Adventures in Classic Korean Cinema is a bi-weekly feature looking back at classic South Korean Cinema.
Sorry for the length between updates, will get back on track!
While eastern and western sensibilities co-exist somewhat happily in Korea these days, this wasn't always the case. Faced with independence after a long spell of colonial rule in 1945, albeit divided from the Soviet-controlled North, South Korea, through the presence of the US military, was presented with the trappings of the West for the very first time. Ever since then, there has been an uneasy relationship between respect for established local tradition and cravings for imported comforts.
Many films have examined this dichotomy, including Early Rain (1966), which I previously covered in Adventures in Classic Korean Cinema. However few have done so as aggressively as Lee Jang-ho's Between the Knees (1984), a fascinating and frustratingly paradoxical work from the Korean New Wave. Both progressive and surprisingly conservative, it's a little hard to peg exactly what director Lee's angle is at different points of his film.
Ja-young is a young woman experiencing confusion as her sexuality blossoms. Due to an incident at an early age, which involved her western music teacher, she has trouble in her relationships with men. She is a music major from a conservative family and dates the prim and proper traditional flautist Jo-bin. Though well to do, her family is not without its problems due to the existence of Bo-young, Ja-young's half-sister from one of her father's affairs. Constantly harangued by her over-bearing and protective mother, she finds herself rebelling and falling in with various predatory men.
While Ja-young's growing interest in the opposite sex is initially shown to be naïve and innocent, not to mention an escape from the tight grip of her mother, her sexual awakening comes at a heavy cost. Ja-young's curiosity leads to her being raped by a classmate, attacked on the street by a vagrant and later becoming little more than a sex toy after she withdraws from the city, as country bumpkins casually blackmail her into sexual subservience. The way her plight in the film is depicted reminds me of the archconservative and misogynistic views that some people still harbor about rape, namely that the blame lies on the woman for inviting sexual attack. It's more complicated than that, but I was taken aback by how the protagonist's unwitting descent into degradation was largely shown to be a direct consequence of her actions.
However, shouldering most of blame is the corrupting influence of Western culture. As a child, Ja-young's American flute teacher has a habit of touching her knees during lessons. On day he engages in some more inappropriate contact with her and she's never the same afterwards. Perhaps it's silly of me but as an expat in Korea, I couldn't help but feel a little sting at this. Once again there's more to it as she is also scared by her mother's reaction: she beats her rather than comfort her following the incident. This event sets the tone for all of her future erotic episodes, as they are mostly preceded by a man touching her knees and then accompanied by some form of violence.
While I was unsettled by the film's latent conservatism and its disconcerting views on western culture, not least when the director himself cameos in the film as a psychologist espousing traditional values over corrupting western ones, there's no denying that the film offers a fascinating view of Korea's difficult relationship with sex. In today's Korea, sexual violence figures prominently in film narratives as well as in the national discourse so to see a film like Between the Knees in 1984 must have been quite a shock for local viewers. Perhaps as a result, Lee Jang-ho's film was a huge hit, becoming the second most successful Korean film of the year.
Due to strong performances all around, such as 1980s screen siren Lee Bo-young as the fallen girl and screen legend Ahn Sung-ki as her meek suitor, a bare bones but very fluid mise-en-scene and a potent social agenda, Between the Knees is one of the landmark Korean films of the 1980s. Though many, such as myself, may take issue with it, it is a work with undeniable power.