Cheol-ho has it tough. He lives in a small house with his pregnant wife, a daughter who craves new clothes, two brothers – one of whom is an injured war veteran while the other sells newspapers when he should be going to school – a sister who has become a hooker, and his mother who seems to have gone mad. Cheol-ho’s position as an accountant is the only steady job in the family, but money is so tight that he cannot even afford to go to the dentist to do something about the toothache that is constantly troubling him…
‘Let’s get out of here.’
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Yoo Hyun-mok’s Aimless Bullet (also known as Obaltan and Stray Bullet) but the fact that it has been described as ‘the greatest Korean film of all time’ by a few academics and film critics should give you a bit of an idea of the level of praise that’s heaped on it. So why such a big deal?
Released in 1961, Aimless Bullet examines a the social situation for the everyman in South Korea following the Korean War, when mass unemployment and overcrowding were just two of the obvious signs of a country in turmoil. With Aimless Bullet director Yoo Hyun-mok, previously largely acknowledged for his technically superior melodramas, turned his hand to a more serious and intellectual project and in doing so established a style of filmmaking that he would continue to explore for the majority of the rest of his directing career. Adapting a controversial 1955 novella by Yi Beomseon (so controversial that the author lost his teaching job on its publication), Yoo’s version of the material captures an intensity and frustrated energy that feels as if it may have been shot during a quick and intense period, but was in fact shot over the course of a year – whenever Yoo could get his hands on expensive surplus film stock. When the film was originally released – during a period of liberalization following the 1960 April Revolution – it was praised for its realistic depiction of modern Korea, but following a military coup in 1961 and the resulting change in government, the film was then banned on the grounds of being overly pessimistic and the copies screening in theatres were removed*.
A slow burn, Aimless Bullet takes its time to establish its central characters before offering any kind of obvious narrative direction, it’s focus is instead on themes and examining the lives of its central figures in detail. Cheol-ho (Kim Jin-kyu) is our working-class family man who attempts to hold everything together through his employment as an accountant, but it’s his brother Yeong-ho (an excellent Choi Mu-ryong) – a man struggling to find a job and who drifts between his friends and hopes of finding a job that Aimless Bullet appears to place its dramatic thrust. With a fairly large cast of characters Yoo moves between social situations and spends time with each of them, placing the viewer in the middle of social chat rather than any sort of narrative exposition. The transitions give the feeling of a broad montage, but by the time you’ve become aware that it’s moving towards its seemingly inevitable conclusion Yoo pushes on past the usual dramatic peak for a final scene that literally has nowhere else to go.
Visually Aimless Bullet feels like a more recent film than it is, with a naturalistic shooting style – shot on genuinely busy streets and with framing that allows people to move in the foreground, burying the actors in the shot, its reputation for introducing elements of realism to Korean cinema is easy to understand. As a director who thrives on keeping the camera constantly moving, Yoo (along with Director of Photography Kim Hak-seong) tones down the use of overly noticeable camera techniques, and in doing so seems to perfect his style – gone are the static sound stages, replaced with busy streets, empty warehouses and enclosed homes. The effect is a more naturalistic feeling of real movement – an inability to sit still – but capturing the main protagonists in this way means that there’s more room to play with when any given scene tightens up, intensifying the moment. Still, this is far from a ‘docu-drama’ approach and Yoo recognizes where and when to lean more on technique in order to underscore his point. Scenes filmed in Cheol-ho’s home are examples of this – as the camera pans around different family members it has the effect of highlighting the sense of enclosure: while each family member struggles to escape from their own dire situation they also have no space away from each other. With a soundtrack that piles on the ‘city’ feel of the film – there seems to be noise everywhere, whether it’s people shouting, cars driving and bells ringing – it’s safe to say that Aimless Bullet does a good job of intensifying the claustrophobia and frustration surrounding its central protagonists while ensuring they’re actions and reactions are natural enough that we can’t help sympathising with them in a complex manner.
For director Yoo Hyun-mok Aimless Bullet was to be a career defining moment (and, for many, a career high). While his earlier films touch upon themes of class, history and religion, they’re still largely broad in fitting with their melodramatic plots. Yoo acknowledged that the making of Aimless Bullet allowed him to go further in expressing his own frustrations and, in doing so, forced him to apply a more intellectual approach to his subjects. The filmmaker had suffered his own problems throughout the previous couple of decades: born in Sariwon, North Hwanghae (North Korea today) to a middle class family, his youngest years were fraught with internal family tensions – he was a sickly child with a drunk, abusive father and a devoutly Christian mother. The families financial situation was above average, allowing Yoo access to higher education and the freedom to choose a careerpath. Following the Korean War his whole situation changed – the family was torn apart when his father and brother were killed, while the rest of his family were stuck in the North of Korea, leading to the subsequent removal of his financial security. These personal effects of the war on the individual – financially, physically, socially and mentally – are central issues throughout Aimless Bullet, and at no point doesn’t Yoo allow them to be simplified in a meldoramatic manner. There’s an angry, sidelining approach to religion and faith (references to Christianity show a religion that is found wanting, often appearing only after dire situations) and Aimless Bullet is full of full of sharp ironies, with the sense of urgency leaving little time for nostalgia and little hope for romance. Even a sub-plot (which doesn’t appear in the original story) in which Yeong-ho is offered a film acting job as a war veteran so that his physical scars will add a level of authenticity seems placed to highlight Yoo’s own awareness that the production of Aimless Bullet is doing this exact same thing – and in doing so he downplays the film itself.
Aimless Bullet is a multi-layered study of social strife, dislocation and degradation in post-war Korea that still holds its power as both a historical document and a cutting drama – even given the poor quality of the sole surviving print (which is in dire need of restoration) the intensity still burns off of the screen. It’s bleak but hypnotizing stuff and the subject matter certainly shouldn’t put you off – Aimless Bullet pulls you in and makes you uncomfortable, but it’s a powerful and ballsy experience that’s more than worthwhile.
* At the time it was common to make only two copies of a films and these were toured around different theatres. As the Korean copies were lost it’s a stroke of luck that a juror for the San Francisco Film Festival had taken a print of ‘Aimless Bullet‘ back to the US to screen at the festival in 1963 – this is the sole known copy in existence today, albeit in poor condition and with burnt-in English subtitles.
오발탄 (Aimless Bullet)
Directed by Yoo Hyun-mok
Produced by Kim Seong-chun
Written by Lee Beom-seon
Starring Choi Mu-ryong, Kim Jin-kyu, Moon Jeong-suk, Seo Ae-ja
Aimless Bullet Image © Dae Han Film Co Ltd