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

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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.

 

 

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Watching The ABC Movie Of The Week With My Sister: Richard Brooks’ Controversial 1977 Film, “Looking For Mr. Goodbar”

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Richard Gere and Diane Keaton in “Looking For Mr. Goodbar

I wouldn’t be the cineaste that I am today if not for my late sister Rosaria. As it was the 1970s during most of my adolescence, movies were an affordable route to an elevated state and one that could exalt an otherwise poor family to experience art for short money. One of my earliest film memories was that of my sister, hiding me under her coat so that I could get in to see Bob Fosse’s “Lenny” when I was all but six years old. Why, you may ask? Well, she had to babysit me, but it was in its last week at the theater, and she so desperately wanted to see this Lenny Bruce biopic that she felt the need to commit such a desperate act.

I couldn’t recall much when I was asked about the movie from my friend Paul, but I did remember seeing two women kiss one another, which prompted a few questions for my sister after the film that were met with the answer “It happens,” but I couldn’t tell you much more than that. On top of that somewhat illegal screening experience, my sister and I watched a lot of films together, both in the theater and on television. Such was the case with Richard Brooks’ misunderstood 1977 film, “Looking For Mr. Goodbar,” which appeared as the ABC Movie Of The Week in 1980, with only a few edits for content. When it aired, I was the wise-old age of eleven, and I in my overconfident mind thought that I got more out of the film than with “Lenny.” I mean I was eleven by that point and the reality that I lived in the inner city made me wise above my years, but more importantly, Rosaria was a woman of twenty two, who loved going to the discos, and was the eldest daughter of a working poor Roman Catholic family.

Disparaging words had been said about “Looking For Mr. Goodbar” during one weekly church sermon as the film depicted a woman who gleefully engaged in promiscuity, rampant drug use, and one the most grievous of sins for a Catholic, a hysterectomy. By 1980, my sister had long since ceased attending mass and was eager to see to see the film as she, like many women of her generation, had been a staunch advocate of women’s rights. She had missed the film’s initial theatrical run so she was excited when it ran on television. As my dad would be asleep before it aired, and my mom was working second shift, we sat down and watched the film together. My sister had heard about Roseann Quinn, the murdered NYC schoolteacher who the novel and subsequent film was based on, which added a more somber element and raised curiosity to the screening. It had a profound effect on both of us that night, and since then, I have gone on to be a huge admirer of Richard Brooks’ films, but as the film has never been released on DVD ( I have a battered VHS copy from back in the day), I haven’t seen it in years, and, frankly, I have avoided seeing it because my sister passed almost two years ago. Just the other day, my good friend Mitch forwarded to me a recently uploaded copy of the film, and I felt that I was finally in the right frame of mind to watch it again.

Watching the film now, and understanding the case as I do, Brooks didn’t take substantial liberties with the story, except that the main character of the film is not as hell bent on destruction as portrayed by the Rossner novel. Brooks and Diane Keaton do a magnificent job in presenting Theresa as a woman who is struggling to find her own way in the world, writhing out of the grips of her smothering family, her self-destructive envy of her gorgeous hedonistic sister and daddy’s favorite, Katherine (Tuesday Weld), and the crippling Catholic guilt that she deals with every day. Theresa is a teacher for young deaf students at a NYC school (just like the real-life Quinn) who begins her sexual explorations by having an affair with her over-intellectual married college professor, but that fails to materialize into anything more than a tawdry fling. She leaves her family home to move into the building that was recently purchased by her sister Katherine’s new husband. Now at new digs, Theresa begins to explore the city proceeding cautiously at first with her new found freedom, choosing to hit singles bars armed with just reading glasses and a good book. She soon meets a hustler, Tony (a wide eyed carnal Richard Gere) who beds her giving Theresa her first positive sexual experience free of emotional hang ups.

