Two Films by Shin Sang-Ok

A Master among the "Three Korean Master Filmmakers" Series

by Donato Totaro Volume 1, Issue 7 / September 1997 9 minutes (2026 words)

Having seen only three of the 60 plus films directed by Sang-Ok it may be premature to start tossing out superlatives, but his films seen at the recent Cinematheque Canada’s (CCA) “Three Korean Master Filmmakers” series represent one of the major international cinema revelations of recent years (up there with the discovery of Moshen Makhmalbaf in the same CCA’s recent Iranian retrospective). Sang-Ok, one of the three “masters” of Korean cinema featured (Yu Hyun-Mok and Im Kwon-Taek being the others), gives the impression of being Korea’s answer to Kenji Mizoguchi with his dependence on female characters and his thematic concern for the plight of women in Korean social history. Formally, Sang-Ok recalls Mizoguhci with his thematic use of nature, his use of the long shot, and his overall formal precision. However, he veers from the Japanese master in as many ways (frequent use of close-ups, eroticism, proclivity towards overstatement).

Of the four films screened, Eunuch gets my vote for Sang-Ok’s centerpiece film. Eunuch is in color and widescreen ( My Mother and the Guest is widescreen/B&W Women of the Choson Dynasty is widescreen/B&W & color; Dream is full-frame & color). The film is an aesthetically rapturous critique of Korea’s medieval, patriarchal-Emperor society. The film, in gloriously color-rich technicolor, is set primarily within the prison-like confines of the Emperor’s palace. The king is serviced by dozens of eunuchs (castrated males) and concubines. Chastity is the call of the day for all except the king, which makes for many undersexed servants. Once a concubine reaches a certain age and is no longer the pick of the litter, she is cast aside for a younger woman. Unfortunately, once a woman enters the palace in the king’s service she can only leave upon death (wrapped up in a straw carpet, as seen in Women of the Choson Dynasty ). The same rigid anti-female law applies to marriage. Once a woman marries and leaves her parents’ home she can no longer return to it ( Choson Dynasty) .

With only one serviceable penis (the king’s), the palace is a hothouse of repressed sexuality. Sang-Ok expresses this sexuality through both narrative means and subtler formal/stylistic means (color-passionate art direction, surprisingly graphic violence, sensuous lighting). The first hint of lesbianism comes in an early scene whose mise-en-scene could be mistaken for something out of a Hammer vampire film (one of many conscious or unconscious affinities to Hammer films in Sang-Ok’s films). Lady Min, an older concubine steals into the room of a sleeping, younger concubine, the heroine Ja-Oak. As she slowly approaches the sleeping beauty, the scene crosscuts between her rapturous face and the Ja-Oak’s near-exposed bosom. The feel of the predator’s lips on Ja-Oak’s chest wakes the startled concubine, who coils back in sexual disgust.

The central characters of the film are two forlorn lovers, Ja-Oak and Jong-ho. A flashback set within a natural landscape – which Sang-Ok frequently uses to suggest freedom and/or sensuality – reveals that their budding love was forbidden by Ja-Oak’s father, a senior official. The father then had Jong-ho castrated and sent to serve the king as a eunuch. In an effort to win the king’s favor, the father sends Ja-Oak to become a concubine. Once there Ja-Oak remains loyal to her (now sexless) lover. Once the king discovers the father’s ulterior motives, he insults him by choosing Ja-Oak’s maid to be her concubine. Another important character is the master eunuch who, in the film’s conclusion stages a kamikazi- style mutiny.

One remarkable scene reflects the insidious and masochistic extremes which the palace’s sexual hierarchy produces. As the king makes love to Ja-Oak’s maid, Lady Min and Ja-Oak listen from an adjoining room. The sexual sounds arouse the older concubine, to the point of making unrequited advances to Ja-Oak. Sang-Ok’s clever camera positioning, behind a vase or uplifted leg, coyly conceals the nudity. A later scene parallels this one with the master eunuch and Jong-ho listening from outside the king’s room as he makes love to Ja- Oak. The scene crosscuts between the two spaces. The master eunuch is aroused by the amorous sounds, but his arousal is mixed with a sense of compassion for Jong-ho’s tortured expressions as he listens to the passions he knows he can not provide. In a later scene, moments before the master eunuch revolts, the master eunuch angrily chastises Ja-Oak for allowing her passions to explode in Hong-jo’s presence.

A subtheme of the film is “worldly greed.” Lower cast families give away their daughters to gain royal favors. The king greedily clings to his crown’s benefits. It’s not enough to have complete reign over the bodies of his concubines, but he must also have their hearts. No concubine can love anyone except the king. This “law” is played out in the third story of The Women of Choson Dynasty . Even suicide is forbidden as an act of salvation. When the king discovers Ja-Oak’s love for a eunuch, a situation usually punishable by death or banishment to the palace dungeon, he tells her “If you kill yourself, the consequences will be tragic!”

One of the more striking qualities of Sang-Ok’s style is his thematic use of nature. Natural splendour, greenery, running water, the sound of a cuckoo (at times recalling Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood , 1962) are used to counterpoint the aesthetically rapturous but socially stifling interior palace walls. Scenes of horror or repression are contrasted, in flashback or fantasy, by cuts to the exterior (as in the flashback to Ja-Oak and Jong-ho’s pre-palace courtship). The bloody battle between the master eunuch and the loyal eunuchs ends with an arrow being lodged into the master eunuch’s left eye. With Hammer-like bright red blood covering his face, he tries to remove the arrow from his shattered eye. Immediately following this painful sight, Sang-Ok cuts straight to the freed couple in the sunlit woods, with the peaceful sounds of running water and a cawing cuckoo on the soundtrack. Similar juxtapositions between interior social prison and exterior freedom appear in The Women of Choson Dynasty . In the palace, Lady Min tells Ja-Oak about a concubine’s forlorn destiny of servitude. As she tells her “You must escape and live a normal life” visible in the background is a large landscape painting that underscores the interior/prison, exterior/freedom duality.

