THE MARCH OF FOOLS (1975)
Youthful gaiety gives way to existential angst in this coming-of-age classic set during Korea’s military dictatorship
The March of Fools is a veritable time capsule of Korea in the 70s in terms of its youth mood, fashion, music and overarching authoritarian setting.
What starts as a college student romp of fun-seeking and joy, descends into a portrait of uncertainty and self-doubt that many young people of the time endured.
We meet chuckling philosophy college students Byeong-tae (Yun Mun-seop) and Yeong-cheol (Ha Jae-young) as they get drunk and attempt to woo girls.
After attending a blind date evening with the French literature department they meet Yeong-ja (Lee Young-ok) and Sun-ja (Kim Yeong-suk).
The foursome form a friendship, one littered with the boys’ desperate attempts to take things further, as they drink, share their issues and ponder their futures (“You’re a philosophy student, how are you going to make money?”).
Such initial merriment unfolds in the backdrop of Korea’s military dictatorship, including Byeong-tae and Yeong-cheol being chased by police en route to their blind date due to their long hair. The police will similarly hound the students after late night drinking as the curfew is strictly enforced.
There are darker moods brewing under the playful exteriors of the college slackers and the film slides into reflective melancholy as the boys grow unsure of their role as free spirits in a repressive society. The complications of life in a rapidly changing Korea weigh heavy on our protagonists.
The tonal shift of the final act could easily have felt misplaced after the youthful comedy of everything prior, but there is enough indication of the growing uncertainty to make it all believable.
The film captures the clothes, music and streets of Seoul, particularly in their trips out to bars and back into college the following day. However, it is the real-life backdrop of Park Chung-hee, who served as the President of South Korea from 1963 until his assassination in 1979, and his military dictatorship which provides the films true core.
The performance of the sunny-side-up boys perfectly portrays their blend of hapless enthusiasm and unguided purpose, but its Lee Young-ok's portrayal of the deceitful and fun-seeking Yeong-ja which particularly sparkles.
Director Ha would tragically pass away in 1979 from a stroke, just four years after the success of The March of Fools. During a very short career, Ha started to get his social criticisms across but was cut short of what would have surely been a wider body of work taking the country in his time to task.
The March of Fools is a film greatly enriched by understanding the social-political setting where the drama unfolds.
Named by the Korean Film Archive as the greatest Korean film ever in 2014 – in a three-way split with The Housemaid (1960) and Aimless Bullet (1961) – today its legacy endures as a vital cultural signpost of the time that would be unrecognisable for some of Korea’s youth, but wholly relatable in other aspects.