Entering the conversation of art verses artist: a movie that was directed by a man who played a part in at least two international abductions and written by the first dictator of GODDAMNED NORTH KOREA!
Available…on Youtube. Approximately 121-127 minutes. The 121-minute video and the nearly 126-minute video on Youtube seem to have subtitles)
Pretty much every day, Kim Kotpun gathers flowers on the hill and goes to the city to sell them. She does not really have a store or a stand, she just walks down a busy street and asks people walking by to buy flowers. Some do; many don’t. There are those who simply ignore her. Today, she still has a lot of flowers left unsold, and perhaps not enough money gotten to make the day worth it.
By the way, I gather that Kotpun just means flower seller. Well…fine.
Kotpun goes over to a street fortune teller, who manages to know her family situation. Father dead. Older brother in prison. Mother sick (Kotpun uses the money from selling flowers to buy medicine). Younger sister blind. He asks if Kotpun’s sister has been blind since birth. No. Illness? No. Then how? She looks away ashamed, so he does not press the issue. Well, he has good news. A noble man will come to help her and her mother will be healed. He is sure of it. Then he packs up and leaves…okay.
As Kotpun tries to make money in the city, her younger sister, Sun Hui, waits for her up on a hill. It is evening when Kotpun returns. Her basket is empty, which could mean that she sold the remaining flowers…maybe. She says that Sun Hui should be home with their mother, but Sun Hui tells her that their mother went to their landlord Mr. Bae to work. Apparently, Mr. Bae scolded their mother for not sending Kotpun to work at his home as a housemaid instead. Kotpun says nothing, but it is clear that there is a reason for her not going.
Their mother, Mrs. Kim is doing laundry for the Baes when a friend Gan-nan comes by, officially to help the kitchen maid. Some subtitles say that Gan-nan is her sister, but I am not sure if that is a mistranslation. Anyways, Gan-nan cannot believe that Mrs. Kim works day and night in her condition, but Mrs. Kim says that she is a slave to debt. Gan-nan commiserates with her; no land of their own. She probably means the two of them personally as opposed to the Japanese occupation, but there is no time to elaborate, as she is called away.
Some time later, Mrs. Bae checks in on Mrs. Kim and comments on how slow she is going. Once again, she says that Mrs. Kim should have sent her daughter Kotpun to them to serve as a housemaid; then Mrs. Kim would have fewer mouths to feed. Mrs. Kim says that she will do anything that the Baes tell her to do as long as they leave her daughter alone. Mrs. Bae scoffs and leaves. Mrs. Kim continues working, but it is a major struggle for her. Still, she tells herself that she must stay alive if only so that Kotpun will not be forced to come here to be their slaves.
At one point, Mrs. Kim dozes off (or faints) and it is fortunate that Gan-nan finds her as opposed to someone else in the house. Mrs. Kim almost immediately gets back to her tasks as Gan-nan points out that she still has not eaten. Gan-nan sneaks over some crispy rice for her. Mrs. Kim considers eating it, but puts it away for later, and then continues working.
Back at home, Kotpun asks Sun Hui if she is hungry. Sun Hui says that she is not, but wonders what if their mother does not bring home any rice. Kotpun says that she will. Sun Hui wonders whether they could buy any rice using the money from selling flowers, but Kotpun reminds her that that money is for their mother’s medicine.
As Kotpun goes to boil some water, Sun Hui hears their mother returning. And here she is. Mrs. Kim apologizes to Sun Hui for being late. Kotpun says that she should not be working in her condition, but Mrs. Kim tells her not to worry. Sun Hui asks about the rice and Kotpun gives her the food from Gan-nan. She also offers some to Kotpun who says to give it to Sun Hui as well. Then Sun Hui offers both of them some of it, but they both turn it down. Mrs. Kim then tells Kotpun that she will go to try to borrow some corn from the neighbors tomorrow and asks her to darn Sun Hui’s socks in the meantime.
So, Mrs. Kim rests. Sun Hui…plays with one of her mother’s hands. And Kotpun fixes Sun Hui’s socks. She asks for Sun Hui’s foot to see how the sock fits…but ends up tickling her. They both end up laughing…a moment of actual joy.
