Released at a pivotal time of change in Korean history (1961), it is no surprise that Yoo Hyun-Mok’s Obaltan (The Aimless Bullet) touches upon so many divisive issues that the country was experiencing at the time. A film of unquestionable depth and tragedy, it focuses in on one particular family and the many complexities that they must endure as the country around them fails to accommodate its people.
With clear links to Italian neo-realism, Obaltan mercilessly explores the economic and moral plight of the citizen in a war-torn country. The main figure is the salary man, with his battered shoes and increasingly painful toothache he cuts out as a subdued and almost helpless man whose sole goal is to make ends meet for his family. The people around him don’t seem to fare much better; his brother is a jobless wounded veteran, and his sister is a love-torn woman who’s turned to prostitution. Fortunes seem slim in this new Korea.
Given the torment that they are going through, it is no surprise that you quickly become very attached to these characters as you slowly discover how unjustified and unfortunate their situations are. However, what sets this film apart from many other films that deal with tragedy is the extraordinary level of depth behind the characters. You feel sympathy for them not simply because of their terrible situations, but because you connect with them on a very real level, and the complexity of the characters is brought about by their monologues and discussions. The added understanding of the characters gives the film a very personal touch that makes for an incredibly intimate experience.
The camera plays a much greater role than would be expected, and allows us to delve into the depth of the characters. It gives an otherwise untold insight into the attitudes in Korea at that time, by paying attention to matters that are too subtle to be brought up through the characters themselves. It does this in a sensitive manner; you feel that you’ve worked it out for yourself rather than it being just being revealed to you, and this allows for different layers of the film to be revealed as each scene plays out.
This is not a film to just turn on and sit back to relax to; the tone is somber and as the plot unravels, happiness for all the characters fades away quickly. It is interesting to note that the film was even banned in South Korea for a period of time due to its depressing depictions of life in the country.
Yet despite this, it is a most captivating film, and its heaviness only adds to the intensity. The dialogue is remarkably engaging, and it is clear that Yoo Hyun-Mok’s voice can be heard throughout through the reflections that the characters often make. On top of that, the subtlety of the camera helps to completely immerse yourself in the story.
Renowned as one of South Korea’s best and most culturally significant films, Obaltan sheds light on the struggle of the common family in 1950s Korea. It is a definite watch for anyone curious about that time period and looking for a film that is able to deliver so much raw emotion with such impeccable beauty.