What little we are seeing now of Korean cinema in the West is probably only a tiny fraction of what truly exists and is worth seeing, so having a movie like Aimless Bullet cross my path is a revelation. Here is probably the only Korean film I've seen so far, aside from Why has Bodhidharma Left for the East?, that was made before the big filmmaking boom that gave us Shiri and Oldboy and all the other blockbusters even non-fans are familiar with now. Aimless Bullet was made in 1960 and seems now only to exist in a battered, barely-watchable print, but is rightly regarded as one of South Korea's masterpieces. It brings to mind a movie I just watched, Umberto D., and all of the other neorealist cinema (both in Europe and Asia) that followed in its wake.
Aimless Bullet (also translated, probably more correctly, as Stray Bullet) is set in the post-Korean War shambles of Seoul, which the film makes no attempt to gloss over or disguise. There are as many wrecked buildings as there are construction sites, and the poorest live cheek-by-jowl in huddled two-families-to-a-room shantytowns. One such family consists of two adult brothers—Chul-ho, a dutiful accountant with a son and a daughter (and another child on the way), and Yong-ho, an ex-soldier, wounded in combat and out of work following his discharge. We're not even formally introduced to them at first—we sort of blunder into them in the nighttime while Yong-ho is out getting drunk with soldiering buddies and Chul-ho is heading home, wondering where his sister is. The only other consistent figure in the household is their mother, long since senile, who thrashes around in her bed and moans, "Let's get away from here!"—a cry that echoes the sentiments of everyone around her.
The two men harbor resentment and bitterness to varying degrees. Yong-ho is rightfully irritated that after getting wounded in combat for his country he's come back home to unemployment and the spectacle of watching his family and friends slowly disintegrate. He's not a bad man, but a frustrated one, and his frustration drives him to reject the few things he gets offered. At one point he's offered a role in a movie—a war picture, of course—because of the scars he has on his body. Yong-ho explodes in indignance: "These wounds are not for sale," he declares, and storms off—and only later realizes his mistake. Nobody seems willing to buy anything else from him, after all.
Chul-ho is no less disgusted, but unlike his brother he bottles up his resentment and lets it ferment. He comes to work despite a debilitating toothache that he's reluctant to even spend the few won it would take to get it taken care of—he'd rather spend the money on shoes he promised for his little girl, but when he finds out how expensive the shoes are, he feels doubly cheated. His brother chastises him for this self-abnegation: what good does it do any of them to have him, the one working man in the family (aside from their sister, whose secret trade is prostitution), suffering like that? So the others can somehow feel that he's putting himself all the more on the line for them? Chul-ho has never thought about it like that—in fact, it's clear he's never really examined his behavior in any degree, and that Yong-ho's boiling disgust with his world is forcing Chul-ho to do that in turn as well.
A number of other minor plot threads pop up and contribute to the same general feeling of powerlessness that maims the characters. By chance Yong-ho runs into an old flame of his, a woman he knew before the war, and enjoys a brief moment of happiness with her. Not long after he learns that a jealous neighbor, a tormented young man who fancied himself a poet, threw her off the roof. The girl herself is more than worth sticking his neck out for: she's honest and smart, and sees the poet boy for being nothing more than a pretentious annoyance. But she also doesn't have the nerve to hurt anyone else, and she never really believes the boy is as dangerous as we know he is. The way this whole subplot is handled is masterful: we expect a direct confrontation between Yong-ho and the kid, but never get it, and the girl's death primes Chul-ho to go out and do something incredibly foolish and dangerous to "prove himself."
The last few minutes of the movie are curious but fascinating. They deal with Chul-ho long after what one would assume was the climax of the film—so instead of an abrupt ending, there is a long coda where Chul-ho tries to deal with his own sufferings and fails. He goes to get one tooth pulled, but the dentist will not extract the other one for fear of causing him to go into shock. Disgusted by having to wait again after waiting so long, he visits a second dentist, has the other tooth yanked, and then lies in the back of a cab bleeding from the mouth. Unable to choose between the morgue, the police station, or his home, he echoes his mother's cries—"Just get me out of here!"—and is lost in the endless onrush of night traffic.
Aimless Bullet's bleakness is so all-enveloping it's no wonder the film was initially banned in South Korea. Because the characters are so specifically developed and handled, they aren't just stock figures of pity, and the director, Hyun-mok Yoo (one of Korea's great directors but largely unsung in the West), handles them in ways that are revelatory. When Chul-ho's sister is pulled in for prostitution, the police are more sympathetic and condescending than anything else; it's as if even the state itself is too tired to be really angry at anyone either. Yong-ho's reply— "Why do we have to live in a cage of conscience?"—becomes a rallying cry for him as he decides the only person really worth sticking up for is himself.
Yoo inserts many other topical details that give the film an even greater sense of suffocating dread. At one point Yong-ho is fleeing from the police and runs into an unfinished building without walls, a moment that made me wonder if Chan-wook Park borrowed it for a vaguely similar moment in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. In the same scene, he runs by a corpse—a woman who hung herself with her squalling baby still strapped to her back—and doesn't give it more than a moment's notice before rushing on. Like everyone around him, his own suffering takes precedence.
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