UW Cinematheque: Korean War Memories

One of the great joys of living in a city with a major university (and attending that university, in my case) is the wide variety of cultural activities that the university offers. In my case, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my favorite of these events is the regularly scheduled UW Cinematheque, a program that runs every weekend while class is in session screening 35mm prints of a wide variety of films from all over the world that would likely only be seen on DVD otherwise.

This semester, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, the Center for East Asian Studies collaborated with the Communication Arts department (a perfect mixture of the two departments that I had the most classes in) to present a series on films about the Korean War. These films, which I will go into individually, included Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, recently deceased master filmmaker Yu Hyeon-Mok’s Obaltan and Rainy Days, and Lee Man-hee’s The Marines Who Never Returned. Unfortunately, none of the films were as packed as some of the other series, especially the concurrent Kurosawa series, in which the screening of Rashomon packed the entire Cinematheque. While South Korean cinema has not been a major force in the film industry until very recently, the nation does have a rich cinematic history that deserves to be seen, and the three Korean films that were presented (along with one American film) are all very much worth tracking down.

The Steel Helmet

Directed by Samuel Fuller; USA; 1951; 84 min.

After an American soldier is saved by a South Korean boy, the two of them regroup with a team of other loose American soldiers and end up staying in a Buddhist temple as refuge while they wait for help. Unfortunately for them, a North Korean soldier is already lurking in the background. Racial relations are also examined through the usage of a Japanese American and an African American soldier on the squad.

Of the four films, this is the only one to look at the war through an American point of view. While there are certain situations in the film that do pertain more to the Korean war than others, most notably the North Korean soldier hoping to win over the Japanese American and African American soldiers by bringing up the discrimination they’ve faced in their homeland, this film really could have been about any war. Gene Evans’ performance as Sergeant Zack is one of the better examples of the “hard bitten old man with a secret heart of gold” archetype, and while some of the plot points might be predictable, they manage to be affecting nonetheless.

Obaltan (also known as The Aimless Bullet or The Stray Bullet in English)

Directed by Yu Hyeon-Mok; South Korea; 1961; 106 min.

Considered to be one of the greatest films ever produced in South Korea, Obaltan follows the life of a family in Seoul years after the standstill of the Korean War began. One of the brothers works an office job, one flirts with crime, and the sister ends up prostituting herself to American soldiers, all while their mother consistently chants “let’s get out of here” in the background.

For the young people of my generation who have seen South Korea become a successful and powerful nation, it’s hard to believe that it was one of the poorest nations in the world shortly after the Korean war came to a halt; even North Korea was more successful initially. Obaltan shows the struggle in remarkable visual splendor and is one of the better examples of Korea’s love of melodrama. Because of that usage of melodrama, some viewers might be turned off by the narrative, but those more attuned to the style will find that this film is a great film that nearly lives up to its reputation. Personally, I find that Korean cinema has truly hit its most creative period recently, and within the past ten years has produced films that have surpassed Obaltan creatively, but it’s still an essential film for anyone interested in this national cinema to view.

The Marines Who Never Returned

Directed by Lee Man-Hee; South Korea; 1963; 110 min.

A band of Korean soldiers come rescue an orphaned girl in the midst of an intense battle, and bring her back to safety. At camp, she becomes an emotional center for the battalion as they all grow fond of her young spirit, serving a stark contrast to the cruelty of war. However, they soon learn of their new assignment at the front lines in the harsh battlegrounds of the Korean peninsula’s mountains.

The Marines Who Never Returned is an excellent war film, full of striking cinematography, intense battle sequences, great humorous scenes, and of course, touching moments of melodrama. Every soldier in the film has a distinct personality, made memorable by the nicknames given to them by the young girl. Everything works very well, surprisingly. Along with Obaltan, it shows the unfair treatment that was given to the South Korean soldiers that put them below the American military (in their own country nonetheless), which is something that The Steel Helmet simply glossed over.

Rainy Days

Directed by Yu Hyeon-Mok; South Korea; 1979; 114 min.

Two families joined together by a marriage are torn apart by sons supporting opposite sides of the war. At the center of the family is the young child, Dong-man, whose maternal uncle participated in rightist activities at university, and whose less educated paternal uncle is drawn to the communists.

The cinematography in Rainy Days is simply immaculate, capturing the Korean countryside and the modest homes beautifully. The narrative is more of a traditional melodrama, eschewing scenes of action to focus on the emotional toll the war takes on the family and the worries they have for their sons out fighting the war.  Scenes of fortune telling and Buddhist reincarnation make this film very steeped in traditional Korean culture. Even for those who are uninterested in melodrama, this film is worth seeking out for the visuals alone. Perhaps my personal favorite of the series.

University of Wisconsin Cinematheque Website

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About Adam DiPiazza
I love Peach Snapple.

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