par DARCY Paquet
The division of the Korean Peninsula into separate regime, and the almost complete suspension of contact between North and South Korea have resulted in a gradual distancing between the two cultures which is palpable in contemporary times. Apart from political differences, a significant linguistic gap has grown between North and South, and defectors to the South have been shown to have considerable difficulty in adjusting socially to what has become an alien culture.
School Excursion, directed by Yu Hyun-mok (Yu Hyônmok) in 1969, reminds us that such distancing can occur within a single country as well. Shot through the eyes of a group of schoolchildren who travel from their remote island home to the metropolis of Seoul, Yu’s film provides a vivid illustration of how rapid industrialization spread unevenly throughout a country can bring about similar lines of demarcation.
Created under a time of intense censorship and interference in the film industry by Korea’s military government, School Excursion represents a far less overtly political statement than Yu’s most famous work, Obaltan (1961) a.k.a. An Aimless Bullet, which depicts the struggle of a poor family in a society wracked by upheaval. Nonetheless Tu’s images and the careful execution of his story provide for a multiple readings which shed light on the nature of South Korea’s industrialization.
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Yu Hyun-mok was born in 1925 in Hwanghae Province, in what is now North Korea. After moving to Seoul shortly after the end of Japanese colonial rule he found work in the film industry as an assistant director. From his debut in 1956 with The Crossroad up to his latest work Mommy, Star and Sea Anemone in 1995, Yu directed 43 films and gained a reputation as one of the three greatest film makers from Korea’s « Golden Age » of cinema from 1955-1970 (the others being Kim Ki-young and Shin Sang-ok).
The subject of a high-profile retrospective at the 4th Pusan International Film Festival in 1999, Yu has been seen by local critics as Korea’s foremost practitioner of realist cinema in the tradition of the Italian Neorealists. A collection of essays about his work published by the Pusan festival is tellingly titled, The Pathfinder of Korean Realism : Yu Hyun-mok. Nonetheless as Yi Hyo-in notes in an essay in the same volume, Yu’s propensity for unusual camera angles, complex uses of sound, and the contruction of motif through repetition make the term « modernist » or « expressionistic » just as applicable to his works.
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School Excursion opens with the image and sound of a boat’s horn signaling departure. The composition of the image, divided in two by a strong vertical line, suggests a boundary, and indeed in the following shot we see the boat itself having moved away from the land, the water forming another boundary separating a group of children on the boat with their families waving on the shore. From the film’s very opening, Yu establishes the gap which exists between the children, sailing towards the modernity of the city, and their parents who are left behind on an undeveloped islang.
As the parents shout advice and encouragement to their departing children, one boy who has been left behind runs up and plunges into the water, swimming desperately towards the boat. Panic erupts on both sides, as the boy’s teacher dives into the water and swims towards him. As the boy reaches the teacher, halfway between the boat and the land, the camera zooms suddenly towards him and he repeats the words, « School excursion… school excursion… »
The boy’s desperation seems odd : he seemingly risks drowning in his fear of being left behind from what is only a school trip. As viewers we feel a sense of alienation, as if confronting a culture which we don’t fully understand. By starting his narrative here, which turns out to be the middle (indeed, the « boundary ») of the story, Yu replicates in the viewer a similar sense of confusion and alienation that will later be felt by the children as they approach Seoul.
Following this scene, we see a montage of shots of the island which emphasize its natural beauty. The images are screened over a march which forms the film’s musical theme, repeated at different tempos throughout the film.
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Following this introduction, the first major segment of the film opens with the words « school excursion » repeated again by a little girl from the island who provides the film voiceover narration. Speaking over blurred images of leaves and running water, the girl explains hox the children misunderstood the meaning of the words when they first heard them. What follows is an extended flashback that familiarizes the viewer with the island and the circumstances that lead the children to take a trip to Seoul.
Apart from narrative exposition, much of the flashback serves to put the viewer into the perspective of the children. The scenes presented emphasize the beauty of the island but also its remoteness : over half of the villagers, and all of the children, have never been to the mainland. Passing ships seem impossibly far out of reach, yet the children run to the shore to call to them. In her narration, the girls wishes aloud for an angel to « come down from heaven » and take her to the mainland, and shortly thereafeter, she identifies the angel as her teacher, Mr. Kim.