I guess that Mrs. Kim is awake, so Kotpun asks her what “noble man” means. Her mother does not understand why she is asking, but tells her that people say that someone noble helps and makes happy poor people. Poor people such as the Kims. If someone like that helps Kotpun, like in the old tales, then her mother could die without fear. Kotpun reveals that she was told that someone noble would appear soon. Her mother does not really respond to that, saying only that things would be better if Kotpun’s brother were here, but it is unlikely that he is even still alive. Kotpun says that she was told that he would return and that she would be healed. Sun Hui is excited, but their mother says that, regardless, Kotpun has to take care of her sister. And then she starts talking about her death, which makes Sun Hui cry.
Kotpun thinks of her brother, Chol Ryong. She remembers a time when he was still around, when Sun Hui could still see, and their mother was well.
The three children are planting a tree by the house and Chol Ryong tells Sun Hui that it will grow as she grows. And they will grow flowers all around. Someone comes around and tells Mrs. Kim that Mr. Bae is looking for her. Grimaces all around.
So, Mrs. Kim goes to the Bae residence to work while young Kotpun and Sun Hui kind of just loiter around. Mrs. Bae yells at Kotpun to go gut the fish. Mrs. Kim takes hold of Sun Hui and tells her to just play in the open area. Mrs. Bae says to herself that it is foolish to rely on the Kims when entertaining guests.
Sun Hui watches as Mrs. Bae taste tests some food and checks the teapot. Or maybe that “food” was stuff for the tea. I don’t know. When Mrs. Bae leaves, Sun Hui walks over to the food to get a closer look and maybe take a piece.
Mrs. Bae comes back, yells at Sun Hui, and pushes her to the ground. The teapot gets knocked over right on Sun Hui’s face. Mrs. Kim and Kotpun run to her as she screams in agony. Mr. Bae runs to the pot, upset that his ginseng is ruined. That Sun Hui brings only bad luck, he exclaims.
Mrs. Kim and Kotpun take Sun Hui back home and try to treat her eyes. Chol-Ryong arrives, but Sun Hui screams that she cannot see him. She cannot see anything.
So…Cho-Ryong sets fire to the Bae house.
And gets arrested by the Japanese police, who take him far away.
Gan-nan comes to visit and asks Kotpun if she had eaten today. She says that Kotpun can borrow some rice from Mr. Bae. Kotpun is reluctant to step foot in the Bae residence and Gan-nan knows why. But what other choice is there? Gan-nan says that the Baes claim to be very generous, even though they demand twice the principal when Autumn arrives. She leaves Kotpun to think about it.
That day there is a line of people receiving rice from Mr. Bae. There is also some guy acting as a hype man for Mr. Bae’s generosity. Of course, we almost immediately witness Mr. Bae disputing one request. The guy, Yoon-chil, asks for 5 measures of rice. I am not entirely sure what that means, but it appears to mean a scoop. Mr. Bae argues that Yoon-chil will not be able to pay him back in the Autumn, and that he still has debts for the 3 measures since his…wife died…egads, Mr. Bae. Yoon-chil says that he has twelve mouths to feed. Dang. The generous Mr. Bae is unmoved and allows him one measure. So Yoon-chil gets his one measure, and notes as he leaves that half of it is just husks.
Mrs. Bae is about to leave for somewhere, but notices Kotpun in the line for rice. She comments that Kotpun never comes for work and lets her debts accumulate, but now wants to borrow rice. Kotpun, humiliated, leaves.
Kotpun returns to the city to sell flowers. Her fishseller friend tells her to go to where the Japanese bar is. Certainly, there will be more people there and she will sell more flowers. Kotpun is unsure, but her friend insists.
Mrs. Kim is grinding rice for a party that the Baes are holding tomorrow. The…overseer comes to check and scolds her for having barely started. He orders her to finish the task, even if she has to work until dawn. He also says that Kotpun could have repaid their debt faster had she worked here instead.
Kotpun stands outside the bar to sell flowers. She sells one set. She is about to sell another to a Japanese man, when the Japanese woman with him calls her dirty. So the man declines…and spits his cigarette out at Kotpun.
