Review: Park Kwang-su’s “Chilsu and Mansu”

Chilsu and Mansu begins with the piercing sound of a civil-defense drill siren, a common feature of daily life for Koreans under the military government of Chun Doo Hwan in the 80’s. The film quickly introduces us to the title protagonists, Chilsu (Park Joong-hoon) and Mansu (Ahn Sung-ki), billboard sign painters working in Seoul. Chilsu is the source of much of the film’s humor, as he fights with his boss (“We’re living in a democratic society. I can quit whenever I want!”) and doggedly pursues Ji-na (Bae Jong-ok), a young woman he meets during the drill and begins courting at her job at Burger King, drawing her picture and posing as an art student to impress her. He is obsessed with all things American, taking Ji-na to see Rocky IV and putting up posters of his idols James Dean and Marlon Brando. He drops English phrases in his speech to make himself sound sophisticated and brags about moving to Miami with his brother. However, all of Chilsu’s bluster and bravado serve to mask his shame at his background, as the estranged son of a pimp who ran a brothel serving U.S. soldiers. He hides the real facts about himself from others, especially Ji-na, whom he fears will reject him if she learns his true circumstances.

Mansu, on the other hand, is older than Chilsu and conducts himself in a more sober, level-headed manner. His equanimity slips, however, when he gets drunk, which is his usual nightly ritual. He must constantly hustle for work, calling employers each morning in search of assignments. Mansu is also estranged from his father, who is serving a long sentence as a prisoner of conscience. Mansu is himself apolitical, and in fact resents his father for causing his family hardship and retarding his own career progress. His family background has prevented him from obtaining a passport to travel abroad for more lucrative construction work.

After Chilsu quits his job painting movie theater posters, he cajoles Mansu into having them work together and letting him stay at his place. He enlists Mansu’s help in impressing Ji-na, convincing him to pretend to be a famous artist from Paris. Their work painting huge construction projects and advertising billboards is dangerous, high-rise work that keeps them barely above a subsistence level, living off instant ramen noodles and soju. They are compelled to take a job painting a billboard on a tight deadline and for a low wage. Their simmering frustrations force them to confront the truly miserable nature of their lives, and they finally stop putting on an act for others. They stop working, climb to the top of the billboard, and begin shouting, expressing their anger at the world below. Curious passersby stop to stare at them, causing an instant commotion. Because they are so high above the ground, no one can hear what they are saying, and eventually the police are called, leading to a misunderstanding that has tragic consequences for the two men.

Chilsu and Mansu was based on a short story by Taiwanese dissident writer Huang Chunming, called “Two Signpainters.” Huang’s writings were banned in Korea at the time, thus his name does not appear in the film’s opening credits. Released in 1988, the year of the Seoul Olympics, Chilsu and Mansu was a key film in the 80’s new wave of Korean cinema, in which filmmakers took advantage of the fervor for democracy sweeping the nation and the gradual relaxation of governmental censorship to create works that tackled the daily reality and struggles of Korean people during this period. The years immediately preceding the film’s release saw many labor strikes and a general agitation for freer democratic expression. The mainstream cinema of the time mostly consisted of soft-core pornography, and political expression was very strictly censored. Directors such as Park Kwang-su, Lee Chang-ho, Bae Chang-ho, and Jang Sun-woo, among others, rejected the escapism and triviality of much of the decade’s cinema to create challenging and politically incisive films that, while not always commercial successes (Chilsu and Mansu was in fact a box-office failure), nevertheless were quite compelling and gained much attention overseas, which helped set the stage for the remarkable renaissance of Korean cinema that began in the late 90’s. Chilsu and Mansu’s two stars, Ahn Sung-ki and Park Joong-hoon, exhibited a great chemistry that would see them reunited in later films, including Two Cops (1993), Nowhere to Hide (1999), and most recently, Radio Star (2006). Bae Jong-ok went on to notable roles in such films as Jealousy is My Middle Name (2003), Love Talk (2005), and Herb (2007).

Park Kwang-su was born in Sokcho, Kangwon Province in 1955, and grew up in Pusan. While majoring in Fine Arts at Seoul National University and studying sculpture, he became interested in film, making short films on Super-8. After graduation, Park founded the Seoul Film Group to create underground films that opposed the military government of Chun Doo Hwan. He continued his film study in Paris, at the ESEC Film School. He was exposed there to other politically-minded world cinemas and returned to Korea determined to create similarly socially-conscious feature films. He has cited Lino Brocka of the Philippines as a major influence on his work. Park worked as an assistant to Lee Chang-ho on The Man With Three Coffins (1987) before making his feature debut with Chilsu and Mansu, which won the Young Critics Jury Prize at the Locarno Film Festival. His other films have screened and been awarded at many major film festivals, including the Berlin and Karlovy Vary festivals. Park’s subsequent films include Black Republic (1990), Berlin Report (1991), To the Starry Island (1993), A Single Spark (1995), and The Uprising (1999).