Site and Sound: The Films of Ha Gil-jong
“Go home and moan all you want—this is a pub!” declares a student at one point in Ha Gil-jong's The March of Fools (1975). Regularly considered among the greatest South Korean films of all time, the tale of wayward youth, which doubles as a cutting critique of 1970s Korean society, recently served as the centerpiece of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival’s mini-retrospective, “Hidden Figures: Ha Gil-jong.” Although a seemingly small quip, the line represents a number of the key concerns in Ha’s films, chief among them the loaded significance of specific locations, and the implications of their traversal.
While previous retrospectives of Ha’s work have been presented in the west—most notably at the Harvard Film Archive in 2017—the LKFF’s screenings of The March of Fools, The Pollen of Flowers (1972) and The Ascension of Han-ne (1977), provided a welcome opportunity for new audiences to discover Ha’s modest but dynamic and vital body of work. Having produced only seven feature films and a handful of shorts between the late 1960s and his untimely passing in 1979 at age 37, Ha’s career is impossible to consider apart from that era’s politics, namely the repressive military regime of dictator Park Chung-hee, which came to an end in 1979 with Park’s assassination.
The Pollen of Flowers, Ha’s debut feature, was the only film he completed before implementation of the repressive 1973 Yushin System, which updated the national Motion Picture Law and exerted extreme censorship over the country’s film industry. The system’s grip on Korean cinema throughout the rest of the decade has lead to a commonplace critical dismissal of the era as one of little artistic merit, primarily dominated by propagandistic “national policy” films and “hostess” films focusing on the lives of fallen women.
Even when working within these modes of production—as with his penultimate and most successful feature, Heavenly Homecoming to Stars II (1978), a sequel to the highest-grossing South Korean feature of the decade—Ha’s work always embodies a prickly relationship to the state and assumed social conventions. (It’s worth noting Ha’s lifelong commitment to such agitation, including his participation in the anti-government protests of the 1960 April Revolution, before his turn to filmmaking.)
If the filmmaker’s oeuvre remains thrilling and unique 40 years later it arguably hinges upon such dissidence, complimented by a style which uses western points of reference—particularly European arthouse ones—in service of a distinctly domestic cinema responding to questions concerning South Korean society, politics, and cultural policy. Ha himself undertook his studies at UCLA, where his resultant thesis film The Ritual for a Soldier (1969)—considered an early influence for South Korea’s then nascent experimental film scene—earned him an invitation to work for American producers, an offer he passed up in order to return to South Korea.
The move is alluded to in the text that immediately follows The Pollen of Flowers's (1972) titlecard: “A Homecoming Film by Ha Gil-jong.” Beyond a literal and biographical reading, we might ascribe a secondary meaning to the “homecoming” as referring to the film’s focus on domestic space. Over half of the plot takes place in an elegant mansion in the suburbs of Seoul. Nicknamed the “Blue House,” the abode shares the same moniker as the residence of the country's President, in Seoul, and the metaphor is no less effective for being so thinly-veiled.
In the film the home is owned by Hyeon-ma, a figure of wealth and privilege whose profession is never made explicit. Its residents are Se-ran, his concubine, and Mi-ran, her younger sister, while the quartet that propels the film’s plot is completed by the young Adonis Dan-ju, Hyeon-ma’s secretary and love interest (with their relationship considered the first representation of queerness in Korean cinema). While Ha’s work rarely veers too deep into the realm of genre, the film’s initial establishment is gothic in nature, with Se-ran, Mi-ran, and their ever-present maid Ok-nyeo alone in the grand home. “I wish we had a man with us,” the former appeals, before the arrival of Hyeon-ma with Dan-ju in tow. Not long after their first meeting and impromptu affair in Dan-ju’s apartment—a shabby single room positioned against the grandeur of the Blue House—he and Mi-ran abscond to the coast, before a confrontation with a distraught Hyeon-ma leads them both back to the Blue House. There, the film blossoms into an increasingly delirious cycle of parties, sexual liaisons, and breakdowns.
