THE MAN WITH THREE COFFINS (1987)
A visually stunning meditation on grief and its ability to follow us anywhere, as a widower travels to his dead wife’s hometown to spread her ashes
This colour-filled road movie from Lee Jang-ho follows the fortunes of a widower as he travels to spread the ashes of his wife, but encounters jarring reminders of this loss in the process.
The film is also known in English by the less catchy titles of A Wanderer Never Stops on the Road and A Traveller Does Not Rest Even on the Road, the latter being the title of the popular Lee Je-ha book the film is based upon.
Some years after the passing of his wife, Sun-seok (Kim Myung-gon) travels to the eastern coast of Korea with her ashes, with plans to scatter them near her hometown by the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.
On his journey he meets three other women that look exactly like his wife, all played by Lee Bo-hee, and they each serve as painful reminders that are then laced with fresh tragedy.
One of the doppelgangers is a nurse attempting to escort the dying chairman of a businessman to his hometown, located near Sun-seok's final destination.
Sun-seok also meet two prostitutes in different towns along his journey, both of which also bear an uncanny resemblance to his deceased wife, and offer fresh turns of agony for the embattled traveller.
The film boasts some inspiring shots and visuals, especially the colour palettes implemented by Lee. The director stated that as a child growing up in Seoul after the Korean War, the streets were filled with broken glass. Along with his friends they would hold the pieces of glass up and see the world tinted in their colours.
When reading the book, he imagined various colours filling the story. The film opens on a deep red, and flicks into oranges and yellows that wash over the screen to create an art installation feel to the film. It is like an entire film set in an old-fashioned photo processing room.
Printing technology in Korea at the time was unable to reproduce the exact shade that Lee intended, but the currently available Korean Film Archive restoration is stunning enough to pay suitable homage to Lee’s intentions.
The story unfolds in a less structured manner, focusing on the raw emotions of the themes and allowing its narrative to unfurl in various fragments. This gives way to more outright surrealism by the film’s conclusion.
Korean Shamanism is also a vital theme, with imagery of shamanism scattered throughout with cut scenes of bells and shaman rituals . The sense of displacement also looms large in this divided Korea, as Sun-seok struggles to get navigate to the demilitarized zone of his wife’s youth.
With such rich themes, alongside the colours and emotions blending on screen with genuine power, creates an evocative work with charts grief and the painful memories of losing a loved one.