Woman of Fire
Writer/director Kim Ki-Young’s Woman of Fire (Hwanyeo, 1971) was the first South Korean film that I can remember seeing on the big screen. I was on a trip to Chicago in the early 1990s and went to see several films at a repertory cinema there during my stay, with one night being a double-bill of the final two installments of Kim’s “Housemaid trilogy,” Woman of Fire and 1982’s aptly titled Woman of Fire ‘82 (Hwanyeo ‘82). (It would be another couple of decades before I had the chance to see the original The Housemaid (Hanyeo, 1960], but it was worth the wait, as it instantly became my all-time favorite Korean film and secured Kim my all-time favorite South Korean filmmaker). I’m thrilled that this year’s edition of the London Korean Film Festival has afforded me the opportunity to revisit Woman of Fire by way of a newly restored version.
Myung-Ja — played by Youn Yuh-Jung, winner of the 2021 Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, in her cinema debut — leaves her country home with a friend after the two are attacked by men, with Myung-Ja fending off her attempted rapist by hitting him in the head with a hard object. She takes a job as a housemaid for a couple with two young children that owns a chicken farm, working for no money because she asked lady of the house Jung-Sook (Jeon Gye-Hyeon) to instead help her find a husband.
When Jung-Sook takes the children on a visit to see some relatives, she asks Myung-Ja to make sure that her songwriting husband Dong-Shik (Wong Nam-Koong) doesn’t cheat on her with any of the young singers with whom he works. After Myung-Ja fends off one such seduction, she is raped by a drunken Jung-Sook, after which she becomes pregnant, possessive, manipulating, and murderous.
Whereas The Housemaid plays as more of a straight-ahead, black-and-white thriller with Lee Eun-Shim portraying the titular femme fatale in a rather controlled and very eerie, seductive manner, Woman of Fire ramps up the sensationalism from its predecessor, awash in a lurid color palette and told in a nonlinear approach chock full of wild montages — complete with repeated shots of a slide projector — during the introduction and some scenes of sex and violence, with everything from war scenes to still life with fruit to something going on in the cosmos, and Kim throws in a recurring butterfly image motif for good measure. Youn initially portrays Myung-Ja as a naïf but as her character becomes more unhinged, inhabits her with a melodramatic flair.
The Housemaid is more of a cautionary fable, while Women of Fire is an arthouse, histrionic reworking of that first film, with social commentary about class systems. Kim’s flamboyant style and Youn’s intriguing offbeat portrayal of a woman succumbing to desire and madness make Women of Fire a fascinating watch.
If you’re in the mood for a thriller that goes full-on soap-opera melodrama, writer/director Seo You-Min’s Recalled may be right up your alley. You must also be willing to forgive a conceit of clairvoyance being completely dropped once it has served its purpose as merely making the protagonist more unreliable to the police, and an introduction of a character, complete with exposition dump, in the third act that I won’t go into detail about here so as to avoid spoilers.
Seo Ye-Ji stars as Soo Jin, a woman who has been through an accident that caused her to lose her memory. Kim Kang-Woo plays Ji Hoon, her husband who seemingly lovingly takes care of her while withholding details about her past. It’s so obvious early on in the first act that she is being gaslighted in some manner that it is no spoiler to state that here. Seo You-Min packs on the questions of how and why, while also investing Soo Jin with the ability to see accidents and deaths involving her neighbors — though that angle gets muddled before being completely bounced.
Seo Ye-Ji does a fine job in the lead role, inhabiting Soo Jin with an engaging emotional range, and the character is well written as a woman who is determined to find out what secrets are being kept from her. Fans of K-drama storylines and melodramatic elements, and of the cast members, are likely to be more accepting of Recalled, but those seeking a taut thriller that avoids plot holes are likely to be disappointed.
Writer/director Kim Hye-Mi’s animated feature Climbing is not an easy film to get into, though ultimately, it is a psychological horror outing with body horror tones that offers a good deal of creepiness and an intriguing take on pregnancy and sports competition. Its animation style — which works in its favor as the film goes on — feels like a crude 3D style from old video game cutscenes, and its story seems initially confusing until elements begin to become clearer. Ultimately, though, it is an interesting work that delivers much on which to reflect.
Choi Se-Hyeon (voiced by Kim Min-Ji) is a professional climber who competes at world-competition levels. She has recently recovered from a car accident that left her injured and caused a miscarriage. Her hard-driving coach is also elevating a younger female climber to Se-Hyeon’s level, and perhaps beyond, making for fierce competition between the two women, and not just on rock walls. Se-Hyeon’s live-in fiancée is both supportive and manipulative. And then there is her fiancée’s mother-in-law, who has chilling plans for Se-Hyeon. Life is stressful enough for Se-Hyeon, but matters escalate when she receives a call on her cell phone that she has not used since the accident — and it is from a still-pregnant, alternate-reality version of herself.
Climbing is the sort of film that requires viewers to work at delving into its bizarre world, but those with a taste for films such as Black Swan (2010) and The Double (2013) should find this Climbing to be a goosebumps-inducing mind-bender.
Woman of Fire, Recalled, and Climbing screen as part of London Korean Film Festival, which runs from 4–19 November, 2021. For more information, visit https://www.koreanfilm.co.uk/.