his only film. His movies Woman of Fire (1971) and Insect Woman (1972) were very well received even at a time when censorship was at its strongest.  Neumi (1979) is another film that deserves wider recognition.

Neumi is a melodrama which revolves around the relationship between Yoon Joon-tae and a young mute woman for whom the movie is named. Joon-tae is college educated and a young man of priviledge. He takes a small room near a brick factory although ‘factory’ may be the wrong word.  There is a small dilapidated plant where clay is pressed into thick square rods and chopped by hand into brick-sized chunks. These are then carried out by numerous workers to dry in large stacks in a muddy, grey field. Rows upon rows of these bricks create a depressing environment and that depression is mirrored on the faces of the workers laboring there.

Living in a shabby hut with old foreman Shin and an infant daughter is the beautiful Neumi played by Jang Mi-hee.  She works right alongside the men (as do many other women) carrying cartloads of bricks to the fields and loading up trucks to supply the developing nation with building material.  Neumi is oddly expressionless but dutifully serves Shin with her whole heart.  She shaves him, washes his feet and cuts his food into bite sized pieces even though he makes it quite clear that he believes her to be a second-class citizen.  For his part, Shin is very possessive of her and when she takes gum from a truck driver the foreman wastes no time in slapping her across the face.

That was probably a mistake for in the very next scene, the truck driver backs his vehicle up onto Shin, crushing him between the truck and a building and burying him under a ton of bricks.  The driver makes no effort to hide his actions and happily tells Neumi that he has freed her–only to have her fly into a grief-filled rage and beat him, screaming like a wounded animal the entire time.

Joon-tae, fascinated with Neumi, begins to look in on her and take care of her. At first he makes her food and then he buys her new clothes. Followed by furniture, a tv and other luxuries that seem quite out of place in her dingy hovel.  The ridiculousness of his gifts is highlighted when Neumi goes out to lug bricks around in a brilliantly colored red dress and long necklace.  Joon-tae does not notice–in fact, Joon-tae is oblivious to pretty much everything and treats everything he does like its a game. When he first tours the factory and helps the workers load the bricks in trucks or takes them to the fields, it feels as if he is playing. His treatment of Neumi is the same–it looks as if he is playing with a Barbie-doll–putting on her makeup, dressing her up and buying her gifts she couldn’t possibly use.

The other workers notice though. When Neumi was one of them, she was accepted. Now she appears to be the mistress of a rich young man (despite the fact that they held a pretend wedding), the other workers watch her with baleful glares. Of course, Joon-tae doesn’t notice their looks and, meeting a mob of workers outside Neumi’s house after spending the night with her, Joon-tae greets them all exuberantly because he thinks they are there to congratulate him on his ‘wedding’.  But as soon as Joon-tae rounds the corner to go to work, the workers turn on Neumi and literally tear down her house with their bare hands. Neumi has nowhere to go but to move in with Joon-tae. But this causes problems in itself as the people moving in Joon-tae’s circle are not ready to accept a mute woman from such a vastly different social class.

That is the main theme to this film–the difference in social class and failed attempts to rise above one’s station.  And while no direct criticism of the unrestrained development or the plight of the workers would have passed censors of the time, the director manages to make his feelings on the matter quite clear through his depiction of life among the labors and the actions of under-priviledged people shown throughout the film’s 90 minute running time. The filmography is beautiful (even if my video’s quality is not the best) but dismal at the same time gray and reds fill the screen  and the music for this film is quite unique. Frequently the score seems to be two drumsticks being hit together with the speed and intensity of their beat matching the scenes’ contents.  There is so much that happens in this film that I have not mentioned–a horrifying suicide/double murder attempt, a spiteful secretary spurned by Joon-tae who, as usual does not even know her feelings towards him, and the return of the truck driver obsessed with Neumi.   However, it is the ending of this movie that stays with me whenever I watch it.  The finale is quite shocking and unexpected but unfortunately, I cannot reveal it here.  It is something that you should see for yourself if this is ever released onto dvd.  This movie is definitely at the top of the list of my favorite films from the 1970s.

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