AFED #106: Obaltan [The Aimless Bullet] (South Korea, 1960); Dir. Yu Hyun-mok
Although regarded by some as South Korea's finest ever film, Obaltan is very much a product of the changes cinema underwent across the world in the post-war years. Fittingly therefore it's a film about readjusting to civilian life after wartime, although here the war in question is the military conflict that shook Korea between 1950 and 1953.
Falling somewhere between The Best Years of Our Lives and the plaintive bleakness of Italian neorealism, it relates the story of two brothers who live in poverty in the ravaged slums of Seoul. The elder, Yeong-ho (Kim Jin-kyu), works for a pittance as an accountant to support his wife and young children whilst tormented by chronic toothache. His younger sibling Cheol-ho (Choi Mu-ryong) is a former war hero who spends his time hanging out his fellow veterans and promising, but always failing, to find a job.
As events progress things go from bad to worse for the brothers. Cheol-ho is reunited with a nurse who treated him in hospital and romance briefly flickers only for tragedy to strike. His resulting desperation leads to a surprising change of pace during the film's final third as he makes a misguided attempt to redress his circumstances. Meanwhile Yeong-ho's life takes an even more callous twist that plunges him into the depths of misery. In case you were in any doubt before the message is clear: life is shit.
Not entirely surprising then that the South Korean government (in the wake of a coup d'etat) sought to suppress the film. Yet it drew acclaim at the 1963 San Francisco International Film Festival and prompted reappraisal. Like so much realist cinema although bitterly uncompromising in its portrayal of the world it does so with harrowing sensitivity.
Director Yoo Hyun-Mok, who would become the country's premier auteur, struggled with the production for more than a year, working with meagre resources. At times the financial and technical limitations are plainly apparent; at one point a chase sequence inexplicably switches to a night-time shot and the effect is less expressive than disruptive. But there are also some beautifully realised moments such as Cheol-ho's discovery of the nurse's demise and the closing scenes as Yeong-ho's world unravels.
It would nice to see the film again in a fully restored print as the version I watched was very much the worse for wear. But for those wishing to learn about the roots of modern South Korean cinema it's well worth the effort.