Yu Hyun-mok's School Excursion (1969)
By Darcy Paquet
The division of the Korean Peninsula into separate regimes, and the almost complete suspension of contact between North and South Korea have resulted in a gradual distancing between the two cultures which is palpable in contemporary times. Apart from political differences, a significant linguistic gap has grown between North and South, and defectors to the South have been shown to have considerable difficulty in adjusting socially to what has become an alien culture.
School Excursion, directed by Yu Hyun-mok in 1969, reminds us that such distancing can occur within a single country as well. Shot through the eyes of a group of schoolchildren who travel from their remote island home to the metropolis of Seoul, Yu's film provides a vivid illustration of how rapid industrialization spread unevenly throughout a country can bring about similar lines of demarcation.
Created under a time of intense censorship and interference in the film industry by Korea's military government, School Excursion represents a far less overtly political statement than Yu's most famous work, Obaltan (1961) a.k.a. An Aimless Bullet, which depicts the struggle of a poor family in a society wracked by upheaval. Nonetheless Yu's images and the careful execution of his story provide for multiple readings which shed light on the nature of South Korea's industrialization.
Yu Hyun-mok was born in 1925 in Hwanghae Province, in what is now North Korea. After moving to Seoul shortly after the end of Japanese colonial rule he found work in the film industry as an assistant director. From his debut in 1956 with The Crossroad up to his latest work Mommy, Star and Sea Anemone in 1995, Yu directed 43 films and gained a reputation as one of the three greatest filmmakers from Korea's "Golden Age" of cinema from 1955-1970 (the others being Kim Ki-young and Shin Sang-ok).
The subject of a high-profile retrospective at the 4th Pusan International Film Festival in 1999, Yu has been seen by local critics as Korea's foremost practitioner of realist cinema in the tradition of the Italian Neorealists. A collection of essays about his work published by the Pusan festival is tellingly titled, The Pathfinder of Korean Realism: Yu Hyun-mok. Nonetheless as Yi Hyoin notes in an essay in the same volume, Yu's propensity for unusual camera angles, complex uses of sound, and the construction of motif through repetition make the terms "modernist" or "expressionistic" just as applicable to his works.
School Excursion opens with the image and sound of a boat's horn signaling departure. The composition of the image, divided in two by a strong vertical line, suggests a boundary, and indeed in the following shot we see the boat itself having moved away from the land, the water forming another boundary separating a group of children on the boat with their families waving on the shore. From the film's very opening, Yu establishes the gap which exists between the children, sailing towards the modernity of the city, and their parents who are left behind on an undeveloped island.
As the parents shout advice and encouragement to their departing children, one boy who has been left behind runs up and plunges into the water, swimming desperately towards the boat. Panic erupts on both sides, as the boy's teacher dives into the water and swims towards him. As the boy reaches the teacher, halfway between the boat and the land, the camera zooms suddenly towards him and he repeats the words, "School excursion... school excursion..."
The boy's desperation seems odd: he seemingly risks drowning in his fear of being left behind from what is only a school trip. As viewers we feel a sense of alienation, as if confronting a culture which we don't fully understand. By starting his narrative here, which turns out to be the middle (indeed, the "boundary") of the story, Yu may be replicating in the viewer a bit of the same confusion and alienation that will later be felt by the children as they approach Seoul.
Following this scene we see a montage of shots of the island which emphasize its natural beauty. The images are screened over a march which forms the film's musical theme, repeated at different tempos throughout the film.
Following this introduction, the first major segment of the film opens with the words "school excursion" repeated again by a little girl from the island who provides the film's voiceover narration. Speaking over blurred images of leaves and running water, the girl explains how the children misunderstood the meaning of the term when they first heard it. What follows is an extended flashback that familiarizes the viewer with the island and the circumstances that led the children to take a trip to Seoul.
Apart from narrative exposition, much of the flashback serves to put the viewer into the perspective of the children. The scenes presented emphasize the beauty of the island but also its remoteness: over half of the villagers, and all of the children, have never been to the mainland. Passing ships seem impossibly far out of reach, yet the children run to the shore to call to them. In her narration, the girl wishes aloud for an angel to "come down from heaven" and take her to the mainland, and shortly thereafter, she identifies the angel as her teacher, Mr. Kim.
The children's teacher, played by popular comedian and actor Koo Bong-seo, is first seen drawing a picture of a bicycle on the chalkboard, since none of them have ever seen one. The children's ignorance is treated with affection and humor, yet underneath this the film also highlights the lack of opportunities presented to the children. When Mr. Kim suggests taking the children to Seoul on a trip, both parents and students are incredulous, but through a laborious process of persuasion and fund-raising the trip becomes a reality. In emphasizing the tremendous effort that went into making the trip possible, the film makes it clear why the young boy in the opening was so desperate not to miss the boat.
