The General's Mustache centers around an investigation into the death of Kim Cheol-hoon, a bit of a social misfit who could not seem to find his place after the war. Based on a novel by Lee Eo-ryeong (위키백과) and adapted by Kim Seung-ok, it falls into the genre of literary art cinema that became popular in the 1960s. Through memory and flashback, we are told the story of Cheol-hoon's life by those who lived near him, and the police ultimately rule his death a suicide.
This film has been lauded as a "masterpiece in Korean modernist cinema" (Lee Hyo-in via Korean Movie Database) and one that "raised the level of Korean film" (Kim Jong-won via Korean Movie Database). Taken as a critique on conformist society in post-war Korea and for its use of memory as a literary tool, it is quite strong; however, its stilted plot jumps weak story thrust leave it a bit lacking.
Lee Gil-seung (Joong-ang University) has noted the film's importance in attempting to use memory to recall the past through flashback or illusion (2010). The film opens with the death of Cheol-hoon and we are never allowed to hear his version of the events that transpired. We are only allowed into the memories of those around him, which forces the audience to question the reality of Cheol-hoon. Without the voice of Cheol-hoon, we can only know his identity through these outsiders, and ultimately, their voice and their opinion becomes the only true and lasting identity of Cheol-hoon. Had Cheol-hoon been alive and able to defend himself, the true reality of his existence might not have made much of a difference as the film seems to reinforce the idea that one's true identity can only be constructed by others, and not the self.
The most rounded recounting of Cheol-hoon's life comes from his girlfriend, Na Shin-hye, played masterfully by actor Yoon Jeong-hee just one year after her debut. Through her memories we are allowed to see a more full picture of Cheol-hoon; however, even she grows weary of him after one year. After leaving Cheol-hoon, we are able to see her new living quarters, which appear to be far more costly than Cheol-hoon's. While not particularly highlighted in the film, it is difficult to not notice her lavish apartment as she puts a golf ball on her carpet and note the short amount of time it took for Shin-hye to acquire her new housing.
To be fair, I was honestly confused as to when Shin-hye got this apartment. She says at one point she came to that apartment the night after leaving Cheol-hoon, which suggests she had kept the apartment all along; however, it was also suggested that she lived with Cheol-hoon. Either way, the difference in living style is noticeable and still works to fuel the overall theme of conformity.
The title of the movie comes from a novel that Cheol-hoon wanted to write that tells of the story of a nation captivated by the mustachioed general and his soldiers following the liberation of their nation. Through an animated sequence recounting Cheol-hoon's novel, we see that every man in this fictitious nation begins to grow a mustache excepting the novel's protagonist who feels like he his being pushed aside for his hairless face. When he is not hired after applying for a job, he feels it is because he does not have a mustache. The boss tells him that they live in a free country and suggests that "it is that kind of obsessive thinking that has made you weak" (10:56).
The themes in Cheol-hoon's novel work to reinforce what we see in his every day life. Whether or not they live in a free country does not matter and whether or not they are truly outcasts does not matter, their failure to assimilate properly into society colors the lens through which their peers view them. Ultimately, it is the lens of their peers that define their identity and not the individual. In her final interview, Shin-hye tells the police that it has been two months and that everyone should forget Cheol-hoon as that is what he wanted. However, it seems that Cheol-hoon, at least on some level, was seeking the opposite. At least through his novel, he was hoping to attain some level of success by entertaining others, but here again, Cheol-hoon's identity is masked by the voices of those around him.
As a study in filmmaking, we can respect the innovative steps the film took by using animation and such dark subject matter to tell the story of Cheol-hoon; however, the plodding story along with some inexplicable plot jumps make it difficult to watch. However, viewed in context of a nation recovering from its colonial past and civil war, it raises interesting questions for a society being pushed toward conformity by the military, large conglomerates, and its own president, Park Chung-hee.
Thanks to the Korean Film Archive, we can watch The General's Mustache on YouTube with English, Korean, and Italian subtitles.
이길성. "문예영화에 나타난 전쟁의 기억." 대중서사연구 24 (2010): 313-336.
Korean Movie Database. "The General's Mustache." Accessed August 26, 2014. http://www.kmdb.or.kr/vod/vod_basic.asp?nation=K&p_dataid=01748