Seen in Jeonju

Fisherman’s Fire (1938)

10th February 2010

fisherman's fireOriginally posted December 11, 2008–I am very excited to announce the release of the DVD set The Past Unearthed 2. The first compilation contained Korean films released in the 1940’s. This second set contains the extant films from Korea made during the 1930’s. Included in the set are Sweet Dream (1936), Military Train (1938), a thirteen minute fragment of Shin Cheong–which contains excellent acting from Kim So-yeong, the actress in the title role, a nine-minute fragment of I Will Die Under My Flag (1939) and the topic of today’s review, Fisherman’s Fire (1939) directed by Ahn Cheol-yeong.

The story opens with stock footage of a celebratory festival in a rural village which in itself is a fascinating glance into the past. We then pull away to watch In-soo wandering up a hill above the village with her old friend Cheon-seok. They are very comfortable with each other and we can easily infer that their feelings run deeper than they are showing on the surface.  In-soo is far to traditional to openly reveal her emotions although she does give us some insight into her hidden thoughts when she expresses, several times, her desire to leave the village and go to Seoul to work and go to school. Her wanting to earn a salary is understandable because her father is deeply in debt to Mr. Jang Yong-woon. Her father is unable to repay the debt because his nets are so old and rotten that the fish he manages to snare end up escaping through large gaps in the mesh.  However, despite the logic of letting In-soo work, her father absolutely refuses to let her go.

As bad as things are for the family, they only get worse when a storm claims the life of In-soo’s father.  Jang offers a solution to In-soo’s mother and he buys the girl for marriage–well, she calls it marriage, he never mentions that as his intention.  But, out of the what seems to be the kindness of his heart, Jang’s son Cheol-soo, a successful office worker in Seoul, pays off her debt. He then offers to take her to Seoul with him. There, In-soo plans to stay with her friend Ok-boon who had left for the city years ago and gained what she calls ‘finacial independence’.

However, Cheol-soo has designs on In-soo and keeps her in his apartment for ten days, lying to her that he can not get in touch with Ok-boon. Eventually though, Cheol-soo must go back to work (where he gets chewed out for being absent for so long) and In-soo is able to arrange a meeting with Ok-boon. She learns from her friend that Cheol-soo is a womanizer her he had tried a similar trick on Ok-boon who managed to resist him. Naive In-soo had not been so lucky and admits that she slept her host. Depressed and not wanting to impose on Ok-boon, In-soo goes out on her own to find a job and winds up working as a kisaeng–the Korean version of a geisha. She becomes considerably more depressed and attempts to kill herself. The movie doesn’t end there, but I won’t reveal anymore.

This movie is a fantastic example of early Korean film-making. The acting is good and the characterizations are excellent. The most fascinating character however is not any of the leads, it is Ok-boon played by Jeon Hyo-bong.  In most of Korean movies pre-1960–and even a little later– women who were successful and assimilated into the ‘modern’ world were generally portrayed in a negative light. In Sweet Dream (1936), the woman who visited department stores and dressed in modern styles eventually became so corrupted by this lifestyle that she wound up abandoning her family. However, Ok-boon is a strong, confident woman who has no problem speaking her mind and even goes so far as to slap the overbearing Cheol-soo across the face. The booklet enclosed with the DVD set says that the creation of Ok-boon was possibly done with the cooperation of Jeon Sook-hee, Korea’s first female assistant director.

If you are interested in Korean movie history or early film-making in general…or just want to watch some good movies, I strongly recommend you purchase The Past Unearthed 2. You won’t regret it.

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