South Korea. In a very conventional household, husband and wife are commenting some news item from a local newspaper: a man committed adultery with his housemaid, and consequently his life is ruined. The wife (Ju Jeung-nyeo) sees the story as an unequivocal exemplification of a moral truth, the husband (Kim Jin-Kyu) seems more inclined to consider the facts from the culprit’s perspective. This discussion that serves as a prologue becomes the basis for an illustrative “what if”, in which both points and their implications are accounted for. The same husband, a composer, works as a music teacher at a local factory to earn the extra money needed to pay for his new house. More than one among the female factory workers is secretly in love with him, but the composer turns all his admirers down out of respect for his family. However upright his outer countenance, he is in fact a spineless man around whom three different women end exerting their power. The wife, the music student and the family’s housemaid weigh hard on the man’s wish to remain a virtuous specimen of society through means of temptation. Eventually, the composer falls for the psychotic housemaid (Lee Eun-shim) and as the whole family suffers because of the man’s betrayal and weakness, the story spirals downwards until the final tragedy. In the epilogue, we are back to the couple engaged in discussion: adultery is proved to be bad, as the wife stated in the beginning; the husband though laughs his head off, acknowledging that all men are pigs and there is really no way to change human nature.
The negatives of Hanyo were recovered in 1982, but two of the original reels were missing. Using another copy retrieved in 1990 to fill in the gaps, The Korean Film Archive restored Kim Ki-young’s film with the support of the World Cinema Foundation.
The sleek cinematography and the refined framing and camera work put Hanyo on par with acclaimed film noir classics. The film is at the core a cautionary tale, although Kim Ki-young overcharges the story with so many allusions and bold stylistic choices that rather than a simple commentary on bourgeois truths, Hanyo is an absurd display of humankind’s basest desires and embarrassing vices. The comparison many have made with Hitchcock, however, is pretty much far-fetched and preposterous, as Hanyo lacks depth both in character and plot development, and it does not have the same spirit of Hitchcock’s works to support it. Despite the polished style, Hanyo is quite prosaic in its content and Kim Ki-young is never as subtle nor his irony is as sharp as Hitchcock’s to investigate the psychology of his characters and make them believable and interesting. Even if the manner some themes are depicted — male at the mercy of abusive females; disloyalty, lust and greed — may have been shocking at the time of its release, especially for a conservative country like South Korea, the film appears by today’s standards as harmless and fantastic as a parable. The actors are appropriate for their roles, but Lee Eun-shim steals the show with her fragile and mischievous air as the nervous and captivating femme fatale. It must be said that the way characters are written and the story unfolds is ridiculous; accordingly, acting is most of the times over-the-top.
One of the biggest problem in Hanyo is that the director’s intentions are never clear: was he just interested in creating a suspenseful Korean film as they used to do in Hollywood? Was this intended as a study on human nature? Is this the interpretation Kim Ki-young offers of a certain mentality in post-war South Korea? Is Hanyo a parody, an illustration, a metaphor? Were the prologue/epilogue added in a whim or were they intended as a key to understand the actual message of the film? Were they a production choice to make Hanyo acceptable to the audience? The prologue, with its “matter-of-fact”, didactic approach, weakens significantly the significance of the film. Instead of a coherently conceived work, the result is a muddled story with beautiful visuals and some unexpected twists.
Even with all the aforementioned weaknesses, Kim Ki-young delivered an entertaining piece of cinema, graced by many brilliant moments and by a very aesthetically pleasing style. Crossing the border between melodrama and horror and freely adapting elements from several genres to South Korea’s new bourgeoisie’s sentiments, Hanyo actually fits rather nicely the rich and heterogeneous B-movie cauldron, with all its qualities and idiosyncrasies, and it definitely reminded me of the work of film-makers that had in this type of production their bread-and-butter, like the eclectic Jacques Tourneur. Hanyo’s claustrophobic and sensual atmosphere remains to this day a treat for the spectator.