Kotpun looks down at her clothes and her face falls. She really is dirty. And poor. And miserable. She has been degrading herself for pittance. Still, she continues to try selling there, but has little success. The street eventually empties and, having sold almost no flowers, Kotpun finally leaves.
The Flower Girl was shown all over the USSR and Communist Asia. Even though Beijing and Pyongyang were not exactly seeing eye to eye at the time, the film was very popular in China. And even though South Korea’s right-wing American puppet of a dictatorship had officially banned the movie, it was still shown in university campuses there. Apparently, this is considered to be the best North Korean movie ever made. And, since the only other North Korean movie that I have seen so far is Pulgasari, I would have to agree…at least for now.
I mean, yeah. It is rare that I would feature a movie in this series if I did not genuinely enjoy it. And I enjoy this one. And not even in a mocking tone. I genuinely do feel like this is a good movie. The story does lean a bit on the suffering woman trope to jerk those tears. But, despite being unabashedly melodramatic, it rarely feels like it is over the top.
So…here is an attempt at a bit of historical context. Take the next few paragraphs with a grain of salt…or just scroll way down to skip.
According to the lore…or whatever…the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung had written this all himself back in the 1930s when he was just a barely 20-year-old revolutionary, imprisoned for anti-Japanese activities. It started off as a play before becoming an opera and then a movie in 1972. How much of that is true? I have no idea. Surprise surprise, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is considered to have been a huge liar. But, let’s take it as truth: that a young man wrote this play in the 1930s and so on.
When Kim supposedly wrote this story, he was not even in pre-division Korea. In 1910, two years before Kim was born, Imperial Japan officially began its occupation of Korea. His family had apparently resisted the occupation, but had to flee to Manchuria in (sort of) China in 1920 to escape the Japanese authorities…or to escape famine. They were far from the only Koreans to do so. So Kim probably did grow up in a community of Koreans, even if not in Korea proper. Kim became part of the Marxist wing of the resistance and rose through the ranks. And when Japan took over Manchuria in the early 1930s, Kim found more opportunities to fight the Japanese directly. This went on and on until he finally made a triumphant return to Korea…at the end of World War II?
Wait. Hold on. So Kim had no first-hand experience of life in Korea between when he was 7-years-old and 34? But he wrote this when he was barely 20? Yeah, no wonder there is skepticism about…okay…whatever. Still taking it as true.
Also, if Kim Jong-il was born in the early 1940s, then that suggests that he was born somewhere outside of Korea…perhaps Soviet Russia??
So, Kim wrote this as a young man whose experience in Korea were only childhood memories. He had little firsthand knowledge of how things were in the 1930s, nevermind for a young woman. But that is fine, as the details are secondary to the feelings of home. The audience for the play and opera were also displaced Koreans in Manchuria. And by the time that he finally returned to (North) Korea, enough time had passed that the 1930s was also kind of a hazy memory. He could alter bits of the story and history itself over the years until the Korea of the in the movie might as well be accurate to how things were in 1930.
Since the chronology of his story is a mess of mystery and I am hardly an expert of his life, I have no idea how far Kim was into Communism when he supposedly first wrote this. That may be why the movie kind of holds off on its blatant communist talking point until towards the end; perhaps the young Kim was not one to get into the weeds of what it was. What is more interesting to me is that, if this really had been written in the early 1930s, then it was written without the knowledge that the Japanese occupation of Korea would happen any time soon or that Communism would take hold anywhere in Korea. Of course, all of that was old news forty years later. Again, I have no idea what changed between the play and the movie to adjust to the times. Still, the original story was meant as a call for a revolt against a still-present system and applied to all of Korea, not just the North.
Now, the early 1970s were also a time of change for North Korea. Kim Il-Sung’s relationship with China’s Mao Zedong deteriorated after the Korean War in the 1950s and never really recovered. Kim’s negative view on China’s Cultural Revolution that started in 1966 and was still sort of going on at the time probably did not endear him to Mao either. And while the DPRK’s relationship with the USSR was perhaps better, Kim probably saw how the winds of change could affect their relationship. So, he began implementing Juche, a system that he had supposedly come up with as far back as the 1950s. It favored national self-reliance under a strong singular leader, and prioritized military defense above most other things. Other things that may include the well-being of the masses. Not exactly Marxism, but I am sure that this sounds familiar to people these days when they think of North Korea. I am not sure whether this had any relationship to how the Gas Crisis affected North Korea…so…yeah.
