Maengjinsadaek Gyeongsa (1962)

Some definitions that came to my mind, having—over the course of a little over thirty years—watched three versions of the same story:

Nostalgia. A feeling of deep, intense longing for a film you saw in your childhood, and of which you remember nothing except the vague outline of a story.

Serendipity. Searching for a film you know next to nothing about, and finding an earlier version that turns out to be even better than the one you recall seeing.

Double delight. Finding yet another version of a much-loved film, and discovering that this one is just as good as the other versions.

The point being that Shijibganeun Nal, about which I raved so ecstatically a couple of years back on this blog, turned out to have been only the earliest (as far as I know) cinematic adaptation of a comic play about a greedy country gentleman, a quiet and upright maidservant, and a young nobleman. I had originally seen the 1977 version of this film on Doordarshan three decades ago; I found and watched (with much enjoyment) the award-winning 1956 version some time back; and then, the other day, I came across this version (the name of which translates as ‘A Happy Day for Maeng Jinsa’) on Youtube. And how could I resist watching it all over again?

Choi Eun-Hee as Ip-Bun

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Balgan Mahura (1964)

Or, in English, The Red Scarf.

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that war films (and by that I mean those films which stay true to the genre and aren’t crossovers or about genre-bending) fall into three main categories. The first is the propaganda film, like the Robert Taylor starrer Bataan:  made, typically, during a war (Bataan was made in 1943), and aimed, mainly, at showing audiences how brave and self-sacrificing and patriotic their men in uniform are, thus (hopefully) spurring others on to enlist. There are more subtle propaganda films, too, the type that don’t outright yell the message out, but which show how glorious a death it can be to die for your country.

Then, there are the ‘grim reality’ films (and these feature some of the very best war films I’ve ever seen): films that strip war of the valour, the patriotic fervour, and all the other jingoistic claptrap used by political and military leaders to whip up support for whichever war they want their countrymen (and women) to die for. Films, like Paths of Glory or Battleground, which show the dirt, the pain, the agony of war. Not just for those who go into battle, but also for those who have to stay behind, the civilians.

Then there are the adventure films, the suspense-ridden, high-adrenaline films like Where Eagles Dare or The Enemy Below, which are rather more escapist—true, they don’t completely disguise the nature of war, but they make violence part of the adventure, instead of something that can wreck human life.

The South Korean film Balgan Mahura (The Red Scarf) falls pretty much in the ‘propaganda’ category, though it does have some surprises that set it a little apart from the more trite representations of that category.

A tale about war: Balgan Mahura, 'The Red Scarf'

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Seong Chun-Hyang (1961)

Among the most popular old tales in Korea—or so various sites inform me—is that of Chun Hyang, the beautiful daughter of a courtesan, and of Chun Hyang’s efforts to remain faithful to her husband, come what may.

I happened to come across a highly abridged version of The Tale of Chun Hyang on Scribd, read it (it was just six pages long) and liked it enough to try and see if I could get a novel-length version. I couldn’t get one—but what I found was that this tale seems to be to Korean cinema what Beauty and the Beast is to Western cinema: done and redone since the first moving pictures began. There have been over twenty versions made of this story, some of them now gone missing. The original story has been retained in most versions (including this one that I’m reviewing); there’s a TV series dating from 2005 (Delightful Girl Choon Hyang) which sets the same story in modern-day Korea and gives it a typical K-drama touch; and there are ‘what-if’ scenarios that have been spawned from The Tale of Chun Hyang.

Kim Jin-kyu and Choi Eun-hee in Seong Chun-Hyang.

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