Yoon Jeong-hee (Poetry) Is A Single Woman In “Night Journey” From 1977

night journey

Yoon Jeong-hee In Yahaeng (Night Journey)

In 2010, legendary South Korean actress Yoon Jeong-hee came out of a sixteen year retirement to play Yang mi-ja, the protagonist of Lee Chang-dong’s internationally acclaimed film, Poetry.   For Yoon’s textured performance as a grandmother who is steadily succumbing to Alzheimer’s while trying to keep her grandson, whom she is raising, out of prison for a rape charge earned her a much deserved Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress.  To most of us in the West, Poetry gave us our first exposure to Yoon Jeong-hee, a talented and occasionally controversial actress in the South Korean cinema of  the 1960s and 70s, an actress who was often referred to during her heyday as part of the “Troika” (three) along with Moon Hee and Nam Jeong-im as the most popular actresses of their generation and given Yoon’s performances in some of the more notorious titles from that period of South Korean cinema, she was a natural choice for the lead in “Poetry” as her character, Yang mi-ja, must resort to any means necessary to save her grandson, including sexual soliciting at the age of  sixty six.

One of more notorious titles that Yoon Jeong-hee starred in during her youth was in Yahaeng (Night Journey) a 1977 film by prolific director, Kim Soo-yong where Yoon plays Miss Lee, an unmarried bank clerk in an immense bank in downtown Seoul.  I mention that she is unmarried as that fact is bandied about her office along with the flippant use of the “old maid” tag which has been bestowed upon her and one other female co-worker, a woman that is Miss Lee’s last unwed colleague who is about to tie the knot, an occasion that Miss Lee is not at all that happy about, as that wedding will leave her as the only single woman in her office.

Seated slightly behind Miss Lee at the bank is Mr. Park, Miss Lee’s supervisor, who only occasionally throws a glance at our protagonist though it seems that she is interested in him. After her shift is over, Miss Lee takes a bus and gets off at a military cemetery, heads to the grocery store where she picks up a few things and goes home to her apartment where Miss Lee cooks herself dinner and falls asleep on the couch.  While still asleep the door opens and Miss Lee’s supervisor Mr. Park menacingly walks in and carries her off to the bedroom which is shot in a way that doesn’t look too consensual, and he proceeds to mount her for what seems like eight seconds, gratifies himself, and rolls off to sleep which which makes it abundantly clear that Mr. Park is not into sharing an orgasm with Miss Lee.   We then learn that the two have been living together but they have kept this fact a secret from their coworkers upon Mr. Park’s request in order to avoid gossip which in conjunction with his poor sexual performance, makes their relationship even more pathetic.

Given the impending marriage of her co-worker, Miss Lee also wants to go legit but Mr. Park describes marriage as “lame” and you understand quickly that this relationship isn’t going anywhere fast.  To add insult to injury, Miss Lee has to go stag to the wedding of co-worker so she takes a week’s vacation and decides to visit her hometown to explore her past where you learn that the one true love of her life was killed while serving in the Vietnam War, and that he is buried in the cemetery across the street from her Seoul apartment.  Miss Lee soon returns to the city, and she heads to the bars, not necessarily looking for love but more to test the potentially dangerous ramifications of being a single woman engaging a world full of singles, similar to the character of Theresa in Richard Brooks’ equally controversial film released the same year, Looking For Mr. Goodbar.

Night Journey remains as one of the highlights of Kim Soo-yong’s oeuvre, and it is adapted from a work by the acclaimed 20th-century novelist Kim Seung-ok.  Though it is based on Kim Seung-ok’s novel, Night Journey also shares a lot with Mr. Goodbar, the aforementioned film of Richard Brooks besides the central plot of a woman who is desperate to see a world beyond her past, using sexuality to compensate for loss which in the case of Miss Lee’s loss of her true love, whereas Theresa it is more an issue of lost time from her youth caused by illness and Catholic repression.  Kim soo-yong employs a similarly loose narrative structure and mixes daring cinematography and sound to create a modernist aesthetic that allows you into the mind of the film’s central character.   Actress Yoon Jeong-hee brings a beautifully righteous rebellion to Miss Lee in the same way that would do over thirty years later with her character in Poetry.   Both characters are trapped by their age and the customs of the society that they live in which assumes that they must be complacent, waiting for men to rescue them so that they can live out their lives.

Given the time period when most South Korean films were shot to give only the male perspective, Night Journey remains as a striking statement for a growing number of women of its era who wanted to free themselves from repression. As righteous as the film is though, there is one scene that possibly does go against the makeup of Miss Lee’s character and that is a scene in which Miss Lee, during one of her solo escapades into the city, is raped and appears to have enjoyed it so much that she goes to the same location the next night seemingly to have the moment happen again.  If the rape had occurred with Miss Lee’s outrage, I would’ve assumed that this was added to supply a punishment for her rebellion, serving as a precautionary tale in order for the film to make it past the censors but she clearly seems to enjoy it.

If director Kim’s goal was to make a point that Miss Lee’s desire to willingly be a victim of rape due to the fact that her current sex life is a collection of unsatisfying moments, that would be very bold condemnation of that era’s men but what I actually feel is the purpose of that rape is that Miss Lee’s perception of sexuality has been augmented based on her first sexual experiences being derived from a teacher who molested her as a teen that we see in flashbacks early in the Night Journey.  If the latter rationale is the case, then one has to wonder as to what is the overarching statement of sexual freedom and repression that director Kim is making with Night Journey.  Is that statement that all women in society have been punished by men for so long that the line between the sexual act of love and the brutality of rape has been blurred?

 Night Journey Full Movie

Incredibly, given the film’s salacious content in a country that is even more sexually repressed than the United States, the production of Night Journey actually predates Mr. Goodbar by four years as it wrapped in 1973 but was attacked by censors and was shelved for years before being released in an edited version in 1977.  Rumors persist that two cuts of the film exist, but director Kim maintains that this is not true though I personally would love to have seen his true vision for the film.   Regardless, of the cuts that one imagines were made, Night Journey is an intelligently made film depicting one woman’s impossible struggle to free herself from past tragedies, violence, and contemporary repression.  As for actress Yoon Jeong-hee, given her performance here and in such magnificent films like 1967’s Mist, I am thrilled that she ended her career with 2010’s Poetry, forever solidifying Yoon as an actress who never strayed away from controversial and important roles for women.