masterly master lee

a home for forgotten and famous korean pulp, its heroes, its heroines, and its pulpeteers

Shanghai Blues 샹하이 부르스 1969 review

eab980eab8b0eb8d952Shanghai Blues by director Kim Kidŏk (pictured; no, not the guy who hates women) is a colourful gem among Korea’s less serious features (and Master Lee wonders why it has not yet been brought out on DVD, whereas terribly forgettable movies such as 갯마을 have). Why? Well, first we must mention the soundtrack, in its literal meaning (as opposed to OST). The imminent arrival of the tough guy in the movie, Ilsu, is always introduced by way of a whistle that approximates the singing saw-sound. Since showing him whistle would risk taking away some of the toughness of his character, his whistle is added non-diegetically… Hilarious. In the fisticuffs scenes the director and his team chose sounds that in onomatopoeic terms resemble “ka-smack” rather more than “boompf”, which gives the fights something fresh and fruity (and possibly more painful). The music itself (by Chŏn Chŏnggŭn) is not too bad, though mostly classical romantic. When it is not, it entails existing mambo tracks, which, when the story takes us to a nightclub with live music, are played seemingly live (diegetic). But while one can clearly hear a piano, it is not being played on screen. But of course these nightclub band scenes are as much to listen to as they are to look at, given the close-ups of the bikini-clad dancer’s erotic moves. A rather more difficult scene to explain from the viewpoint of music, is that opening (16:40) with a rather long shot of a record player playing something other than the music we hear. 

Like the music and sound, the scenario is not scared to push the boundaries of believability a little. Nanhŭi, a young woman, has been set aside by her super-tough and stoic boyfriend, Ilsu, who refuses to look after her after she’s given up her job. She literally ends up in the gutter, and is then rescued by a young priest who pledges to ask her boyfriend to take her back. Ilsu, however, has started to have an affair with the love interest of a nightclub owner. When the young priests, Hyŏn, meets Ilsu, he recognizes him as the younger brother he left years ago to fend on his own along with his ailing mother. It was a time when Hyŏn would go around as The Joker, beating people up and extorting them for money, leaving behind only a Joker card – would DC Comics know about this? At this moment, as proof of his kkangp’ae past, Hyŏn’s priest robe falls open, revealing a torso-size tattoo of the Joker symbol on his chest. Ilsu has, of course, not forgiven him (it is now clear why Ilsu appears so heartless), and so Hyŏn’s first attempts at reasoning with Ilsu fail dramatically, with Ilsu beating up his older brother on almost every occasion. Meanwhile, Nanhŭi has found God at the little Christian retreat in the countryside. Ilsu looks her up, and asks her to forgive him for his actions. He then leaves her with money to look after herself, while he goes back to the nightclub, to take the madam’s son out to the beach and a luna park. Even after this good deed Ilsu hopes his new love will start a new life with him, but she refuses. Her partner, however, is not forgiving of his girfriend’s treachery when he arrives at the scene and shoots her. Ilsu then tells the nightclub owner he wishes to settle things outside, and so they fight, but at the end, Hyŏn ends up being shot when trying to save his younger brother. In the final scenes Ilsu carries his dying brother back to the Christian restreat (where Nanhŭi is waiting). Shedding many tears, the younger brother forgives his older brother.

Shanghai Blues is one in a fairly long line of movies with “부르스” (Blues) in the title, a transliteration Koreans today find confusing. In fact, the poster of “0시의 부르스” (Midnight Blues) transliterates it more properly as “부루스”, but somehow the official Korean title has now been “corrected” to the then standard “부르스”. Most of these Blues flicks, including No P’il’s 1966 밤하늘의 부르스 (Blues in the Evening Sky) – which has a star-filled cast, including a pretty female drummer as part of the “Stardusters” band in the 11th minute (11:33), the Chyani Brothers 쟈니 부러더스, the Walker Hill Band and Dancing Team, and Yi Mija – have a strong emphasis on music, but in this particular movie the emphasis is not very strong, and the title appears to have been chosen primarily to reflect the many troublesome interactions of the main characters. Although the acting is somewhat too imaginative at times, with Ilsu (played by Kim Hŭira) clearly overdoing the tough-boy act on several occasions, there are moments of true subtlety and believability. Pak Noshik, who oddly enough appeared in two more “Blues” movies that same year – 0시의 부르스 and 사나이부르스 – plays Hyŏn, and Nam Chŏngim, who plays Nanhŭi, both do very decent jobs, and in the final scene, when Ilsu cries out his heart forgiving his older brother, Master Lee found himself forgiving him a little for his acting (though without shedding any tear, of course). The colors in the scenes are wonderful, and even had Master Lee reminisce the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie. This movie will not charm today’s audiences by way of its storyline or its acting, but Master Lee is convinced that many will enjoy the reasonably well edited pace, the “ka-smack(s)”, the singing saw whistle, the mambo dance tunes, and the bold 1960s clothes and hairstyles.

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