This is one in a series of essays on important works of Korean cinema available free to watch on the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel. Previous selections include Yeong-ja’s Heydays, Deep Blue Night, Aimless Bullet, Iodo, 301, 302, The March of Fools, Seopyeonje, Wangsimni, My Hometown, Madame Freedom, Chil-su and Man-su, and Night Journey. You can watch The Road to the Race Track here.
Since the liberalization of international travel in 1989, Koreans abroad have become a more than occasional subject of Korean cinema. My own favorite example remains Hong Sangsoo’s Night and Day (밤과 낮), from 2008, about a boorish artist in Parisian exile from a drug charge. But then, Hong’s films — modestly budgeted, dialogue-heavy, and improvisatory in construction, celebrated at European festivals (most recently in Berlin this year, where he won the Silver Bear for Best Director) and routinely compared to the work of European auteurs — are in some sense foreign themselves. But they aren’t entirely without precedent: for the Korean movie that first found all of its substance in the dissimulating conversations and abortive sexual encounters of half-formed intellectuals, we must look to Jang Sun-woo’s The Road to the Race Track (경마장 가는 길).
The Road to the Race Track came out in 1991, five years before Hong’s debut feature The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (돼지가 우물에 빠진 날). What the films have in common begins with their origins in literary source material, once almost a matter of course in Korean cinema. They also both involve journeys from Seoul out to smaller provincial cities and back, and both of them spend time in cafés and motels. But when describing the Korea of the early 1990s, in the capital or elsewhere, the English words for those places don’t suffice: much more evocative, for anyone who knows this country, to say that these movies time in dabang and yeogwan. The two main characters in Jang’s film use those very terms with some frequency, commenting in certain lines on how they seem to go nowhere else.
In fact there are practically no characters but those two, called only R and J. R, a bespectacled, jacketed and necktied academic in his late thirties, exits baggage claim at Gimpo Airport to meet J, a woman in her mid-twenties with a bouncy late-80s perm, set somewhat apart by a faintly Continental style of dress. And indeed, both have spent time on the Continent, specifically France: R has just returned from half a decade earning his doctorate in literature there, a task J herself completed the year before. For three years of their overlapping time abroad they lived together as lovers, yet when J drives R to his yeogwan — like a motel but smaller, cheaper, and somehow both garish and spartan — she makes to leave as soon they arrive, puzzling R with her reluctance to pick up in Korea where they’d left off in France.
R’s puzzlement turns to anger as this scene plays out again and again in a different yeogwan, each with its distinctive tackiness, over most of the film’s next two hours. J’s rebuffs of R’s increasingly aggressive advances — each time saying maybe next time — would make sense if she’d met another man in the interim, but she says (at least at first) that she hasn’t. And so a frustrated R asks, as the Korean Film Archive’s English subtitles put it, “What is causing you to act like this?” This is a missed opportunity: he actually asks something like, “What is the ideology of your actions?”, using not a Korean word but the Konglish term idaeollogi. The contrast between the running sexual grudge match and the intellectual vogue word-dropping demand for an abstract explanation gives the line the absurdity that made it a pop-culture catch phrase for years thereafter.
When in a subsequent scene J turns R’s question around on him, the translation is even worse: “What is your ground of code of conduct?” Without waiting for an answer, she issues a warning: “We have to be careful in Korea. Do you know what kind of place Korea is?” R does not, in fact, know what kind of place Korea is, or at least he reacts to much to what he encounters in his homeland with a mildly derisive incomprehension. “Is this really Korea?” he asks as J drives him to another yeogwan (this one Christmas-themed), delivering the movie’s second-most-famous line. “Is this the Seoul with the 600-year history? It’s peppered with crosses. It feels like I’ve entered a huge European cemetery.” He’s noticing what many foreigners do on their first visit to Seoul: the preponderance of Christian icons, lit up in red and white neon against the skyline.
Such driving scenes, one of which reveals that R hasn’t heard of the latest freeway, brings to mind Im Kwon-taek’s Wangsimni, My Hometown (왕십리). The opening of that 1976 film finds its protagonist, a Korean gangster back after 14 years in Japan, taking a taxi into a barely recognizable city from which (so the driver informs him) all the trams, among other things, have long since vanished. Though shot only fifteen years apart, Wangsimni, My Hometown and The Road to the Race Track take place in what feel like two different Koreas. But those Koreas share the condition that most people hadn’t yet gone abroad: apart from immigrants, those who had done so for extended periods were ether sent by their employers or, like R, invited by academic institutions. Movies back then tended to dramatize not venturing into the outside world, but returning from it.
Though not a large fraction of his lifetime, R’s French sojourn seems to have turned him into a quasi-foreigner. Psychologically, I wonder this has anything in common with the curious habit I’ve noticed among some real-life Koreans who claim without hesitation to be “from” a foreign place in which they once lived, even if only for a few years. R’s most Gallic characteristics, however, are a penchant for philosophical, linguistic, and logical disquisitions on his own sex life and a vigorous smoking habit, the latter of which he could just as well have developed in Korea — especially late 20th-century Korea, in whose yeogwan and dabang one could still light up freely. One could also use them as venues for knock-down, drag-out arguments, since both businesses sold (and, in greatly reduced numbers, continue to sell) privacy, or at least the social presumption of privacy.