To save his throne, the king must cover-up his mother’s unexpected pregnancy (by her shaman). The cover-up includes orders to kill all of the Regent’s maids. The abortion leads to fatal complications that cause the regent’s death. The eunuch who performed the abortion, Sohn, becomes another victim of the cover-up. Angered by the death of his friend and possible lover, Sohn, the master eunuch decides to save the Regent’s maids from their death order. As if director Sang-Ok’s dramatic skills weren’t enough, he stages an impressive one- versus-many sword battle between the master eunuch and his former allies. Before being felled by the arrow, the master eunuch slays countless eunuchs, severing arms, limbs, in methodically paced suspenseful long takes and tension-relieving cuts. The sequence boasts a choreography worthy of comparison to the best of recent Hong Kong action film.

Sang-Ok manages to top this climax with a vengeaful denouement. The couple’s new found freedom is treated by Sang-Ok to an ironic short-life. Charged by the the joys of freedom, Ja-Oak and Hong-jo begin to make love. The moment is emotionally sabotaged by the reality of Jong-ho’s sexlessness, and compounded by Ja-Oak’s laughter. The lovemaking ends abruptly. In the next scene Ja-Oak and Jong-ho argue over whether or not to keep the king’s child. An emotionally shattered Jong-ho leaves the hut in tears, falling onto the ground and grapping a (phallic) branch. In a surprising turn, Ja-Oak’s family come out of nowhere to murder Jong-ho and bring Ja-Oak back to the palace.

The film’s final scene takes place in the king’s bedroom. The king is convinced that he now has both Ja-Oak’s heart and body. The audience is still unsure, adding a subtle air of violent tension to the scene. A wild, languid lovemaking montage cuts between extreme close-up’s of their passionate bodies, sexually perspiring faces, with a single superimposed flame marking the center foreground of the image. Repetitive piano notes, heard in all the sex scenes, drone onward. Passion turns to violence. Ja-Oak pulls a tiny silver dagger out of her mouth and slowly works it to the king’s nape. Ja-Oak achieves poetic vengeance by inserting the dagger into the king’s nape at the point of sexual climax, and then committing suicide. A voice-over provides the film’s epilogue. We learn the guard changes, with a new Regent and master eunuch, but the political corruption, “secrets,” and cover-up’s continue (the closest the film gets to any overt political metaphor). The king’s murder becomes death by illness; and Ja-Oak’s body is propped up to appear alive, and then discarded beyond the palace walls.

Even with Ja-Oak’s revenge and the master eunuchs brave mutiny, Eunuch paints a grim, pessimistic view of life within the royal palace. Sang-Ok’s treatment of this similar theme is more liberating in the final story of Choson Dynasty . In the third tale, “A Court Lady Must Live Only for the King,” the concubines show a greater sense of solidarity and insurrection. A voice-over informs us that there are 300 women at the service of the king’s court. In a situation that recalls Eunuch , an older concubine is aroused while listening to the king’s lovemaking. In an act of self-punishment, masochism, or both, she punctures her hand with the tip of a dagger. She relieves herself by runing out into the woods to embrace a large branch. Moments later she is raped from behind by an officer of the court. In a subsequent scene the noted concubine is seen in continuous shots rolling down a snowy hill and then lying in an ice-cold pond. The fantasy-like scene, which has a sexual charge (a phallic branch comes into play again), gains its meaning in the following scene when we learn of her pregnancy, and assume she was attempting to abort the baby. (an ex. of what Noel Carroll calls the erotetic question-answer narrative, where a narrative question is asked in one scene and answered in the next). In a palace scene bathed in eerie bluish & gold lighting, the older concubines plot to conceal the pregnancy, an act of self-preservation as much as altruism. Later they deliver the baby in a secluded part of the palace, known as the “haunted ice palace” (a set reminiscent of Hammer’s Bray studio). The officer who raped the concubine seeks her out to express his love, which is requited by the concubine. The three other concubines see the officer leaving the secret lair and misinterpret his visit. In a chilling moment which mixes irony and female empowerment, the three women ambush the officer and strangle him to death.

Unlike Eunuch , this segment concludes the film on an unqualified note of optimism. The young concubine and her baby are successfully secreted beyond the palace walls. In the final shot the camera captures her from afar, baby in arms, walking along the riverbank. The camera then quickly pans away from her to the left and zooms in to the setting orange sun. The shots final gesture toward an open, free space, like many of Mizoguchi’s parting shots, places the single concubine’s experience into a more hopeful, transcendental space beyond temporality and history. The other episodes from The Women of the Choson Dynasty also deal with the oppression of women, though none attain the Eunuch ’s emotional power. Still, the film holds formal interest in the way Sang-Ok experiments with a 1960’s style camera choreography (long lens, short depth of field, quick pans, zooms), and in its stylistic- thematic parallel to Eunuch (made a year earlier).

Two Films by Shin Sang-Ok

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 1, Issue 7 / September 1997 Essays   country_asia_korea   korean cinema   shin sang ok