As we return to the present we again see a shot of the boat's horn as the children sail for land. The first images we see of the mainland contrast sharply with those of the island: smokestacks, exhaust from the train, and the horn of the train, this time blaring so loudly that the children are frightened and run away.
Much of the humor in the film derives from seeing the trappings of modern industry through the eyes of the students experiencing it for the first time. Before boarding the train, they argue about whether to remove their shoes. As the train takes off, they marvel at how the trees seem to be moving backwards. The children's first taste of economic disparity comes on the train to Seoul, when a man comes selling snacks and candy. Unable to afford a bottle of soda, the children buy Eundan, a silver-coated herbal pill that they believe will "make them full," spitting it out later when they taste it for the first time.
A shot of loudspeakers mark the children's arrival in Seoul, and they gather in front of Seoul Station, where they meet Mr. Kim's wife and young son, who live in the city. The son hardly recognizes his father after years of separation. We learn later that his schoolmates tease him, saying he doesn't have a father.
This raises an issue which becomes crucial for the remaining segments of the film. The teacher's wife, played by Moon Hee (one of the most famous actresses of her generation) hopes to reunite her family, but insists that they must live in Seoul for the good of her son. The film thus questions in indirect fashion whether Seoul or the island provide a better environment for the raising of children. This issue takes on political significance considering the government's push for rapid industrialization, and it is certain that director Yu himself would have faced strong pressure to conform to the government's position.
Whereas on the island Mr. Kim's ability to care for his students is unrestricted, we are quickly shown how the institutions of the city prevent this in Seoul. After the bus filled with students drives off without him, he runs after it, but is taken to the police station and nearly arrested for interfering with traffic. Later in the film, a misunderstanding occurs when the children see him one night on TV from a segment recorded at the zoo earlier in the day. Believing he is calling them in real time, they rush off to the zoo to meet him. When Mr. Kim realizes this, he is again prevented from quickly reaching them by being unable to catch a taxi.
Material comfort is another issue raised by Mr. Kim's wife and the film itself. After the schoolchildren befriend a group of kids from a rich school, they are invited to spend the night with their newfound friends. Faced with what was extreme wealth in 1960s Seoul (four burner stoves, refrigerators), the children again experience a sense of shocked alienation. The various gifts bestowed on the schoolchildren by their rich friends seem to evoke the promise of wealth that industrialization offers to the island children.
Yet in other ways the film undermines this promise, when we discover that the older sister of one of the boys is working as a servant for a family in Seoul (improbably enough, at the very house in which he is invited to stay). In poor health and struggling to support herself, we see vividly how the wealth of the city remains out of reach for a former inhabitant of the island.
Perhaps most telling of the film's underlying criticism of industrialization is the scene where the children ride a tram, soon to be retired from service, and speak with the old man who operates it. The children are shocked to discover that such a vehicle will soon be discarded, though still in usable form. Here the children express their most forthright criticisms of the excess and waste of capitalistic society.
As the children's journey draws to a close, all are sad to discover that Mr. Kim's wife has elected to stay in Seoul, rather than move to the island with her husband. When it is revealed in the film's climactic moment that she has actually boarded the train with her son, the film seems to hint that the comparatively primitive life on the island (and the reunion of the nuclear family) can provide a better upbringing for the couple's child than the industrialized city.
In what was probably pitched to governmental censors as a film in support of industrialization, Yu Hyun-mok has created a multifaceted work with undercurrents that call such economic development into question. The alienation of being thrust into a different world brings the students both a sense of wonder and an underlying unease that ultimately make them see their home in a new light. The film's closing shots, which cut from the sun setting amidst a backdrop of smokestacks to the sun setting on the island, provide the film's first instance of continuity between island and city. Yet this visual continuity between shots can only be seen as somewhat ironic, given the undercurrents of the narrative which precedes it.
(Essay first published in tan'gun: revue internationale d'etudes coreennes, No. 3 (Autumn 2002), pp. 41-48)
Suhak-yeohaeng, 1969, color, 104 min.
Hangook Film Production Company
Producer: Seong Dong-ho
Executive Producer: Kim Seung-eop
Director: Yu Hyun-mok
Screenplay: Lee Sang-hyun
Cinematography: Min Jeong-shik
Lighting: Cha Jeong-nam
Music: Kim Dong-jin
Artistic Director: Kim Ho-geun
Recording: Lee Kyeong-soon
Editing: Lee Kyung-ja
Available on all-region DVD with English subtitles from Bitwin Corp., Korea.