The children’s teacher, played by popular comedian and actor Koo Bong-seo (Ku Pongsô), is first seen drawing a picture of a bicycle on the chalkboard, since none of them have ever seen one. The children’s ignorance is treated with affection and humor, yet underneath this the film also highlights the lack of opportunities presented to the children. When Mr. Kim suggests taking the children to Seoul on a trip, both parents and students are uncredulous, but through a laborious process of persuasion and fund-raising the trip becomes a reality. In emphasizing the tremendous effort that went into making the trip possible, the film shows us why the young boy in the opening was so desperate not to miss the boat.
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As we return to the present we again see a shot of the boat’s horn as the children sail for land. The first images we say of the mainland contrast sharply with those of the island : smokestacks, exhaust from the train, and the horn of the train, this time blaring so loudly that the children are frightened and run away.
Much of the humor in the film derives from seeing the trappings of modern industry through the eyes of the students expériencing it for the first time. Before boarding the train, they argue about whether to remove their shoes. As the train takes off, they marvel at how the trees seem to be moving backwards. The children’s first taste of economic disparity comes on the train to Seoul, when a man comes selling snacks and candy. Unable to afford a bottle of soda, the chidren buy Eundan, a silver-coated herbal pill that they believe will « make them full », spitting it out later when they taste it for the first time.
A shot of loudspeakers mark the chidren’s arrival in Seoul, and they gather in front of Seoul Station, where they meet Mr. Kim’s wife and young son, who live in the city. The son hardly recognizes his father after years of separation. We learn later that his schoolmates tease him, saying he doesn’t have a father.
This raises an issue that becomes crucial for the remaining segments of the film. The teacher’s wife, played by Moon Hee (Mun Hûi, one of the most famous actresses of her generation) hopes to reunite her family, but insists that they must live in Seoul for the good of her son. The film thus explores in indirect fashion wether Seoul or the island provide a better environment for the raising of children. This issue takes on political significance considering the government’s push for rapid industrialization, and it is certain that director Yu himself have faced pressure in various forms to conform to the government’s position.
Whereas on the island Mr. Kim’s ability to care for its students is unrestricted, we are quickly shown how institutions of the city prevent this in Seoul. After the bus filled with students drives off without him, he runs after it, but is taken to the police station and nearly arrested for interfering with trafic. Later in the film, a misunderstanding occurs when the children see him one night on TV from a segment recorded at the zoo earlier in the day. Believing he is calling them in real time, they rush off to the zoo to meet him. When Mr. Kim realizes this, he is again prevented from quickly reaching them by being unable to catch a taxi.
Material comfort is an other issue raised by Mr. Kim’s wife and the film itself. After the schoolchildren befriend a group of kids from a rich school, they are invited to spend the night with their newfound friends. Faced with what was staggering wealth in 1960s Seoul (four burner stoves, refrigerators), the children again experience a sense of shocked alienation. The various gifts bestowed on the schoolchildren by their rich friends seem to evoque the promise of wealth that industrialization offers to the island children.
Yet in other ways the film undermines this promise, when we discover that the older sister of one of the boys is working as a servant for a family in Seoul (improbably enough, at the very house in which he is invited to stay). In poor health and struggling to support herself, we see vividly how the wealth of the city remains out of reach for a former inhabitant of the island.
Perhaps most telling of the film’s underlying criticism of industrialization is the scene where the children ride a tram, soon to be retired from service, and speak with the old man who operates it. The children are shocked to discover that such a vehicule will soon be discarded, though still in usable form. Here the children express their most forthright criticisms of the express and waste of capitalistic society.
As the children’s journey draws to a close, all are sad to discover that Mr. Kim’s wife has elected to stay in Seoul, rather than to move to the island with her husband. When they discover in the film’s climatic moment that she has actually boarded the train with her son, it hints at the belief that the comparatively primitive life on the island (and the reunion of the nuclear family) can provide a better upbringing for the couple’s child than the industrial city.
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In what was probably pitched to governmental censors as a propaganda film on behalf of industrialization, Yu Hyun-mok has created a multifaced work with undercurrents that call such development into question. The alienation of being thrust into a different world brings the students both a sense of wonder and an underlying unease that ultimately make them see their home in a new light. The films’s closing shots, which cut from the sun setting amidst a backdrop of smokestacks to the sun setting on the island, provide the film’s first instance of continuity between island and city. Yet this visual continuity between shots can only be seen as somewhat ironic, given the undescurrents of the narrative which precedes it.
english title : School Excursion
director : Yi Hyun-mok
scénario : Yi Sanghyôn
Caméra : Min Chongshik
Montage : Yi Kyôngja
Musique : Kim Tongjin
Acteurs : Ku Pongsô, Mun Hûi, Hwang Hae, Chang Tonghwi, Chông Min, Yi Suryôn
104mn, couleurs, 1969