Review: Lee Kwang-mo’s “Spring in My Hometown”

One of the best, and certainly most visually impressive, cinematic depictions of the Korean War, Spring in My Hometown (1998) takes a very different approach from other films on this subject. Lee Kwang-mo’s first feature, set in a small village adjoining a U.S. Army base, is quiet, contemplative, and nostalgic, taking place far from the battlefields, although no less lacking in drama and tragedy. The film’s compositions use a mostly static camera, long takes, and stunning landscape shots reminiscent of Breughel and Friedrich. The events of the war, relayed in title cards between the film’s episodes, are seen through the prism of the experiences of two boys, Sung-min (Lee In), and his friend Chang-hee (Kim Jung-woo). The film’s narrative is seen through Sung-min’s eyes, and is structured by Sung-min’s memory of events.

The fortunes of the two boy’s families are sharply contrasted. Sung-min’s father (Ahn Sung-ki) works on the army base, taking advantage of his privileged position by earning extra money on the side smuggling goods from the base and pimping out local women for the U.S. soldiers. His father’s hustling allows Sung-min’s family to live comfortably, and in a much nicer house than their neighbors. Chang-hee’s family, on the other hand, lives under far less favorable circumstances. At the beginning of the film, Chang-hee’s father is dragged from a well and beaten by the other villagers, suspected of being a communist collaborator. Chang-hee’s father is eventually imprisoned, driving his family into increasingly desperate circumstances, leading to a major tragedy around which the film pivots.

There are many arresting and memorable images: black military uniforms on clotheslines dotting the landscape; fighting bugs; peephole shots of the boys spying on the GIs having sex in an abandoned mill with the women supplied by Sung-min’s father; and landscapes that bring to mind those in the films of Tarkovsky and Kiarostami. The U.S. presence in Korea is pervasive in this film, and appropriately, American objects and representation play a major role: the radio Sang-min’s father smuggles from the base; the American history lessons in the village schoolhouse; the army jeeps parked outside the mill; the lighter Chang-hee steals from a soldier, which fuels the film’s tragedy.

Although Spring in My Hometown has been criticized for subsuming the horrors of war beneath its stately pace and impeccable compositions, the film nonetheless beautifully captures the way children would perceive such events. Their relative innocence and ignorance of politically significant events (supplied in the film’s title cards alongside Sang-min’s memories) allows then to find humor and beauty amid desperation and tragedy. Lee was inspired to make this film, which he began writing ten years before eventually realizing it, by reading his father’s diaries. This material has allowed him to craft a visually arresting portrait of a time that remains an open wound in Korean history.