Ha’s time in the States had been instructive, not least for the access it afforded the emerging filmmaker to American and European arthouse cinema, and the influence is evident in The Pollen of Flowers. The filmmaker’s work has more than once been compared to that of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and the comparisons thankfully extend beyond their early deaths, with key films by both filmmakers evincing a shared talent for stylized and symbolic compositions, invocations of genre, and representations of queerness.
An even more explicit and instructive point of entry for Ha’s debut is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), which lends the film its plot setup of a desirable stranger who enters and upsets the assumed order of a household, a parallel so close that it earned the film charges of plagiarism. (While on the topic of tracing influence, in the other direction one can’t also help but locate the film’s themes of class, power, and their relation to domestic space in Bong Joon Ho’s recent hit Parasite .)
Whether or not Ha considered himself to be a version of this Teorema-like figure, arriving to upset the established order of the Korean film industry, can’t be stated definitely, though he was outspoken about the need for cinema to agitate against cultural norms by way of cinematic modernism. The sentiment was solidified through his participation in the Visual Age Group (also known as the Era of Image Group), one of several film collectives that emerged in South Korea throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The short-lived group—which included Ha alongside critic Byun In-Shik and filmmakers Kim Ho-Sun, Lee Jang-Ho, Hong Pa, Lee, and Won-Se—introduced themselves via a 1975 manifesto, which was explicit about the need for a new movement in Korean cinema, one that was overtly youthful and subversive. “Film has to be a spear that would tear down the walls of authoritarianism,” read the text, and continued with no shortage of self-assurance: “We, as ‘protectors of screen,’ hereby declare that we will provide a cinema with new values and aesthetics by uniting the ideals and talents each one of us has.”
The March of Fools is again a film structured and defined by places, both those occupied by its central characters, as well as those left largely unseen. The latter is the realm of the military, something which only appears at the film's opening and closing, but weighs over the film as something frequently spoken of or hinted at, by the clever inclusion of military percussion over routine, civilian actives. In the first scene we meet the film's two guileless leads Byeong-Tae (Yun Mun-Seop) and Yeong-cheol (Ha Jae-Young), as they participate in examinations and are ultimately rejected for service. From here Ha cuts to the university, a privileged site of edification, where both have ended up in philosophy studies and pass their time, when not chasing skirts and running afoul of the authorities.
The film largely rotates between these locations: the university, the street, the police station, and—repeatedly—the bar, where the characters regularly spend their few winnings on pints of beer, whether with friends or as part of ill-fated attempts at romance. Adapted from a novel by writer Choi In-Ho (who also scripted the original Heavenly Homecoming to Stars ), the use of location in The March of Fools is refined, serving to illustrate the two leads’ increased sense of alienation and despondency. Produced at the height of Yushin era censorship, over 25 minutes were excised from the film. (Most of this footage has been tragically lost, though the Korean Film Archives' 2014 release of the film includes three minutes that were salvaged, alongside notes detailing the required cuts.) While the forced edits can occasionally produce moments of disorientation for the spectator, they also serve to emphasize the film’s already jittery energy.
Ha's career following the unexpected success of The March of Fools is a curious one, with two of his final films being sequels, including the aforementioned Heavenly Homecoming to Stars II and a followup to The March of Fools called Byung-tae and Young-ja (1979), which begins with Byeong-tae’s eventual stint in the military before returning to Seoul and his attempts at social readjustment.
While ostensibly an outlier in Ha's filmography with its rural, 19th-century setting, The Ascension of Han-ne is a familiar inclusion in Ha’s body of work through its synthesis of international influences with traditional Korean narratives and locations. Again touching on the gothic, the film centers on a woman who appears in a small village, before it gradually emerges that she may or may not be the spirit of a resident who took her own life twenty years before, on the eve of a major annual ceremony. Placing her exclusion alongside group rituals, the film offers a blunt critique of an antifeminist society that kowtowed to superstition, tradition, and xenophobia in lieu of openness. Far from the Seoul suburbs and disco ball-illuminated watering-holes of other features, The Ascension of Han-ne is indicative of Ha Gil-jong’s overall project, elevating the tales of the young and typically unheard against the din of tradition and the expected.