Friday, October 11, 2013


The poster for Kinship (1963)
Just watched the 1963 South Korean film Kinship, also known as Blood Relation or Hyeolmaek in Korean. The story revolves around a small group of North Korean refugees who live in a little shantytown community in Seoul and get by with a meagre lifestyle selling socks and pens and performing menial tasks for money. The older folks in the community are obsessed with trying to get their children into better social positions but are rather haphazard in their methods. One character, Kim Deok-sam, wants his son Geo-buk to get a job with the U.S. military, while another family attempts to convince their daughter, Bok-sun, to become a prostitute. The two kids eventually flee the town in search of greener pastures. There are a number of other subplots concerning other characters and what-not, but it seems the main story is centred on these events. The film has a happy ending, with the two young protagonists eventually getting jobs at a textile factory and everyone feeling pretty good about the whole thing.

Geo-buk listening to another lecture from his father about making money.
The film is quite entertaining and the characters relatable enough, and it paints a very interesting portrait of the time. South Korea in 1963 was a very different place; that year was the second year of the deeply pragmatic and problematic dictatorship of Park Jung-hee (the father of the current president of South Korea Park, Geun-hae), and it could be said that the film really captures the national policy of the time. Among other things the Park regime was credited with laying the foundation for South Korea's future economic success, through an intense (albeit at times ruthless) economic development strategy, with a huge emphasis on production and investment in local industry (Park went so far as to ban many imports in order to give local industry a fighting chance). On the social level, Park advocated moving away from the "archaic" superstitious and largely agricultural roots of traditional Korean society and attempted to effectively "modernize" the country's economy (South Korea was actually poorer than North Korea at this point). So here we have a film in which young people persevere, break away from the outdated ideas of their poor and complacent parents, and eventually end up working at a new textile factory, which is portrayed in the film as an impressive pristine and very desirable place in which all the workers have smiles on their faces and beam with self-worth. Is your propaganda alarm going off yet?

Everything is AOK in the factory!
Park was actually largely successful in his economic endeavours, and some of your favourite companies such as LG, Hyundai, and Samsung got their start in those days. However, there were a lot of problems with the Park regime as well, mainly that, like many other production-based regimes, his wasn't a big fan of intellectuals. The problem with intellectuals is that they do inconvenient things like sit around and write about stuff when they could be piecing together television sets or building ship; they also tended to be critical of Park's authoritarian government policies. There is a student character in the film who doesn't do anything but lie around and talk about how he doesn't have time to work because he needs to think about the unification of his country (this sentiment was quite popular at the time -- this was just 10 years after the Korean War). As a result his family constantly berates him for being a broke bum, and it isn't until he starts working in construction that he feels fulfilled and earns the respect of his older brother and mother.

The tormented "Yankee girl" in her snazzy digs.
Finally there is another character, who is a "Yankee girl," which is an old derogatory term for girls (some of whom were reportedly prostitutes) who hung out and often hooked up with foreign (usually American) soldiers for money and a number of other, likely more complicated reasons. She is portrayed as a deeply conflicted individual, and though she is seen as being rather well off money-wise, she is ultimately unhappy with her lifestyle and eventually starts thinking she'd rather work in a factory as well. Could this be indicative of how relying on foreigners and foreign sources for capital yields short-term economic prosperity while ultimately rendering South Korean industry dependent on external capital and therefore essentially empty!? Could be!  

The older generation in their squalor.
This is, of course, only one interpretation of this film (I just finished watching it about an hour ago), but the wonderful thing about film is that it can be read in so many ways. It's also interesting to note that the film promotes an idea of independence for youth, allowing its young protagonists to make their own decisions and portraying these decisions in a good light -- an idea that would be in sharp contrast to Korea's neo-Confucian roots. In any case, as a film in and of itself, Kinship is at times quaint, compelling, and, from a 1960s Korean slice-of-life standpoint, pretty neat and enjoyable even if you leave the possible subtext out of the equation. If you're interested in modern Korean history or film, or international film in general, I'd recommend watching it. The best part? It's available to watch for free on the Korean Film Archive's YouTube channel, which boasts an impressive collection of English- subtitled remastered pre-Korean-new-wave films, all available in HD. Truly a fabulous resource -- check it out here.                                         


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