For those who use Cinco de Mayo as an excuse to get drunk, it may be useful to know that getting and being drunk in public is legal in South Korea. Also, you might need a drink after watching this movie.
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Having recently ended his military service, Dong-shik travels from his nowhere village to Seoul in search of his older brother, Yeong-shik. After all, it is the Confucian duty of the eldest son to take care of his parents, and Yeong-shik has been out of contact for a while. Dong-shik arrives in Seoul with little clue as to where his brother is. He also has no clue how things are in the big city. One of the first thing that he tries to do is stop a a man who just stole a woman’s purse, and the only thing that he accomplishes is to get himself robbed as well. So, he walks around, asking seemingly random people if they know about Yeong-shik.
Unbeknownst to Dong-shik, his brother is part of a gang. As the American occupation has the best stuff and the most money, Dong-shik and his gang steal supplies from military bases while their prostitute associates cater only to American soldiers. Things have not been going so well as of late, but Dong-shik has some big ideas. He has been seeing a prostitute who calls herself Sonya. He wants to marry her and take her back to his village, but it is clear that she views him as only a stepping stone to a better life.
Dong-shik talks to a fortune teller, who tells him that he will meet his brother briefly, but that they will part ways soon afterwards. Almost immediately after this meeting, he sees Yeong-shik on the street, who runs away. Dong-shik catches up to him talking with Sonya. Yeong-shik reluctantly admits to his identity, and Sonya seems very interested in Dong-shik.
Yeong-shik brings his brother to the gang’s hangout area. Dong-shik meets another prostitute who goes by the name Julie…or Judy. I’ll call her Judy. Her parents died in the war; with no one to take care of her and no one to take care of, she became a prostitute for the Americans. She doesn’t like it, but sees no way out. Dong-shik says that someone could rescue her from this life, but he balks when she asks if he would.
The gang goes off to burglarize an American base. The prostitutes are supposed to come along to distract the guards, but Sonya says that she is too sick to participate. While the gang goes forth with their scheme, Sonya stays back and seduces Dong-shik. The next day, Dong-shik has disappeared.
This movie was directed by Shin Sang-Ok. If that name sounds familiar, he was the guy who got kidnapped by North Koreans about twenty years later and was forced to direct movies such as Pulgasari. And, just in case you were wondering, I don’t like that movie and it will not be featured in this series. He also worked on the 3 Ninjas movies; I don’t know what his excuse was for those films. This movie is not like any of those. This was a grim look at how South Korea was like in the 1950s.
In the 1950s, South Korea was lagging behind the North; things were that bad. While this movie does not provide a list of how bad things are, it is rather clear from even the opening few minutes that it is a miserable place. The civilians seem to have given up. The everyday economy is pathetic. Crime is rampant. Morality has given way to exploitation. American soldiers are everywhere. The movie does not necessarily outright say that the Americans are not welcome, but it seems rather cynically resigned to South Korea’s need for them. There is absolutely no sign that South Korea will become the country that it is today or even start on that path any time soon. There is no sign that the country will be able to fix itself or return to the way that it used to be. All that there is is a sliver of hope surrounded by uncertainty.
The movie focuses mostly around the characters of Dong-shik, Yeong-shik, Sonya, and Judy. Through them, the audience gets hints of the past, the present, and the future. Yet, these are only flickers, and they are full of uncertainty. Dong-shik and Yeong-shik are from the countryside. Dong-shik is treated like a hick in Seoul. It is possible that Yeong-shik got the same treatment when he arrived, but he overcame it for the most part. Yeong-shik may have left for Seoul either to provide for his family or to escape from them. In either case, he is reluctant to return home after all that he has done by the time his brother arrives. Even before he sees Dong-shik, he tells Sonya that he could never face his brother. At the same time, he also tells Sonya that he would like to marry her and take her home to his mother. Perhaps he has dreams of leaving his criminal life, rescuing a fallen woman, redeeming himself, and returning to the life that he had to give up for however many years.
Yeong-shik is an innocent. He is completely unprepared to deal with the life that his brother has led, but still tries his best to convince him to return home. This eventually leads to a clash of ideals. His duty as a son and brother is to bring his brother home; his duty as a citizen is to turn over his brother to the authorities. He has no outward struggle in choosing between these two obligations, but that does come into play later in the movie. His struggle comes from when he falls for Sonya, and the shame that he feels for betraying both his brother and his own integrity.
Judy seems to be the most reluctant of the prostitutes. She may have been an innocent before, but she is now a fallen woman, and beholden to the power of foreigner occupiers. The Korean War destroyed her past, and her only present is with the remnants of that war: the American soldiers. She does not reveal her real name; perhaps it holds no value or she is too ashamed to utter it. She doesn’t like her job and particularly does not like being in the service of these foreigners, but she has no choice in the matter. Her becoming a prostitute was the only thing possible for her for a time, but it closed so many other doors for her.Â She has practically given up on even wanting out, figuring that a normal life is not in the cards for her. What good man would want damaged goods?
Sonya is the standout character in this film. She is played by Choi Eun-hee, a famous actress who was married to the director and would be kidnapped by the North Koreans as well, though separately from her then ex-husband. When some people describe this movie as Film Noir, I am guessing that it is mostly because of this Femme Fatale. Unlike Judy and even the other prostitutes to an extent, Sonya is shameless and unashamed about what she does. Like Judy, Sonya does not use her Korean name either, but probably because she has wrapped up her identity in Sonya and has no use for whatever her past was. Her life is not a prison to her; this is a path to freedom. She is perfectly fine with using people to get what she wants, even if what she wants is not made clear. She revels in her sexuality, both with the American soldiers and with Yeong-shik. Perhaps Yeong-shik wants to take her away from this life, but she cannot be possessed or tamed. He is merely a means to gain the good life. Then she meets Dong-shik and becomes almost obsessed with him. Is it because he is an innocent whom she needs to debase? Is it because she just wants everything? Is it because she has genuine feelings for him, but does not have the emotional understanding of what that means? Is she simply an agent of chaos in an already chaotic world? I suppose that it is up to the viewer to work it out. While Chin’s first movie, the lost Evil Night, also was about prostitutes, this movie was one of the first Korean movies to openly indulge in sexuality. The sexual content of this movie may seem utterly tame nearly sixty years later, but the energy and vibe are still there, and most of that is thanks to Sonya.
The Flower in Hell is not the most pleasant film to watch, but it is an engaging classic. I definitely recommend it.
WTF ASIA 103: Matrubhoomi (India: 2003, approx. 95 minutes)
WTF ASIA 104: Sonatine (Japan: 1993, approx. 94 minutes)