It would be easy to scoff at this movie for pretending to be so concerned about the plight of Korea’s poor given…everything that has happened. Still, I am not sure that the North Korea that we are familiar with is how it was in the 1970s. Every place was hit hard, but the famine that everyone knows about would not start until 1994, the same year that Kim Il-sung died and Kim Jong-il took over. In the 1970s, North Korea had been a dictatorship and was indeed struggling economically, but one could say the same thing about South Korea at the time.
As far as I could tell, one thing that South Korea had had over North Korea in the early 1970s was a proper film industry. And that would change in the late 1970s and 1980s, when South Korea’s dictatorship started clamping down, then got overthrown, and then replaced by another dictatorship that also clamped down. It was during that time that actor Choi Eun-hee and her ex-husband, director Shin Sang-ok, were abducted and taken to North Korea. By the way, the director of this movie, Choe Ik-gyu, would play a part in their abduction and be tasked with “aiding” them on their films for North Korea. So, I am sure that he was involved in the making of Pulgasari. And that is about as close as I am getting to that movie in this series.
Oh, right. This movie.
Yeah, I like it quite a bit. The propaganda is…there, but it is rather perfunctory. Perhaps because it was meant for audiences in already Communist countries, it was not all that necessary to include more than the bare minimum. So what is left is a rather simple story of a poor family whose members try to look out for each other in a cruel world. And it does it effectively.
The characters may be a little thin, but it kind of works to the story’s benefit. There is beauty in the simplicity. It is easy to feel for Kotpun as the protagonist. Selling flowers is somewhat of a sacrifice to her dignity that she accepts in order to pay for her mother’s medicine. However, she refuses to work for the Bae family, not just because of the bad blood between them, but because it is pretty obvious (though not stated in the subtitles, at least) that they would pimp her out to their Japanese benefactors. That is a step too far and probably one that she could never escape, regardless of whether it actually pays off her family debts. She also still has pride and a sense of self-worth.
Sick as she is, Mrs. Kim tries to protect Kotpun from such a fate by working for the Baes herself. After all, there is less of a risk of her being sold into sexual slavery. The worst that she endures is insults from the Baes and upper staff members for being useless. And…also being worked to death. But she is determined to stay alive if only to act as a buffer between Kotpun and the Baes.
Meanwhile, Sun Hui is a scarred innocent. Much of the Kim family’s suffering (though not all) can be traced back to when Mrs. Bae assaulted a goddamn kid over some tea. And showed no remorse for it even years later. Forever blind to the world, Sun Hui still tries to maintain hope and help when she can. It is not much since she is blind and still very young, but she tries.
I am guessing that the Kims are meant to represent Korea as a whole somehow. That their name is “Kim” is probably not simply because Kim Il-sung could not think of a name other than his own. I am not particularly one to go deep into analyzing that, but others probably have.
They are each make sacrifices for each other, for their family. But it is not enough. It is never enough. A number of specific hardships hit the family, though it is not that unbelievable that they would be hit. After all, there are other families that have lost a member, like Yoon-chil’s. No, not every person depicted in the movie is as hard-pressed as the Kims in that moment, but it does seem like there are a lot of people under the thumb of the Baes. And it seemed like a lot of people were just a few steps away from being in situations like what the Kims are in or worse.
Oh, the Baes. The flashback makes it obvious that the Kims never liked the Baes, even before the teapot incident. And that is because they are irredeemably awful. The Japanese may be the overarching bad guys, but the Baes are the real villains of this movie. So much so, that it kind of makes the ending come off a little weird. The Baes are the rich, of course. And they are rich because they exploit the masses. They are able to exploit the masses by through loans that they cannot possibly repay except perhaps through servitude. And the Baes can do this because Japanese protect them. And they act as a buffer between the Japanese and the masses except for when the Japanese want to exploit the Korean masses directly. It is a symbiotic relationship. And there lies the issue.
