Woman of Fire 화녀 (1971) and Kim Ki-young

Kim Ki-young is generally considered to be one of Korea's great directors (here is a nice history in English provided by Google).  Above many others, his movies are remembered in Korea and also well-known internationally.  In an effort to understand this acclaim, I have recently re-watched three of his more popular films: Woman of Fire (1971), Ieoh Island (1977), and Carnivorous Animal (1985).  

While I can now understand Kim's popularity abroad with a foreign set that clamors after anything foreign that shows the slightest bit of creativity, I cannot understand how we can view these films as good storytelling.  His movies continuously veer toward the strange and grotesque, but worse, they are incredibly sexist and unnecessarily violent toward women.

FOR THE SAKE OF BEING STRANGE

Employing foreign and strange elements in film is a great tool -- when used appropriately to equip to the story.  However, in any film, if something does not complement the story or character development, then we must question why it is there.  As David Lynch, John Waters, Terry Gilliam, etc. have shown, creativity and "strangeness" can be useful assets to make a film great; however, they have all also shown how it can easily distract and ruin a film.  Kim Ki-young, far too often, falls into the latter category.  

WOMEN AND POWER

When I watch Kim Ki-young, I often struggle because I am both simultaneously impressed with the amount of subjectivity and control he gives his female characters and completely repulsed with how he develops them.  Compared to many other Korean films of the time (and even today) his female characters enjoy an almost unparalleled sense of power and control.  They make their own decisions and generally direct their own destiny.  However, Kim Ki-young continuously shows us that when women are left uncontrolled, they become monsters.

I have often wondered if we are to assume that the men are ultimately responsible for this transition in Kim's films as they tend to serve as the lynchpin in the women's lives.  However, I cannot escape the fact despite the awful things Kim's male characters partake in, the horrors carried by his female characters always outdo them. 

WOMAN OF FIRE

In Woman of Fire, we again see the struggle of the wife and concubine fighting over the husband.  The husband, Dong-shik, is shown to be a good man who has never cheated on his wife until one drunken night when he lapses under an admittedly immense amount of pressure.  The wife, Jeong-sok (Jeon Gye-hyeon), is controlling and seemingly in charge of everything under her room from the children to the maid to the chickens (not an uncommon setup at this time in Korea) -- of course she is also in charge of forcing her maid to have an abortion.  The maid, Myeong-ja (Yoon Yeo-jeong), is incredibly self-possessed and strong, particularly after a rape that leaves her pregnant and indirect competition with Jeong-sok.  Somehow, this woman who just arrived in Seoul from the countryside is able to muster enough strength to kill her employers' baby and her job recruiter (who did try to rape her) while also convincing Dong-shik that his best option is commit suicide.  

Click here for cast and movie information by KMDB.

Not that a housewife or a woman from the countryside would not be able to perform these acts, it is just that it happens so quickly, so suddenly, and so violently.  As in Kim's other films, the husband is fairly weak when compared to the dueling women and he stands no chance against them.  Is Kim blaming the husband for not controlling his women?  Is Kim blaming the husband for making mistakes and creating the monsters that now surround him?  Either way, Kim seems to suggest that stronger man could have prevented the horrors that followed.

Thanks to the Korean Film Archive, we can watch this film for free on YouTube with Korean and English subtitles.  Thank you Korean Fi

Transient

Employing foreign and strange elements in film is a great tool -- when used appropriately to equip to the story.  However, in any film, if something does not complement the story or character development, then we must question why it is there.  As David Lynch, John Waters, Terry Gilliam, etc. have shown, creativity and "strangeness" can be useful assets to make a film great; however, they have all also shown how it can easily distract and ruin a film.  Kim Ki-young, far too often, falls into the latter category.  

WOMEN AND POWER

When I watch Kim Ki-young, I often struggle because I am both simultaneously impressed with the amount of subjectivity and control he gives his female characters and completely repulsed with how he develops them.  Compared to many other Korean films of the time (and even today) his female characters enjoy an almost unparalleled sense of power and control.  They make their own decisions and generally direct their own destiny.  However, Kim Ki-young continuously shows us that when women are left uncontrolled, they become monsters.

I have often wondered if we are to assume that the men are ultimately responsible for this transition in Kim's films as they tend to serve as the lynchpin in the women's lives.  However, I cannot escape the fact despite the awful things Kim's male characters partake in, the horrors carried by his female characters always outdo them. 

WOMAN OF FIRE

In Woman of Fire, we again see the struggle of the wife and concubine fighting over the husband.  The husband, Dong-shik, is shown to be a good man who has never cheated on his wife until one drunken night when he lapses under an admittedly immense amount of pressure.  The wife, Jeong-sok (Jeon Gye-hyeon), is controlling and seemingly in charge of everything under her room from the children to the maid to the chickens (not an uncommon setup at this time in Korea) -- of course she is also in charge of forcing her maid to have an abortion.  The maid, Myeong-ja (Yoon Yeo-jeong), is incredibly self-possessed and strong, particularly after a rape that leaves her pregnant and indirect competition with Jeong-sok.  Somehow, this woman who just arrived in Seoul from the countryside is able to muster enough strength to kill her employers' baby and her job recruiter (who did try to rape her) while also convincing Dong-shik that his best option is commit suicide.  

Not that a housewife or a woman from the countryside would not be able to perform these acts, it is just that it happens so quickly, so suddenly, and so violently.  As in Kim's other films, the husband is fairly weak when compared to the dueling women and he stands no chance against them.  Is Kim blaming the husband for not controlling his women?  Is Kim blaming the husband for making mistakes and creating the monsters that now surround him?  Either way, Kim seems to suggest that stronger man could have prevented the horrors that followed.

Thanks to the Korean Film Archive, we can watch this film for free on YouTube with Korean and English subtitles.  You can currently watch 7 of his movies on YouTube.  Thank you Korean Film Archive!