You wouldn’t go to a dabang for the coffee — to this day dabang keopi refers to a challenging mixture of two parts instant mix, two parts half-and-half, and two parts sugar — but you would go to have private conversations, even of the most sensitive or intimate kind. Dim lighting; surfaces of wood paneling and brick; mirrored columns and brass railings; fish tanks; low, couch-like seating with logo-emblazoned antimacassars; Kenny G floating through the speakers: R and J conduct much of the verbal side of their relationship in the ambience of the 80s-style dabang, in dialogue filled with all the carnal detail their yeogwan visits lack. Though they do eventually find their way back, if only briefly, to the kind of physical compatibility they’d enjoyed in France, the film feels much more sexually explicit than it actually is; nothing in it couldn’t be shown on cable television today.
Chief among the obstacles to a stable union is not just J’s sudden refusals to be taken to bed but her oscillation on the issue of whether she does have another man after all — and whether, if so, she intends to marry him, R, or neither of them. Her occasional tearful confession of love for and devotion to R only confuses matters further. Whatever J’s feelings at any given moment, she expresses them in a noticeably formal speech, as if she were speaking to a teacher or some other kind of superior. (The equivalent in French would be if he called her tu and she called him vous, though whether they actually did so in France goes unaddressed.) And in fact she owes him her career: he had to stay the extra year in France, it transpires, because he’d lost a year writing her dissertation for her.
Resultant feelings of indebtedness and inadequacy no doubt fuel J’s erratic behavior. That this behavior plays as so maddening that it must be rooted in reality is a tribute to the acting skills of Kang Soo-youn (later badly miscast as a Korean-American in Western Avenue, Chang Kil-soo’s movie about the 1992 Los Angeles riots). Opposite her in the role of R is Moon Sung-keun, who would go on to become a Hong Sangsoo regular in the 2000s and a liberal politician thereafter. (In 2017 he called for a prosecution investigation regarding the “blacklists” kept by former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.) The Road to the Race Track is based on a novel by the writer Hailji, and Moon has since mentioned feeling certain he would play R when he read the book after its publication in 1990. He and Jang agreed on its virtue as source material: being boring.
Like R, Hailji spent much of the 1980s studying literature in France, earning his M.A. from Poitiers University and a Ph.D. from University of Limoges. He published The Road to the Race Track, his debut novel, after returning to Korea. “Some hailed the work as Korea’s first postmodern novel, a sharp critique of a nation that had so recently staged a successful coming-out party in the form of the 1988 Seoul Olympics,” write Youngmin Kwon and Bruce Fulton in What Is Korean Literature?, covered last time here on the Korea Blog. “To others the author was a pretentious outsider; at least one critic suggested that he return to France.” Some critics made associations, for good or ill, with the Nouveau Roman, perhaps owing to the author’s maintenance, throughout a not especially short book, of an objective, methodically nonjudgmental narrative voice relating such a socially charged story.
In Jang’s film the camera becomes a third character, an observer who shows as much interest in R and J’s surroundings as R and J themselves. The challenge of finding an unconventional way to adapt such an unconventional (as well as un-Korean) novel must have appealed to him, given his background a vanguard member of the generation of filmmakers reared on European cinema now labeled the “Korean New Wave.” Others include Chil-su and Man-su director Park Kwang-su (an alumnus of Paris’ École supérieure d’études cinématographiques) and 301, 302 director Park Chul-soo. Like those films, The Road to the Race Track critiques the hypocrisy of Korean society in its own way. R’s years in France haven’t so much turned him into a bohemian unable to re-integrate with his comparatively traditional homeland as they’ve sensitized him to the ways in which local attitudes and expectations clash with reality.
The front and the back of Korean life, to borrow a Korean expression, don’t match, and nobody makes this clearer than his formerly uninhibited Parisian lover, now given to awkward, unmerited lunges at modesty as well as social and professional respectability. There’s also the matter of R’s wife, living with their children and his elderly parents down in the southeastern city of Daegu. The nights R doesn’t sleep in a yeogwan he spends, after a cross-country bus ride, in this distant family home. There pleads with his wife to grant the divorce he’s been requesting for the past eight years, to which she responds (in her pronounced countryside twang) with only refusal. In a Hail Mary appeal to traditional values, he brings his wife before his parents and denounces her for having slept with numerous men before their marriage, only to be waved off.
With R’s ploys exhausted, he seems to end the movie a defeated man, whether by J, by his wife, by his own immoral behavior, or by his inability to accommodate himself to Korean society. (Yeogwan and dabang have served a variety of purposes, not least providing a robust infrastructure for long-term extramarital affairs.) And yet to the last shot he remains a writer, whereas J’s receipt of a literary-magazine prize for an entry cobbled together out of R’s work has underscored her incompetence in all but the plagiaristic arts. R may have The Road to the Race Track‘s most memorable lines, but J’s include one on whose interpretation the film turns. “We can’t do that here,” she insists in an early scene when R puts an arm around her in the first of many chintzy accommodations. At first “here” seems to mean a yeogwan, but it may well mean Korea.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.