South Korea / 1967 / Korean

Directed by Kim Soo-yong

With Shin Sung-il, Yoon Jung-hee, Lee Bin-hwa

Still from 'Mist'Still something of a jigsaw assemblage in the lengthy wake of  a ruinous civil war, South Korea is hard at work pulling itself up by its (roughly 60 million) bootstraps. And within the womb-like confines of its bulbous economic miracle sits a man named Yun Gi-jun, a Seoul office worker permanently beholden to a wife who is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. While she pulls the strings of the affluence they have together, he dutifully fulfills his role as husband, mainly because there has to be a husband in the picture. Strangely it is she who suggests, one day, that he return to his natal town, the notoriously unremarkable Mu-Jin, a place that gets enveloped, with depressing regularity, by an opaque fog. It is likely that she is trying to get rid of him for a time, while she prepares an important business transaction that her father is about to engage. She says Gi-jun should visit the grave of his mother, which he hasn’t visited for ages.

The opening sequence in Gi-jun’s office plays out as a robotic medley of typists’ clicks and telephone jangles, not mere patter, but a solid, inexhaustible barrage, the brick and mortar of a country building from virtually nothing to a miraculous industrial success story. Thinking as one, with a unidirectional focus on the future, is the order of the day, and Gi-jun is deep into these routines of blind rigor, this frightened race to economic prosperity. He takes a train out of the city, and then a breaking-down bus to get there. We see him almost reverting to childhood  as the scenery passes by, looking at his own wild reflections in the window as if seeing his face for the first time.

After a lengthy journey he arrives in Mu-Jin. The place has backwater written all over it – literally, as the air is colored by the saline lasts of a distant ocean, its shallow and stagnant periphery extending for miles without hope of supporting any but the tiniest boats. Gi-jun arrives at his family home, where a dutiful house matron is there to look after him. He has no intention of leaving. He has no intentions. They have sublimated, if they ever existed at all.

An old contemporary of his, a young man named Park, hears of his arrival and comes to greet him. All of the men of his generation in town have memories of being in the army, but not Gi-jun. His young adulthood was spent indoors, suffering from T.B., and yearning for a free mind. That strong desire seems to have left him entirely in his adult life, while it should, by all rights, be stronger than ever. The people he reconnects with appear quaint to him, with their little jobs, their modest routines and petty ambitions. He accompanies Park to the house of Cho, a man whom they grew up with, who is now a big-wig at a newspaper, with his own underlings scrambling about him, and who is single and living with his mother. Cho and his rowdy friends introduce Gi-jun to a young woman, Ha In-sook, who teaches music at a local school. It becomes apparent that she is a coworker of Park, and that he has feelings for her, even though the much more assertive Cho likes her as well.

Still from 'Mist'To Gi-jun, the village seems a holdout of the old ways, the eccentric and maladaptive ways that he has outgrown and shed. And yet he lingers. It is being away from the responsibilities he has in Seoul, and being in a place that he condescendingly sees as being outside the realm of commitment altogether, that keeps him from going back. As a young man, he hid out in his mother’s house to avoid the draft. Sickly and desperate, he tries to shield himself from the shame that everyone in the tiny town knows about. Flashbacks to this time alternate with more recent reports (in the sense of gunfire) from his married life in the city, which is strategized by his wife and father-in-law, nothing about it within the realm of his control. It doesn’t seem all that different from the period in his life when he is a cowering wreck, hiding from the army, except now he is part of a generation on the upswing.

Visiting Mu-Jin he makes a show of taking lightheartedly the minor celebrity status he attracts there, like a kindergartener revisiting his old preschool after a year of desks and homework. Gi-jun delights in the beer and soju inhalation, the idiotic songs and provinciality with a worldly irony that is as ill-fitting and showy as the false refinement that Cho adopts when having him over for drinks and offering him wine in place of the usual. But Park and In-sook don’t take those things so lightly; both feel enervated, taunted by the tones of life that only serve to accentuate how trapped they are. While In-sook plays along with Cho’s revelry because it gives her time with Gi-jun, Park can barely suffer it.

Gi-jun sees in In-sook the opportunity for something passive, self-serving, but of course for her, the stakes are a bit higher. She is stuck with a life sentence in the town if something doesn’t come along to draw her out of it. And, besides the occasional bus crawling into the station, nothing ever comes along to Mu-Jin. There comes into view an interesting contrast between her powerful need to escape and his placid desire not to, instead to seep into the scenery. After a short acquaintance, she is already commanding him to take her with him back to the city. He says of course he will, without even really listening to himself.

Restless on his mat at night, he imagines how it would transpire, were she to come with him, and even in his fantasies he cannot make it anything but absurd. The siren speakers lie silent, then begin to blare his hypocritical inner monologue for everyone to hear. When walking with In-sook near the shore, he sees the places he traipsed in his youth, complete with young Gi-jun glaring back at him with hateful, tormented eyes. Did this manic young man really grow into the lump of putty we see in the present time?

