Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Hand of Fate (South Korea, 1954)

Han Hyeong-mo's The Hand of Fate is an interesting hybrid, part tragic romance, part political allegory, part spy thriller and part anti-communist propaganda. Made at a time when Korean cinema -- along with Korean society as a whole -- was struggling toward recovery in the wake of the Korean war, while not a commercial success, it marked a step forward in technical terms for its crisp editing and ambitious, bifurcated structure. Not to mention that it delivered Korea's first on-screen kiss.

The story concerns "Margaret"/Jong-ae (Jun In-ja), a North Korean spy working as a bar girl in Seoul. One night Margaret encounters Young-chul, a poor student and day laborer whom the police have wrongly apprehended under suspicion of stealing her purse. Margaret decides to make a "project" of sorts out of the young man, buying him clothes and offering him financial support so that he can quit his job and focus on his studies. She obviously has seduction in mind, but of what kind is initially unclear. Is her plan to recruit Young-chul to her cause?

Eventually we find that the taste of freedom Margaret has been afforded during her time in the capitalist South has lead her to question the ideology and methods of her communist superiors. In response, she has chosen to exercise one of the only freedoms available to her; that being the freedom to love whomever her heart chooses. For a short period, she and Young-chul are able to carve out a small piece of happiness for themselves amid the squalor of their daily lives, until Margaret discovers that Young-chul is in fact an anti-espionage agent for the South Korean government.

Han Hyeong-mo, who worked as a cinematographer before moving on to directing. brings a striking minimalism to the material here. Apart from a couple of brief walk-ons, Margaret and Young-chul are the only speaking characters we ever see on screen, with Margaret's mysterious superior only being shown from the neck down until the film's conclusion. The result of this is that, to the extent that The Hand of Fate is a parable about the North/South division, it is one that plays out entirely between two people in a room. Han also uses his musical score very sparingly, while incorporating long, dialog-free patches, which adds to a feeling of tension and anxious anticipation -- in turn making us jump along with these haunted, furtive characters whenever there is a sudden knock on the door.

Unfortunately, since The Hand of Fate is to some extent infected with the stark moral binarism of propaganda, as well as a certain primness in its approach to romantic melodrama, there is a stiffness to things that prevents us from really feeling the heat of Margaret and Young-chul's passion. This is a particular shortcoming in light of the fact that the film would have us believe that this passion is strong enough to lead them to risk their freedom, and even their lives. Still, this does not prevent The Hand of Fate from being enjoyed as a nifty mood piece, as well as a fascinating look at the formative years of a cinema that would later become one of the most exciting in Asia.


Prof. Grewbeard said...


Todd said...

Oh, come on, Prof. You know you're a nascent fan of South Korean anti-communist noir. Soon it will be all you want to watch. Mark my words!