AIMLESS BULLET (1961)
The desperation of post-war Korea seen through the eyes of two brothers trapped in a powder keg of bleakness
"I'm a cripple, a has-been, a broken bowl used and then thrown away after the war,” bellows one former soldier in directing legend Yu Hyun-mok's magnum opus.
A commercial failure upon its initial release, Aimless Bullet was soon banned by the military government due to its bleak portrayal of post-war Korea. It was in 1963 at the San Francisco International Film Festival that the film got its due recognition and it persist today as one of Korea’s greatest ever films.
As wrongheaded as the government of the time was in banning the film, it was certainly correct in its observation that it is a wretched affair. Pure disconsolateness in cellular form.
The film, more formally named Obaltan, is a perfect outing of realist cinema. As a message, it even more perfectly packages the collective anxiety of post-war Korea and delivers it full-force with no apology.
We follow the forlorn fortunes of brothers Cheolho and his younger sibling Yeongho. They live together in tight quarters with the wider family, including their mother. Traumatised by the events of the Korean War, all the mother can do now is shout “Let’s Go” from her bed, providing a consistent bark of desperation to every domestic moment.
Cheolho works as an accountant and is bedevilled by chronic toothache, but despite his regular job he struggles by in pain and living in squalor. Yeongho is unemployed, spending his time with other desolate former soldiers looking for work.
Yeongho is offered a role as a leading man in a film, but when he realises his casting is only a reality due to his genuine war scares, he storms out in fury. His lack of cash has not drained him of the last of his dignity.
Meanwhile their sister Myeongsuk is a former nurse who is now a prostitute for American soldiers.
These strands of desperation will force one of the brothers into an equally hopeless act, as we spiral down further into the mire.
It is not just the bleakness of the central story which grinds us down. We are also casual observers to young Korean women chased down the street by boorish American soldiers. We see desperate labour protest from the front of the picket line. Then most disturbingly we briefly see a mother after she has committed suicide, her screaming child still tied to her back and calling for their dead mother’s care.
The message is clear – the desperation is everywhere and you are just witnessing a small slice of it with the family at the centre of this particular story.
What makes the film a masterpiece today is not just what it tells us about Korea at the time. It is also a timeless tale of the absurdity and harshness of human existence. For many, to live is to suffer and there seems to be no way out. Instead they operate as an aimless bullet devoid of direction.