“What kind of courage does a crow have?”
“Crows aren’t courageous, but they are tough – tough enough even to attack a scarecrow. “The crow sits on top of its head and picks out its eyes.”
As unremittingly dismal as Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths (1957), as socially observant as Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960), as basely existential as De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and drawing from shades of American Noir, STRAY BULLET (OBALTAN) creates an effect of having been dragged through the worst mire of post-armistice South Korea, where the sweat is left on our brow, the sting remains dull in our gut, and the dirt laces the fibers of our worn clothes. STRAY BULLET leaves a residue on the viewer because it sinks us into its universe wholly with no sense of how to resurface. Misery loves company one might say, and director Yoo elects us as such for the Song family as he dredges the bottom-most experience of this period of social upheaval.
STRAY BULLET, a reference to waywardness and drifting through experience, depicts the darkest turns in the life of public accountant Chul-ho Song (Kim Chin-Kyu, of The Housemaid) who struggles with money and the fracturing post-war era. Burdened in this time with the responsibility of supporting two children, a mentally trouble mother, a malnourished pregnant wife, his troublesome jobless younger brother Yong-ho (two years since returned from the war), his sister Myong –sook who resorts to prostituting herself to American Soldiers in order to make ends meet, and upholding the roof of their dilapidated home, he hasn’t even the money to visit the dentist to resolve his ever-constant toothache or buy his young daughter a pair of pretty shoes. But he tries. He endures. He blankly thrusts himself into each grueling seemingly ineffectual day, wearing the strain on his face, his posture, his stride, and in his decaying tooth.
Yoo’s vision is steeped in the piteous condition of the Songs, microcosmically indicative of the condition of an economically polarizing South Korea still reeling from war and occupation (first by the Japanese and afterward by the US.). Soldiers return home and cannot find work, those who have jobs make meager sums, and an elite class (movie stars in particular) occupies the higher tier while the poor get poorer – a wedge driven home by the aesthetic noir-esque contrast of scenes drown in shadow, or awash in midday sun. Kim Hak-sung’s location shooting also lends immediacy, gravity, and authenticity to a story that requires all three qualities.
The concerns of OBALTAN are socio-economic, but also existential, and moral. Yoo plainly exposes extreme conditions in lieu of directly criticizing or politicizing the catalyst of those conditions – even though critique and politics are perhaps unavoidably involved simply through his act of observation (enough to have the film banned upon its initial release). Yoo also allows for a range of relationships to form and be challenged in ways more subtle than the main thread of economic disparity.
Scathing moments of Lee Beom-seon’s script ask fundamental questions of morality in a time where dog-eat-dog is the rule. The frequent orator of these questions is younger brother Song Yong-Ho. Seeming at first the most aimless, spending his days drinking and complaining with war buddies, he emerges as the most complex, immediate, and the most desperate among the group, inherent in the crude culminating bank robbery scheme he hatches, and the argument that takes place just before with his older brother.
Yong-ho: “I admire your [Chul-ho’s] way of life; reasonable, honest, and poor as hell. But your life is like a ten-cent peep show -- watching others get what they want. That's not enough for me. You and your toothache! You think you’re helping us by not going to the dentist? That’s how all tragedy starts. By some stupid futile sacrifice like that. Why do we have to live in a cage? A cage of conscience!”
Chul-ho: “How could we live together without any conscience?”
Yong Ho: “We’d just live, that's all. I should have been bitter enough to take things into my own hands before my mother went crazy and before my sister sold her body away! I should have started cheating the first day we had that pitiful little shop in the market. I should have cheated before those god-damned bullets went through my belly!”
All the other characters seem by degrees to submit to the banality of their suffering, seem to be – as the cab driver remarks of delirious post-surgery Chul-ho Song at the end of the film, “like one of those wild shells that fired aimlessly.” Their courage to endure and participate in scraping by with threadbare souls might even be seen as complacency next to Song Yong-ho’s fever-pitch, or even Myong-sook’s nefarious methods, but they can hardly be blamed in acknowledgement of the reality of their circumstances and challenges, especially as the film concludes its escalating downward spiral with only one small modicum of hope resounding.
Now, after 50 years of history, are these conditions yet changed? Is the polarity and disparity any softer, and does the disadvantage enabled by the system still produce attitudes like Song Yong-ho’s? Watching a film like Jong Jae-eun’s TAKE CARE OF MY CAT from 2001 as an example, one might fearfully see that the same spectrum endures, only the gray-scale is much subtler.
**Available on Cinema Epoch dvd**