CHILSU AND MANSU (1988)
The westernisation of Korea and an increasingly marginalised class of workers fuel this tale of two fraught young men with harmonised fates
A film that pulses with the societal anxiety and frustrations of Korea at the time, Chulsu and Mansu was a controversial marriage of screen entertainment and political commentary at the time. We can be grateful for such forthrightness from the influential Park Kwang-su’s debut outing as he has captured a celluloid snapshot of a Korea hurtling into a new era.
Featuring at the 42nd Locarno International Film Festival and the 39th Berlin International Film Festival, it has persevered as a vital touchstone of the vexation of young Koreans that experienced rigid state rule and spiralling inequality during the 1980s.
Images of westernisation are displayed through those flagship American commodities – the fast food chain restaurant and in-your-face billboard advertising.
The food chain is Burger King, where the womanising Chilsu (Park Joong-hoon – Two Cops, Rules of the Game, Nowhere to Hide) tries to seduce one of its part-time employees, college student Jina (Bae Jong-ok – Jealousy Is My Middle Name, Herb).
Chilsu is a talented artist, sketching Jina when she works, but he applies his talents to billboard painting for a day job. One day he meets fellow painter Mansu (Ahn Sung-ki – The Housemaid, Mandala, Silmido), a very different character from Chilsu, with less wide-eyed enthusiasm but a more effective sense of get-up-and-go. However, while Chilsu tries to impress Jina, Mansu is gradually more reliant on alcohol.
The pair both increasingly seem downtrodden and restless as Seoul evolves towards being the powerhouse city that became part of the modern global landscape. When the pair work together on a major billboard job, it leads them to a final stand against the city which has left them behind.
Chulsu and Mansu both have artistic talent, but make ends meet as the final pieces in the advertising journey, copying art at scale for passers-by. It is not just the under appreciation of such talents at play here. The pair have almost been committed to working class status before their school days were over, with Chulsu from an area dependent on US soldiers for income which has pulled his family apart while Mansu’s father was a communist sympathiser and the stigma follows him everywhere.
A casual viewing suggests this is about Korea’s obsession with American culture, a concept partially reversed in the modern climate where Parasite has won Best Picture at the Oscars and BTS are one of the US’s most loved music acts. But as with much of Park’s work, the anger that Chilsu and Mansu eventually feel represents the fury of the working classes who remained marginalised from the Korean economic improvements, signalling the need to fight for change. This is a rallying call, one made quite literally from the rafters by Chilsu and Mansu in the film’s iconic final act.
An essential component in comprehending both the history of Korean cinema and the past of Korea as a country. Angry, but measured in its fury, Chilsu and Mansu is a seminal slice of the country’s history.