Adventures in Classic Korean Cinema is a bi-weekly feature looking back at classic South Korean Cinema.
The aftermath of World War II brought about a quick change in social values, which reevaluated the needs and lifestyles of youths around the world. In the US, James Dean and Elvis Presley captured the imagination of millions of young Americans in search of a new identity. A similar thing happened in Japan with the rapid modernization of a strict society that had recently undergone a shameful loss in the Pacific Theatre. Social roles were changing and up and coming directors such as Suzuki Seijun and Oshima Nagisa were taping into a youth culture of revolt that began to brew in the late 1950s.
Likely inspired by these progressing cultures but also reeling from its own devastating war, the 1960s was also a time for Korean youths to reconsider their position in society. One of the first youth films to emerge was 1966's Early Rain, which launched the career of actress Moon Hee, who subsequently became one of the country's top stars. Shin Seong-il, another very popular star of the 1960s and 70s who appeared in over 500 films, plays the male lead.
Yeong-hui is a maid who works for the French ambassador's family. She is allowed to wear a fancy Western raincoat and while out running errands crosses paths with Cheol, an auto mechanic. They begin a relationship founded on mistaken identity: she pretends to be the ambassador's daughter and he lets on that he is the successful owner of the fancy cars he has access to at his workplace. Forced to wear the expensive raincoat for their dates, Yeong-hui insists they meet only on rainy days, a notion both romantic and ominous.
The film begins simply enough by highlighting two youths' desire for a higher station in life. For each of them, their relationship is a potential avenue to escaping the harsh and anonymous reality of a low-class worker's life in Korea. In addition, the coveted trappings of an affluent western lifestyle are symbolized by the French raincoat as well as by the rock music in the trendy bars frequented by Cheol.
Yeong-hui seems content to embrace the illusion of being an ambassador's daughter as she falls for Cheol. Beyond her initial deception she does not really seem to have a plan. Meanwhile, Cheol's need for social elevation seems far more desperate. He shows no scruples as he borrows money from all the girls he knows and later, as he gets deeper into his fantasy, he is not above stealing to maintain his façade as a well-to-do young man.
Director Jeong Jin-woo got his start at the age of 23 with 1963's The Only Son, making him the country's youngest ever filmmaker at that time. Needless to say he was still extremely young when he made Early Rain and he injects the film with a youthful vitality. I admit that at first I wasn't particularly impressed with the film's style and I assumed I was settling into a fairly standard youth narrative. Thus it came as a great surprise when Jeong reveals an increasingly sophisticated cinematic palette as the film progresses.
Things build to a crescendo and when everything falls apart for the leads, reality bites back hard. Jeong's handling of the third act is breathless but also grounded, especially during the climax that was much darker than I expected and trumps much of what is produced today. Early Rain may not be one of the very best Korean films of the 1960s but as a dark, cautionary and thoroughly cinematic tale it could well be the one that has surprised me the most thus far.
Early Rain is available to view free and with English subtitles here through the Korean Film Archive's youtube channel.