A raw, stark fusion of film noir and Italian Neorealism, with added flavor from Gorky’s The Lower Depths (which Akira Kurosawa had filmed in Japan four years earlier), Yu Hyun-mok’s Obaltan, from South Korea, portrays one family’s endless hardship and despair in Liberty Village, a dead-end postwar shanty town in Seoul. The seven family members live together in tiny accommodations; the eldest, perpetually bedridden, periodically shouts, “Let’s get out of here!” This may not be possible. Planning on robbing a bank (it will take the police ten minutes to apprehend him!), one of the sons begs his sister to take a break from prostituting herself to U.S. soldiers that night, and the other son’s trip to hospital, for the birth of his third child, becomes a trip to the mortuary.
Chul-ho slaves as a clerk but appears to make little headway in life. A cab driver christens him an “aimless bullet” because he cannot decide on his local destination—a sign that he is rudderless in a pointless existence. God, Chul-ho himself suggests, forgot to give him a purpose. Throughout, Chul-ho is tormented by two toothaches, one on each side. Despite his job, he cannot afford a dentist, but as soon as he has the money, he goes, only to discover that the dentist will extract only one tooth that day—and indeed the lone extraction turns him into a bloody mess on the back seat of the taxi cab.
Dark, flamboyant, incapable of turning a blind eye to social realities, at times melodramatic, hauntingly scored by Kim Seong-tae, Obaltan records Chul-ho’s long, anguished walk out of The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945) and inserts quick subjective (point-of-view) shots to suggest how trapped inside the oppressiveness of the objectively rendered teeming urban environment humanity is.
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