Monday, July 19, 2010

FREE MAIDEN (South Korea, 1982)

Released: October 29, 1982
Republic of Korea
Shin Han Films Co., Ltd.

Directed by Kim Ki-young
Written by Lee Mun-wung
Producted by Jeong Do-hwan
Cinamatography by Jeong Pil-si
Art Direction by Lee Myoung-soo
Editing by Hyun Dong-choon
Lighting by Seo Byoung-Su
Music by Han Sang-ki

Ahn So-young
Shin Seong-il
Kim Won-seob
Cho Ju-mi
Han Woo-ri

The stirringly lovely Ahn So-young, star of the (very) soft-core hit film AEMA BUIN, plays a free-spirited young graduate student whose casual affairs with impressionable young men causes consternation among her colleagues. Motivated by a pursuit of commitment free-pleasure, So-young feels little guilt about bedding and forgetting a string of handsome beaus. Like the AEMA series, the model here would seem to be the European EMANUELLE films, with their schmaltzy, discofied ambience and (often hypocritical) free-love ethos. But FREE MAIDEN was directed by South Korea’s premier eccentric auteur Kim Ki-young and he takes this formula and curdles it, making a film that is riddled with his own bizarre obsessions.

So-young’s commitment-phobia is seriously tested for the first time by an older professor whom she feels sympathy for after learning of his recent suicide attempt. It seems the old doc can’t get it up anymore and has fallen prey to the depths of despair. His loving wife tries in vain to alleviate his impotency by all manner of oddball cures in an extended sequence that’s pure Kim. A bitter herbal broth chased by an assortment of multi-colored hard candies, pornography, dressing in a middle-eastern-y looking veil, hypnosis and finally standing him on his head and shaking his legs around vigorously. None of this works of course. If you’ve seen any of Kim’s other films like INSECT WOMAN or WOMAN OF FIRE I’m sure you can guess what eventually does cure his chronic erectile dysfunction. A chance encounter with So-young provides the opportunity for the professor to loosen (and stiffen) up but his despair seems too great and an initial seduction ends in failure. But while wandering an empty field at night our loveless doc (an entomologist obsessed by butterflies) is entranced when So-young hoists up the sides of her dress and flaps them around like an insect. The professor chases her with his butterfly net, catches her, tosses her to the ground, flings her legs apart and re-discovers his manhood. It’s another memorable scene that could only have sprung from the cracked imagination of Kim Ki-young.

An intense affair begins, despite the abject disapproval of So-young’s fellow students. So-young has finally learned how to feel real love. But soon enough it becomes apparent to the professor’s suffering wife what is going on. She takes legal recourse (it seems as though adultery is a serious civil offense in the Republic of Korea, or at least it was at this time), threatening suit and forcing So-young to sign papers forbidding her illicit affair with the older woman’s husband. Though crushed, she agrees, but attempts suicide by taking an overdose of pills. She survives, perhaps because the bottle of pills she swallows clearly states that they’re “Vitamin E” tablets (?!?!?). But passion cannot be denied and the professor seeks her out for one last rendezvous, which makes up the films climatic and best love scene, an intense and emotional love-making swathed in vibrant and cartoonish crimson lighting. It’s the only such scene the escapes either faux-Europorn cheesiness or the loopy almost by-the-numbers eccentricity of director Kim. It’s also the only time in this film or in any other South Korean movie I’ve seen of any sensual nature that comes close to matching the vivid intensity of the contemporaneous Japanese “Roman Pornos”. It’s a wonderful, galvanizing and even emotional sequence that should linger long in your memory. The movie just sort of winds down after that, having blown its stack, so to speak. There isn’t much to say about the conclusion, really. Everyone is back to square one and no-one gets a happy ending.

