“The Pillar of Mist” (1986), which screens Sunday at Melnitz Theater as part of the UCLA Film Archives’ New Korean Cinema series, is quite simply one of the most compelling and incisive portraits of a modern marriage in all its fragility. It’s right up there with “Kramer vs. Kramer” and Volker Schlondorff and Margarethe von Trotta’s “A Free Woman.”
Clearly, director Hwang Gi Sung-sadan and writer Kim Sang-su are out to skewer male chauvinism, Asian-style, but they go beyond that to create a world that all of us who live in big cities and industrialized societies will recognize. It’s an environment dominated by stark high-rise office buildings and apartment houses in which there may be an abundance of material goods but which sometimes provide cold comfort indeed.
The film’s young husband (Lee Young-ha) and wife (Choi Myung-gil) are a quintessential yuppie couple. Both work happily, but the wife’s mother becomes fed up with playing baby-sitter to her little granddaughter. Reluctantly, the wife quits working, beginning a slow descent into chronic misery, brightened momentarily by the birth of a second child, a boy. Ultimately, this traps her all the more in her traditional role as housewife.
What emerges is not so much an indictment of the husband but an exceedingly well-told story of a two people who really didn’t know each other--and perhaps themselves--when they got married. Didn’t the wife know she was marrying an aggressive man, single-mindedly determined to reach the top of the business world? A man expectant of a totally supportive wife who understood she and the children would always come second? Didn’t he know he was marrying a woman for whom home and children would never be fulfillment enough?
In each case, the answer is a resounding “no.” Yet these two end up expecting even more of each other in a competitive society that puts a high premium on professional success; when the wife spills a drink at a business party her husband regards is as a major gaffe.
Daringly, the film does not try to make either husband or wife likable, although it finally retains sympathy for each. Although the husband is nominally the heavy, the wife is so constantly sullen it’s no wonder he gets fed up with her. By the time she asserts herself, six or seven years into the marriage, he’s not about to stand for it. At the same time, the film charts the devastating impact of marital strife upon small children.
Best of all, “The Pillar of Mist,” far from being a tract, is actually a dramatically visual experience in which the isolation of the husband as well as the wife is made painfully palpable. To borrow the title from David Reisman’s famous study, what the film depicts so well is “the lonely crowd " that is contemporary society. Lee and Choi are remarkable in their wide-ranging portrayals, and the atmosphere of their film suggests a sense of alienation worthy of Antonioni.
“The Pillar of Mist” is preceded at 7:30 p.m. by Lee Jang-ho’s ambitious and demanding “Declaration of Fools” (1983), an experimental feature composed of a series of adventures and fantasies protesting the oppressiveness of the Korean government and featuring a Chaplinesque hero (Lee Bo-hee), his hefty sidekick (Lee Hee-sung) and a prostitute (Kim Myungkon). With narration by a child--and a highly inventive sound track--"Declaration of Fools” is virtually without dialogue. There are some striking sequences but there are also stretches of tedium.
Saturday’s screenings begin at 7:30 p.m. with Im Kwon Taek’s powerful, epic-scale “Gilsodum” (1985), in which a couple (Kim Ji-mi, Shin Sung-il), separated by the Korean War, meet after more than 30 years and decide to join forces to locate their lost child. Through their story we’re able to see the toll exacted by the war and how the country has changed over three-and-a-half decades. Information: (213) 206-FILM, 206-8013.