This review is part of the Korean Film Blogathon. Check out their homepage here.
Two weeks back, I attended a screening of Han Hyung-mo’s 1956 film MADAME FREEDOM at the Korean Film Archive, followed by a lecture by film critic Darcy Paquet as part of a six film series he is hosting on 20th Century Korean Cinema. It is a fine film, a melodrama with a lot of stylistic similarities to other masterpieces of the form, especially the work of Max Ophuls. In his discussion after the film, Paquet went over the technical advances of the production, including the use of a crane, which director Han considered essential to a telling of the popular story. Clearly, Han had a knowledge of the grammar of melodrama established by filmmakers like Ophuls, Douglas Sirk, and Kenji Mizoguchi. This week, I finally watched Han’s earlier work, HAND OF DESTINY (aka HAND OF FATE), released by the Korean Film Archive in a very impressive DVD set. Comparing the two films, the technical advances of MADAME FREEDOM are noticeable, as is the movement into pure melodrama. Nevertheless, HAND OF DESTINY is a work that shows Han’s directorial talent, as well as being a compelling look at a particular moment in Korean history.
In terms of genre, as well as its narrative structure, HAND OF DESTINY is a hybrid, combining melodrama with an anti-Communist narrative very common following the end of the Korean War. The plot revolves around Margaret, aka Jung-ae, a North Korean spy working undercover as a bar girl at a saloon. She falls in love with Young-chul after nursing him back to health following a beating. The first half of the film is their love story, which is then interrupted by the anti-communist action plot, in which Young-chul is revealed to be an agent battling the North Koreans and, by extension, his lover, which she soon discovers. Coming so soon after the end of the war, it is interesting to see how the trope of the tragic division between north and south is already established, a narrative that would continue to be seen decades later in such action films as SHIRI and JSA. It is also hard not to compare the film to the anti-Communist films of America in the same period. While both South Korea and the USA portray Communism as an evil in these propaganda stories, the North Korean agent Margaret is more sympathetic than any Communist in American films of the time. Because Korean people continued to think of themselves as the same ethnic group, it was difficult to denounce the Korean people, even those in the North, in the same way as Americans could denounce foreign Communists and internal traitors. The villain of HAND OF DESTINY is a Mabuse-like figure, a dark shadow representing the impersonal and monstrous North Korean government. Margaret is still a North Korean spy and thus has to die at the conclusion, but she is also Jung-ae, a caring and compassionate Korean woman who finally acts to save her South Korean lover. And given the stakes involved in the north-south plot, the traditional concerns of the melodrama, such as the fallen woman, seem minor by comparison. A line like, “What’s so bad about being a prostitute?” has a certain subversive edge here; the greater evil of communism reveals the more conventional social concerns as insignificant. When Han turns to pure melodrama with MADAME FREEDOM, these social conventions return as an oppressive force.
Although made just two years before MADAME FREEDOM, HAND OF DESTINY in very different in style. While the technical innovations of MADAME FREEDOM gives it the feel of other melodramas of the 1950s, HAND OF DESTINY is closer to the style of the 1930s. In fact, the film’s opening recalls an even earlier period of film history, the silent era. There is no dialogue for the first seven and a half minutes, and it is among the best stretches of the entire film. Instead of relying on a great deal of camera movement, more emphasis is given to the mise-en-scene and lighting, and all of the scenes in the first half of the film in Margaret’s room are wonderfully shot. It is in the action set-pieces of the second half where the technical limitations reveal themselves, and overall the melodrama plot is more compelling, both in terms of narrative and style. But, as I mentioned above, I believe the melodrama here is able to be more daring because of the co-presence of the anti-communist action story.
The DVD released by the Korean Film Archive is very solid, with many extras all subtitled in English, as well as a booklet that is also bilingual. This is standard for their DVD releases, and all of the work they do is worth owning for fans of Korean film history.
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