She then dates James (an extremely creepy William Atherton) who behaves in a way that most sociologists would call the “good son.” James is an Irish-American welfare inspector who Theresa meets when he appears at the home of Amy, one of her impoverished students who cannot afford a hearing aide. James immediately becomes obsessed with Theresa and infiltrates her family’s home to become a fixture in her life, much to Theresa’s disdain. After another slightly dangerous one night fling with the clearly psychotic Tony, Theresa hits the bars, does some coke, and begins to falter as a teacher. Theresa’s downward spiral goes into overdrive when she begins turning a few tricks with older, unattractive men which also was rumored to be the case with Roseann Quinn.  Again, unlike the book, Theresa engages in these scenarios with a certain amount of fear but still with the excitement of expanding her outlook on life, both sexually and philosophically, and ending the cycle of shame and guilt that she has possessed her entire life.  In the film’s final scene, Theresa like Roseann Quinn, has her life taken away when she takes the wrong man home for a sexual tryst whom she meets at a New Year’s Eve party. In the film, but unlike the actual case, this man is portrayed as a self-loathing homosexual named Gary (played by Tom Berenger in one of his earliest roles) who meets Theresa shortly after almost being killed by gay bashers on the street. True to the real incident, Theresa is brutally stabbed to death by Gary after he fails to achieve an erection.

Much was made at the time of the film’s release that Brooks had crafted a film that served as a precautionary tale and even worse, as an indictment of 1970s feminism, which is why I feel that this film was completely misunderstood when it first was screened. The normally left of center treatment in most of Brooks’ work would be your first indication that his plan for this adaptation of the Rossner novel was not to condemn women for their new found sexual freedom. If you examine this film carefully, “Looking For Mr. Goodbar” is more of an indictment of the 1970s male than anything else which was eluded to by my sister as she  had said at the time. “Look at the men, she dates.  They are the screwed up ones aren’t they, not her?” Case in point is Theresa’s first sexual partner, the professor, who despite his intellectual prominence, prematurely ejaculates only seconds after penetrating Theresa. He then throws around clichéd 1970s bravado: “I hate to talk with women I just fucked,” to hide the fact that he is terrified by Theresa’s open sexuality. The character of Tony is what we would now called a PTSD affected veteran, who is more lost than Theresa as he has no idea as to how to function in civilized society. James is a classic “mama’s boy” and a callow liberal who cannot simply sleep with women due to his Catholic repression, and lastly, there is Gary, a violent and repressed homosexual character who would most likely be removed from any current film for his gross political incorrectness.  To me, this film is in hindsight a look at the fractured post-Vietnam War American male and not a cautionary tale for sexually liberated women who were finally able to experience free love without the ridicule of the past.

What few negative critiques I offer are in the form of stylistic differences, specifically the use of flashbacks, which act more like filler than anything that truly enlightened Theresa’s inner-self. I feel that those scenes could’ve been replaced with more scenes between Theresa and her sister Katherine, who is the sexual role model for Theresa.  Katherine is inserted in some key scenes, but her character was woefully underdeveloped, which is regrettable as her open sexuality could’ve stressed Theresa’s unspoken agenda for freedom. It is a small critique against an otherwise strong film and Richard Brooks’ last good film as his follow up efforts, “Wrong Is Right” and “Fever Pitch” were universally panned and failed at the box office.

Opening Credits For “Looking For Mr. Goodbar”

It is odd seeing this film now with the knowledge of the life that my sister led until her passing. When we saw the film in 1980, Rosaria was dating a man named Bobby, who similar to James, was a good Catholic boy with dreams of domesticity, which my sister firmly rejected. Rosaria’s next long term relationship lasted over twenty years, but its abrupt ending led to a sadness which played a role in her death. True to what she promised me that night, my sister never married because she never wanted a family of her own for reasons that were not too dissimilar from the anti-familial desires of the character of Theresa. One thing that was always certain for both of them is that guilt is usually too powerful an emotion for goodhearted people to ever fully leave behind. To this day, I’ve often wondered if that film played a role in that life choice that Rosaria made. And even though I too have left Catholicism behind and feel that the ending for a life concerned with true freedom doesn’t have to end so tragically, as I get older I do sometimes question, like the character of James, as to how much we truly have gained from possessing the freedoms that we desire away from a traditional family.

This piece is dedicated to Rosaria.