In a movie like this, simply getting rid of the Japanese will not do. One has to also get rid of people like the Baes, for the Baes would see attempts to get rid of the Japanese as an attack on their own status. And even if they did help to get rid of the Japanese, it would be only on their own terms, terms which would ensure that they could continue to exploit the masses. And that is…not too far from what happened in South Korea when the Americans replaced the Japanese. The Koreans in power largely remained in power and unpunished in the South. It is no wonder why they and their descendants banned this movie. But look at the movies about the anti-Japanese movements coming out of South Korea in the past two decades. What makes them so fundamentally different from The Flower Girl? Perhaps this film was simply before its time.
The story is rather simple, the characterization is stripped down, the acting is rather straightforward. I think that there is a style to this movie that I like, but don’t know if I would like it a lot in general. I would not necessarily call it slow, so much as it is depicting acts that go on for a while. The attempts to sell flowers, the grinding of the rice, the crying over hardships, the waiting in line. All of this stuff takes time, and the movie depicts the passage of time. For me, the pacing hits the sweet spot between the awkward hesitancy of K-dramas and the patience-testing trance of slow cinema. Sure, the movie probably could have been a tighter 95-minutes, but it would not have really worked as well. The pacing really lets the actions and the process behind the actions breathe; lets the audience take it all in. And, of course, stretches out the emotional beats. It helps give an epic feel to a mostly quiet and intimate personal story.
The music also helps with this. I don’t mention my thoughts on the music much in these write-ups, but I enjoy the music here. Sure, various songs may sound like really treacly versions of Oh My Darling, Clementine, but I like it anyways. And, besides they may have been based on this song:
The songs are really slow…and sweeping. The lyrics are often simply showing what a specific character (usually Kotpun or Sun Hui) is doing and then what is going through her mind. It is not really necessary, but, hey, this play did become an opera, so why not. Again, it brings a sense of epic scale to a personal story. And especially for the montages of them doing the same thing or just standing around for a good minute of screentime. Is this manipulative? Absolutely. Is it and the pacing there to make sure that absolutely everyone in the audience gets what is going on with minimal ambiguity? Probably? But it works.
What works a little less is the anti-capitalist message. At least the blatant one. Obviously, the Koreans need to have a country of their own. Obviously, the Japanese are bad and need to be driven out. Obviously, the landlords are evil and must be overthrown. But…Capitalism? What is that? Yes, the radicals in the early audiences for the play would know. And the audiences for the film in 1972 would know in theory. But in-universe? Just anyone in the 1930s? It comes off as awkward. There is some somewhat more subtle critique of the supposed backwardness of Korean society compared to the rest of the world, with their superstitions and prioritizing traditional arts over technological progress. The former is fairly well incorporated into the story. The latter just has some random guy spout out some random thoughts to a crowd that was not there for his lecturing. There is some male voice-over that shows up over half-way through as an objective counterpoint to the emotional lyrics of the songs, and it comes off as rather condescending.
Additionally, I feel like the ending of this movie was a bit rushed because they needed to shoehorn some pro-Communist propaganda right at the end of the climax if only to remind the audience what will save (or did save) Korea. It is a bit clunky, and even moreso if you really try to think about it. But, just let it pass and it is fine. After all, the audience for the movie does not really need to be sold on Communism. And anyways, I gather that this movie’s director had adapted another of Kim’s operas in 1968 called Sea of Blood that is significantly longer than this movie is and perhaps more didactic. If I can find one a version with subtitles, I will try to watch it at some point. Who knows?
Look, I have never been very good at wrapping up these write-ups and summing up my feelings. And this one would be particularly difficult. I cannot say where this goes in the “art vs artist” discussion. And I know that there is darkness just behind the corner of this piece. But I cannot help but sincerely enjoy it on my own merits. This may be the most outright problematic movies that I have talked about here, at least in terms of the people behind it. Still, it would hardly be the first problematic movie here that have professed to enjoy and it is unlikely to be the last.
So…yeah. I like this movie. I like it quite a bit.
WTF ASIA 168: The Twilight Samurai (Japan: 2002, approx. 129 minutes)
WTF ASIA 169: Our Time Will Come (China: 2017, approx. 131 minutes)