Director – Im Kwon-taek – 1989 – South Korea – Cert. 18 – 121m
As a young woman attempts to live as a Buddhist monk, she embarks on a series of increasingly physical sexual relationships – part of a strand of films celebrating actress Kang Soo-Yeon (1966-2022) from LKFF, the London Korean Film Festival which runs in cinemas from Thursday, November 3rd to Thursday, November 17th
Soon Nyeo (Kang Soo-yeon) enters a monastery as a novice. She reflects on her earlier life. Alienated from her mother, who she accuses of living off the interest of money made exploiting poor people, she develops a habit of following men on their travels. First up is a monk who knew her father who suggests that the latter failed as a monk. After she’s walked with him a while, he deliberately puts her back on a train.
As a student, she becomes fascinated by her class’ teacher Hyeon Jong, 29, (Chon Yoo-in) who, she learns later, lost his wife when she was killed in the Gwangju uprising while eight months pregnant. Uninvited, Soon accompanies Hyeon in his train travels around the country investigating sites of historical interest relating to a peasant uprising having promised his late wife he would one day write about this for her. As a result of his and Soon’s companionship, he tenders his resignation from his teaching post insisting that nothing untoward has happened.
When her superior Eun-seon at the monastary sends her back to university to study, Soon engages in long talks with a fellow student and novelist who argues against asceticism on the grounds that monks need to live alongside everyday poor people. She rejects the idea of violence as student protests erupt (in stock footage).
Later near the monastery, she talks to a failed suicide who she visited in hospital and who claims that, thanks to her, he’s been reborn. He later enters a prayer hut at night where she’s meditating intensely with prayer beads and attempts to force his affections on her but is prevented from doing so when others intervene. He encounters no such obstacle when she stays with him in a room in the nearby town. This leads to a longer relationship, with him working in a local mine where he feels that every day might be his last.
Some years later as a civilian – or possibly a sort of plain-clothes monk, it’s not clear – she reveals to fellow monk Jin-Seong (Jin Yeong-mi) (who has managed to stay at the monastery and is now travelling) that he died leaving her to find another man to help, this time a man without legs from a factory accident who in due course also died. Jin-seong sets herself up in a cave, only to find herself cornered by an exhibitionist monk who has castrated himself in a failed attempt to cure himself of lust. Soon, meanwhile, is working as a nurse and embarks on a passionate relationship with one of the hospital doctors.
Soon’s episode with the obsessive suicide implies that if you rape a woman she’ll come to enjoy it in the process and become your loving partner as a result, a dubious notion to contemporary eyes to say the least and one equally central to that other Kang vehicle The Road To The Race Track (Jang Sun-woo, 1991). Otherwise, though, she seems to embark on relationships with men as a means of imparting salvation, the narrative suggesting that although she appears to no longer live like a monk and has allowed her formerly shaved hair to grow back, she is somehow still a monk living out in the real world. While I’ve no complaints about Kang’s performance, which more than adequately carries the film, all in all I found it far less compelling than Transgression (Kim Ki-young, 1974).
Come Come Come Upwardplays as part of a strand of films celebrating actress Kang Soo-Yeon (1966-2022) in LKFF, The London Korean Film Festival which runs in cinemas from Thursday, November 3rd to Thursday, November 17th.
Trailer (no subtitles):
The film is also online to view (with subtitles) at the Korean Movie Archive:
LKFF 2022 Trailer:
LKFF 2022 Opening Night: Alienoid + Q&A
LKFF 2022 Closing Night: Hansan: Rising Dragon + Q&A
Special Focus: Kang Soo-yeon (includes free screening – booking essential)
Touring Programme (Glasgow, Manchester)