The 1970s were a dark time in Korean film history. These were the days of a military dictatorship and state-sponsored censorship, a time when people would rather stay home and watch television than stray into movie theaters. According to the excellent and informative site Koreanfilm.org, theater admissions dropped steadily throughout the decade. So how do you lure people back into the theaters? If you’re Park Nou-Shik, action star of more than nine hundred films and director of a handful of films in the 1970s, you try anything and everything.
I was lucky enough to catch three of the five Park Nou-Shik films showing at the Pucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) this past week. I went in expecting action films but what I got was something completely unexpected. Yes, there was action, but there was also super-sappy melodrama, low brow comedy, very clear distinctions between good and bad, brain-meltingly incomprehensible plots, plenty of blood and, above all else, an almost giddy sense of inventiveness. These pictures were made by a man who is obviously in love with making movies. It’s this apparent love that makes them such a joy to watch, and is their saving grace when you’re scratching your head wondering just what the hell is going on.
Suspended Sentence (1973)
Right from the get-go, we’re in the thick of it. Park Nou-Shik is Shoji-san, a boxer living in Japan and training for the big match with Kuriyama a.k.a. the Champion. At his side is Hideko, who helps Shoji-san train, times his punches, and scrubs him down in the shower. They’re all set to get married. Hideko’s father has even bought them a new house when SHOCK! Shoji-san’s ethnically Korean mother comes blundering into the movie in a hanbok, or traditional Korean dress. In a heartbeat his future father-in-law denounces him, Hideko dumps him, and Shoji-san—excuse me, Kwan Sun Oh—brutally murders the man who always suspected him of being a Chosenjin (Korean).
Suspended Sentence is a revenge movie, with Kwan Sun Oh’s single-minded pursuit of pay back driving the film on like a man with a whip. But this one has a twist: Kwan is out to kill Hideko. The other men involved in his destruction—Hideko’s Korean-hating father, the champion Kuriyama, who latches onto a rebounding Hideko—don’t even register on Kwan’s radar. Nope, he’s saving all his bile and hatred for the woman who wronged him. His rage even bursts prematurely in prison when she comes to tell him she’s marrying the Champion so won’t he please sign over the deed to the house? He explodes, punching through the glass partition separating the two and choking Hideko (but not to death for some reason) against the broken glass, his face sweaty and red with exertion.
Park spends much of the movie in a state of sweaty exertion and he makes sure we know this, framing his face in close up after close up. The sequence where he pulls out his eyebrows and scratches up his face to make it look like he’s contracted leprosy to escape from jail is particularly disgusting. Park may be a big star but he’s not above uglying himself up in the service of a good misogynistic revenge film.
Things build to a ludicrous climax involving a hilariously inept chase sequence, with cars driving back and forth in an empty lot, crashing into oil drums and suddenly flipping over and exploding. It ends with Kwan losing his eyes for no apparent reason and yelling “Mother!” Actually, it would have been better if this had been the ending but there was still another reel left, with Kwan’s mother visiting him in prison, the melodrama escalating to thin-air heights.
After all the sweaty-faced vengeance of Suspended Sentence I was relieved to find that Why? was a comedy. An impossible-to-follow, zero-exposition, cliché-ridden comedy, but a comedy nonetheless. That makes it sound bad. It absolutely was not bad. It was just ludicrous from confusing start to abrupt finish.
I won’t even attempt to summarize the story as I’m still not sure exactly who all these people are, but I do know that the movie involves a plot to kidnap a Korean girl visiting Japan. See, there’s a pro-North Korean gang that look like yakuza (both male and female!) with bad hanafuda card tattoos. They want the ransom money to help fund Kim Jong-Il’s 60th birthday party. No, really. They also have a bevy of hot pants-wearing female agents that do cartwheel kicks into people’s faces.
Our man Park Nou-Shik is thankfully much less sweaty in this film, which is no mean feat considering he’s playing two roles. He plays both a bumbling fool (Yongpal, which seems to be a recurring role) as well as the evil North Korean gang leader. You can tell them apart because the gang leader has a mullet. As he would. Park isn’t looking any younger here but still the young women refer to him as oppa, which translates as “big brother” but also has boyfriend connotations. Yeah, right.
While Park’s films owe a debt to Japanese movies of the time, particularly those of Norifumi Suzuki and Teruo Ishii, I was particularly reminded of Bollywood Masala films, minus the musical numbers and brutal running lengths. Many Bollywood films from the 70s have the same kind of unhinged joy that Park’s films do, as well as an inventiveness that says “Budget? We don’t need no stinking budget.” Can’t afford fancy optical effects? Just wave a shower curtain in front of the camera when it’s time for a flashback. Can’t afford a soundtrack? Just steal American pop music. Can’t afford period costumes or props? Don’t bother and let the audience figure it out.
Everything gets wrapped up nice and, well, as tight as things could be given the circumstances. We never do get to see Kim Jong-Il’s birthday party though. Shame that.
A Mad Woman (1975)
I had a hard time keeping up with the first two films, but A Mad Woman, from 1975, was absolutely stupefying. It’s colonial-era Korea and a gang of resistance fighters has been captured after robbing a bank. The money—stolen to help fund the resistance movement—is hidden but no matter how much they are tortured, the men refuse to talk. They are righteous members of the resistance and they can’t be turned. Except they can, and soon do, with no explanation as to why.
But first they have to break out of jail, and they do this with the aid of a… 1970s Ford truck with a cherry picker in the back. What? A woman in a polyester dress soon joins their gang and they’re off to dig up the money, which instantly corrupts them, so much so that they start killing off people who need the money like the elderly mother of a slain member of the group, and then gang rape the daughter of another member. There’s no reason for their change from righteous freedom fighters to inhuman monsters. It just happens. When we catch up with them in the modern age—the movie doesn’t specify when but everyone is wearing Elvis sunglasses and mesh tank tops so take your best guess—they’ve invested their money in a drug smuggling operation to help fund North Korea. When they go bad in 1970s Korea, they really go bad.
Park Nou-Shik comes back from Manchuria to find that the abused daughter has gone crazy. She dresses like a shaman and hallucinates that people are wearing Planet of the Apes masks. She has also gained the ability to suddenly disappear through the help of in-camera editing.
Park (I’m not even going to use his character’s name because it doesn’t matter; that’s no one but Park Nou-Shik running around in a denim combo and Sonny Chiba hat) sets out to kill all of the members of the gang, and brings along the crazy girl so she can see her rapists be brutally murdered. The revenge plan culminates with the girl being forced to watch as the woman who joined later is gang-raped by a group of construction workers invited along by Park, who are only too happy to oblige. Oddly, this double torment “cures” the shaman girl and her mental illness is transferred to the other woman, who runs off, cackling, and disappears. The movie ends with Park declaring in a fit of self-righteous hubris that he’s going to marry the girl, who can’t be more than eighteen.
The five Park Nou-Shik films shown at PiFan were recently restored by the Korea Film Archive. Here’s hoping that more of his genre-busting films will be made available.