Still from 'Mist'Until anything comes to compel him to leave, he will remain in Mu-Jin, relishing not having to explain his actions to anyone, neutralizing the stress of fifteen years ago. His condition while visiting feels unremittingly regressive, as though transported back to a quiet, lonely childhood when everyone else has grown up. He ambles along unhurriedly, torments a beetle – torments a woman. Although he encourages the shy and earnest Park to make his feelings for In-sook known, he himself doesn’t have the restraint to leave her alone;  having her is too simple, too straightforward to resist. The letter he receives from his wife is signed at the end, along with an obligatory “I belong to you” – the irony of which must be too familiar even to register with him. All that makes him, that sets him apart (at least what he would openly acknowledge) is effectively in her hands. But to In-sook he is a train ticket out of the town, more valuable than anything she possesses there. And she thinks she has him.

Skirting a low canal one day, Gi-jun sees the lifeless body of a woman who has been pulled out of the water, a prostitute who has evidently committed suicide. While only making a terse comment to Cho about how the woman is still attractive even when dead, he is irreparably affected by the sight of her. He associates what he imagines as her arrested sadness with his own, previous life in the town, and as a bitter afterthought, the isolation he has accumulated since moving away.

While the fog that regularly envelopes Mu-Jin – “better than any sleeping pill” as Gi-jun muses – is a primary visual motif, the cinematography stays shy of impressionism, more taking on the sticky and marmoreal luminescence of vapors rising from the salt flats. The mist has a presence, a physicality that hangs adhesively rather than puffing forth from a machine; sweat droplets, clinging to the surface of people’s skin, seem as native to their facial features as the shadows that mottle them.

In the twenty or so years following Korea’s civil war, some very good but very hard to pin down films were made, the latter quality perhaps being the real beauty of them. They have the feel of half-evolved genre films, seemingly made without the budget or panache to go full bore like many Japanese offerings of the time. The consequent atmosphere, both hazy with reluctant affectation and tinseled with incidental, visual ‘impurities,’ places them as, at the very least, quite distinct from its contemporaries across the ‘East Sea’ (as it is referred to in Korea). Unlike a Hand of Fate (1954) or an Aimless Bullet (1960) of the previous era, where it is merely the unsealed, Open City qualities that make the film both partially successful and terminally tussled, Mist benefits, for the most part, from being restlessly undernourished of drama or expectation, and from gestures that fall midway to significance. An appropriate illustration would be the attraction that begins to develop between Gi-jun and In-sook on their nonchalant walks together – on the night that they first meet, after a timid and protracted exchange, she quite forwardly asks to see him again. The absence of romantic buildup is perfectly tuned for two souls treading muddled dreams, enjoying, briefly, the fantasy of one another. “What would you do in Seoul?” he asks her. And she assumes he will provide the ideas.

Still from 'Mist'“Snob” seems to be the most popular way for the people of Mu-jin to refer to one another, but they are careful not to call Gi-jun that directly – perhaps because the term would illicit a recognition of some perceived superiority more glaring than in a passing joke. The film harps lavishly upon the disjunction between smalltown and urban attitudes, in a way similar to what Hong Sang-soo does so demurely in The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) but in a time period when those differences are especially pronounced. Initiatives come through to build national unity and promote progress, but by the time they reach a town like Mu-Jin, the exhortations have lost all coherence, like the tail-end echoes in a stew of reverberation. In-sook teaches her class songs imported from America. Nominally, they have put into storage their cultural artifacts – ancient songs and tiled roofs – in the interest of forging something more singular and indestructible. However, their ways of looking at the world have not been brought up to speed, and the tangible fruits of the new and progressive policies are mostly allocated to the cities.

Scarred and dissembled by the war, and kept by successive governments in raw anticipation of another invasion from the North, this seems culturally like a nation not disposed to, or even somewhat wary of, engaging in escapism. Air raid practices are heard daily, the people having the level of self-confidence that would be expected when the government regularly sweeps you out of the street to clear the way for possible maneuvers. There seems little desire for gaudy historical epics; the films of the 60’s are more like newspaper clippings than murals – ugly, dreary, boxed-in and unprepossessing. Characters talk in roughly-hedged dialogue and formless platitudes. In looking ahead, too much gets bottled up and ignored. Between the doleful noodle shops and hotels of Mu-Jin, there are only avenues of decay, progress being a nice concept but hardly a reality.

The film distills a wealth of intangible aspects to the broader phenomena of the time (such as South Korea’s push to rebuild and then surpass its old self, the lopsidedness of its progress, the people’s nebulous self-esteem and identity after more than a half century of outside occupation) and does all this effortlessly, and on a premise so thin it may as well not be there. The endemic indecisiveness is, for once, an asset to its emotive qualities and not a muting hindrance. Gi-jun is an utterly appropriate nonhero for such a story, immune to the repressive fog that never lets up on the townspeople, but nonetheless enveloped by an infinitely larger one in the wider world, his purview spanning an uncertain sea at low tide.

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