FREE MAIDEN was one of a number of cheap films Kim made during the late 70s through the middle-to-late 1980s which were intended to meet quota requirements imposed by the government on studios importing foreign films. Although intending to pump fresh blood into the increasingly moribund Korean film industry, the actual outcome were scores of zero-budgeted melodramas that for the most part did no favors to the often negative view that the international film scene held about movies made in the ROK. But there were some fascinating pictures that pulled through and are ripe for cult rediscovery, for example: oddball z-grade horrors like THE WHITE WOLF or VENGEFUL VAMPIRE GIRL, deranged gothics so cheap and bizarre they remind one of early 90s Pakistani horror/sleaze. Kim’s pictures from this era are also on the rise in cult circles, although they were first rediscovered by the iconoclastic Korean cinephiles that would eventually breed world class film-makers like Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook. Movies like this one or HUNTING FOR IDIOTS or the bizarre INSECT WOMAN redux CARNIVORE are captivating in a wayward, off-the-cuff manner that deftly showcase Kim’s truly original and obsessive style. He himself was highly dismissive of these films, noting “Those are sort of jokes in a way. I made them with no intention of creating a real piece of work … I made them hastily in a mood of self-mockery”. And while they are not nearly as “well-made” as his 1960s classics like THE HOUSEMAID or GORYEOJANG or as psychedelic and powerful as the 1970s efforts PROMISE OF THE FLESH or I-EO ISLAND, they are nonetheless fascinating examples of peculiar world exploitation cinema. They are easily comparable to wonderfully idiosyncratic works from Jess Franco or Jean Rollin from this same period in Europe or demented no-budget US horror flicks like BOARDINGHOUSE or THE JAR. Films that have sidestepped any normal mainstream mode of film-making and seem instead to have been shot straight out of the wild, fevered imaginations of the irresponsible auteur crafting them. MAIDEN, like any of the films mentioned above, is a very imperfect cinematic artifact but which is nonetheless deeply engrossing anyway, precisely because of these imperfections and not despite them.

The principal selling point of FREE MAIDEN is the wonderfully sultry presence of Ahn So-young. So-young was born in 1959 and made her first film, MU-RIM BATTLE, in 1978. But it was her title role in the “ero-movie” classic AEMA BUIN, released in early February 1982, which made her a star. That picture was an immediate hit and ushered in a brief golden era of softcore sex productions in the faltering South Korean film industry. It spawned no less than 10 sequels making it the longest lasting film series in Korean film history to this point, although only the first featured Ms. Ahn. Although ostensibly erotic, both AEMA and MAIDEN are rather chaste when compared to European or Japanese softcore movies from this same time, not to mention the increasingly profane hardcore productions from all over the decadent west. The nudity in AEMA was teasing only, no full frontal anything. The same can be said of MAIDEN although there are a few more instances of tit-flash than in its more successful predecessor. According to the Korean Film Database (more reliable by far than IMDB) So-young made 23 films between 1978 and 1995 when her filmography then goes mysteriously blank. It is unknown to me why So-young retired but one may gather that perhaps she married at this time and settled down into a traditional Korean lifestyle, which probably forbids a woman from working period, much less working in sexy movies. There is a rumor that at one time she lived in the US and had opened a restaurant but I could find no substantiation for this story. However So-young returned to film in 2007 with THE SUN TOLD ME TO …, a romantic drama.

To be fair, FREE MAIDEN is not as good as AEMA BUIN or any of the other Kim Ki-young films I have seen. Kim’s disinterest shows through in the movie’s many plodding dialog and expositionary scenes, which are shot with none of the passion and verve that highlights even the most trivial scenes in his 60s and 70s work. And excepting the gorgeous force of nature that is Ahn So-young, there are no other great performances here, only perfunctory ones. Still, there is enough of Kim’s eccentric stylistic tics and enough sensual allure to hold one’s interest throughout. And as Kim only made 34 films during his long career (several of his contemporaries made as many as twice that number) and as a significant number of those are now partially or wholly lost, any entry in his filmography is a must-view for his acolytes, for whom even the most lackluster film contributes an important piece of the puzzle to the understanding of this most obscure and uncanny auteur.

Special thanks to my friend Mathieu St-Pierre for his help researching this review. Check out his great review of AEMA BUIN here.