[HanCinema's Film Review] "A Returned Man" + Full Movie
By Panos Kotzathanasis | Published on
Following the recipe of Shin Sang-ok, Lim Hee-jae presents his own version of the episodic family melodrama, in a film that includes the creme de la creme of the era's acting. Interestingly, though, he has managed to also include a couple of subtle political comments, which the censors of the time did not get wind of. Let us get things from the beginning though.
The film starts with Jeong Do-yeong welcoming Park Nam-ho in Seoul , a comrade from the war, who has suffered, though, an intense burn on his face, to the point that many, including Do-yeong's wife, think of him being a leper. Nevertheless, he helps his friend get a job in a pharmaceutical company, which was also his work before the war, while it is soon revealed that Park's coming to Seoul has to do with his daughter, Pyeong-sook, getting a scholarship. A lengthy flashback reveals the whole of Park's backstory; how he used to be married to Kyeong-hee, who was pregnant at the time, and working in a Japanese pharmaceutical before the war. During the war though, he suffered a severe injury, to the point that he was considered dead by the Army, who communicated the news to his pregnant wife. As soon as Kyeong-hee gave birth to their son, Cheol-soo, she moved to Seoul to start her life anew. When Nam-ho returned from the war, he went back to his hometown only to find his wife had left. On the road there, however, he stumbled upon an orphaned infant, and decided to adopt her as his daughter.
In the present arc again, Pyeong-sook gets to know Cheol-soo by chance, when he saves her from thugs on the street, while the two get reacquainted again, when a classmate of his starts flirting with the girl, and introduces him properly. The two youths eventually start having feelings for each other.
As mentioned in the prologue, Kim Soo-yong implements the usual for the time, episodic and melodramatic approach, with a plethora of characters experiencing a number of "adventures", with the flashback giving even more opportunity to add both (the film was actually produced by Shin Sang-ok's company). This approach allowed him to include a number of the most popular actors of the era, while keeping the film entertaining throughout. The melodramatic aspects, and the tragic coincidences seem quite cliched and expected today, but at the time, they should provide an element of surprise at the time that would be the main driving force behind the melodramatic aspect of the movie. Furthermore, Nam-ho's appearance and back story make him a genuine tragic figure, with Kim Jin-kyu giving an excellent performance in the role. Despite this approach, Kim Soo-yong avoids making his film a Greek tragedy, by having his daughter being adopted and not a physical one, which would have created a whole other issue in her relationship with his actual son.
Apart from these elements, which evidently aimed to attract an audience, it is quite interesting to see how the director managed to fit some sociopolitical comments throughout the movie. The old man who saves Park Nam-ho after he is injured is mentioned as a member of the March 1st Movement, a significant protest movement in 1919 by Korean people that called for independence from Imperial Japan and a stop to the forced assimilation into Japanese culture. The movement resulted in more than 1000 protests all over Korea, which were brutally suppressed, with Korean historian Park Eun-sik reporting about 7,500 killed and 16,000 wounded, and 46,000 arrested. Secondly, there are two instances in the movie where Cheol-soo is participating in the student movement, probably that of November 1929-1930, which was again anti-Japanese. The second instance, more impressively, includes actual footage from the protest, in an unprecedented choice for the cinema of the era. Considering that the Gwangju student movement was triggered when Japanese students harassed a female Korean student, the way Cheol-soo and Pyeong-sook meet could be a reference to the particular incident.
Lastly, the way Nam-ho is treated as a leper, despite being a war veteran, can also be perceived as a comment about the ' welcome ' lowly soldiers received in their country after the war, and the way people suffering from the particular illness were forcibly marginalized.
Choi Gyeong-ok's cinematography captures the climate of the era realistically, both in the poor and the aristocratic settings, both in the lab and the various cafes, both in peace and in war. Kim Young-hee-II's editing results in a relatively fast pace that suits the episodic approach of the narrative, while adding to the entertainment the film offers.
Even if the acting is rather excessive on occasion, the impressive casting does pay off. Apart from Kim Jin-kyu, Nam Yang-il as Cheol-soo is also excellent, as is the case with Um Aing-ran as Pyeong-sook, who plays both the apple of discord and the woman in love convincingly. The violent scene where the three come together emerges as the most impressive in the movie. Choi Eun-hee as Kyeong-hee gets to shine mostly close to the finale, while Heo Jang-kang as Do-yeon manages to include a level of amusement to an otherwise quite dramatic story. "A Returned Man" is definitely a cliched melodrama, of the many Korea was producing in the 50s and the 60s, but the film does deserve a watch for the subtle political comments and the impressive cast.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via email@example.com.