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Shin Sang-Ok: Garden of Evil, Flowers of Hell

As gamblers to the wheel's bright spell,
As drunkards to their raging thirst,
As corpses to their worms — accurst
Be thou! Oh, be thou damned to hell!

Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, (trans. George Dillon)

Directed by Shin Sang-ok. Screenplay by Lee Jeong-seon. Starring Choi Eun-hee, Kim Hak, Jo Hae-won, Gang Seon-hee. Cinematography by Kang Beom-gu. Produced by Seoul Film Company. 86 min, b&w. Released on April 20, 1958. Winner of a Best Actress award for Choi Eun-hee at the 2nd Buil Film Awards.

Flower in Hell will be playing at The Korea Society on March 15th.

Sueyoung Park-Primiano will give a brief lecture on the film’s history and context and discuss the work with the audience after the screening.

For more information, click here.

 

Flower in Hell

A season in hell

Last week, while the first flowers in bloom were making us hope for the possibility of an early spring  here in New York, winter had a brutal way of coming back to life with insanely low temperatures, snow and a blizzard that seemed like it was not going to run out of breath any time soon (at least upstate). Koreans, who know the phenomenon well, have baptized this late cold wave 꽃샘추위 (you need a Korean font set up on your computer to read this) which can literally be translated as “the cold, envious of flowers, a last poetic whim apparently, as winter seems to have made way for spring in a more definite manner in the past few days. Now, I did not really intend to talk about the weather with this little piece of small talk, but since I am speaking about flowers, this provides me with a (tenuous) link to the Baudelairean-titled film by Shin Sang-Ok, which will be playing at The Korea Society this Thursday.

Shin, who died last year at age 80, occupies a central place in the history of Korean cinema. He directed more than 70 films, 7 of which were made with Kim Jong-Il as the executive producer. The current DPRK leader (he was “only”, if I may say so, his father’s son at the time and the author of On the Art of the Cinema, published in 1973) had conceived the bright idea to have the respected South-Korean auteur work for the greater Communist good, instead of making big bad capitalist goods for the US-supported nation-state on the other side of the 38th parallel.

The story of moral downfall that Flower in Hell tells us has a lot to do with capitalism indeed. The film, which was rediscovered at the 2001 edition of the PIFF (Pusan International Film Festival), was a critical success, if not a commercial one. If Jiokhwa, as it is known in Korean, has aged in many ways, the approach it adopts to deal with prostitution as the human transaction par excellence resonates probably even more strongly now than it did in the late 1950’s. Shortly after completing his military service, a modern-day Candide, Dong-Shik (Jo Hae-won), goes to Seoul to fulfill another type of duty: finding his elder brother who has gone to the ruined capital. His mother has entrusted him with the task of bringing the prodigal son back to the village. But hardly has he set foot in the city that he gets robbed of his meagre possessions while he is trying to help a damsel in distress, the victim of a theft. Another disappointment awaits: he comes across his brother Young-Shik (Kim Hak), who has fallen for a prostitute who calls herself Sonya (played by director Shin’s wife, Choi Eun-Hee), and belongs to a gang that lives an existence of petty crimes near a US base, from which they steal goods that they sell on the black market later.

This stark beginning, shot in a resolutely neo-realist mode, makes good use of actual footage from that era, showing us the aftermath of the Korean War in Seoul, which has become a city of dire destitution and despair. Worse, the presence of American troops has resulted in the development of a specialized underground economy: traffic, hostess bars, diverse outbursts of violence… a world on which Shin Sang-Ok gives a fly-on-the-wall perspective. This documentary-like pessimism initiated a quasi-verist trend in the Korean film industry at the time of its release (1958), and heralded the first days of the 1960's Golden Age.

 

 To this world where morality seems entirely abolished in favor of profit and pure exploitation, the filmmaker brings a touch of the dryness and aggression found in American noir movies from the 1930’s, an aspect that will disappear in his late, more static and hieratic style, which will find its best expression in the historical drama Eunuch (1967/68, depending on the sources), or in The Evergreen Tree (1961) and My Mother and Her Guest (id.).

Miles away from the discreet feminine figures that he will become so adept at portraying, Shin Sang-Ok describes in Flower in Hell the sordid margins of society without a shred of complacency, showing these hard-luck men and women as little more than discontented parasites who eke out a living off the fat of an invisible land (the US), metaphorically represented as a barbed-wired military base.

In this broken and bleak landscape, the decadent beauty of the prostitutes brings a sharp sense of contrast and irony as they ape the remote model of Hollywood stars with cheap make-up and dresses. Their omnipresence and the centrality of the brothel-town cause an almost tangible unease that permeates Flower in Hell and grows to control the narrative and threatens to undo it at the same time.

 

 

In the mire

 

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