Review: Kim Hong-joon’s “La Vie en Rose”

Not to be confused with the Edith Piaf biopic of the same name, this particular 1994 film with the French title La Vie en Rose is a Korean film set in 1987, when the country was gearing up for next year’s Seoul Olympics, and the repressive regime of Chun Doo Hwan had to at least make a show of respecting democratic rights. And as this film powerfully argues, it was indeed very much a show, as student protestors continued to be tear-gassed, and anti-government activists were still forced to lay low and hide out from the authorities. On the evidence of this film, one apparently common place to hide out was the sort of comic book rental shop run in this film by the Madam (Choi Myung-gil), where the almost exclusively male clientele stay overnight, paying an extra fee for the privilege (and for the Madam to risk being shut down by the police), and enjoying after-hours porn flicks. The Madam is dissatisfied with the life she leads, and feels trapped in this existence, but can see no alternative. A friend helpfully sets her up with a businessman for a marriage meeting, to no avail.

Soon, however, three men come into her life, and turn her life and her business (in one scene late in the film, literally) upside down. One of them is her half-brother Jee-ho (Cha Kwang-su), a labor activist wanted by the government and hiding out under an assumed name. The second is Dong-pal (Choi Jae-sung), a gangster wanted by both the police and a rival gang who believes he killed their boss. He beats up other patrons in the shop, and rapes the Madam one day when they are alone in the shop. However, the Madam is so beaten down by her life that she passively accepts this rape, feeling as powerless in stopping it as in leaving the town to live a better life. The third man is Yu-jin (Lee Ji-hyung), a shy, sensitive poet who is also a fugitive from government authorities, having written a satirical anti-government novel, that while being very popular with the public, raised considerable ire in official circles. Yu-jin pines for Miss Oh (Hwang Mi-sun), a pretty coffee-shop delivery girl, whom he comes to learn is not all she seems.

La Vie en Rose was the debut film of Kim Hong-joon, who went on to be a celebrated professor and film scholar, as well as a member of the Korean Film Commission, and the founder of the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan). Kim has made only two subsequent features to date: the rock-music film Jungle Story (1996) and the documentary My Korean Cinema (2003). Kim’s film is an absorbing work that gives us a vivid picture of life during this period of Korean history. The news reports Jee-ho obsessively watches (as the other patrons ignore them, or call for changing the channel), form a background running commentary courtesy of the government propaganda that contrasts sharply with life on the ground. Comic-book culture is very wittily referenced in this film, for example with the scenes of Dong-pal fighting his gangster foes, which could easily have been scenes from the popular martial arts comics the Madam rents out. In a nice little scene, the Madam is taking inventory of her comics, and stops to read one of them, a smile playing across her face, as it obviously has been some time since she has actually sat down to enjoy reading the comics that surround her all day.

At the film’s conclusion, the Madam is resigned to her fate of never leaving her little shop in Seoul, and the run-down neighborhood that surrounds it. However, she takes some comfort in her solidarity with the downtrodden people she serves, offering them shelter and a brief respite from the harsh world outside. The Madam wanted so much to leave this place, with “the shabby houses, and those who barely live.” But, she says, “Now I’ve realized that I’m one of them.” She can help people forget their worries, ply them with food and liquor, and titillate them with erotic comics and porno flicks. She can assure herself that politically and morally, she is ultimately on the right side. And after the despair and tragedy that we have seen over the course of this film, Kim leaves us with a glimmer of hope in the film’s very last shot, an optimistic note that points toward the time that the film was made, under a truly democratic government, the country beginning to recover from a turbulent time that wasn’t so far in the past.