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Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2002

Rising proudly above stereotypes

Yoru o Kakete

Rating: * * *
Director: Kim Su Jin
Running time: 133 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Hollywood once depicted African-Americans as minstrel show clowns to cater to the prejudices of white audiences. Then, in the wake of the civil rights movement, the studios shifted to the other extreme, portraying blacks in an unnaturally glowing light. Remember Sidney Poitier -- the eternal role model? Now, thanks to African-American directors such as Spike Lee and John Singleton leading the way, more realism has crept into even mainstream Hollywood films.

News photo
Taro Yamamoto and Jundai Yamada in "Yoru o Kakate"

In Japan this sort of stereotyping also occurs, but in ways Hollywood would find baffling. Japanese directors, especially older ones, have often bathed pre-economic-miracle Japan in a warm nostalgic glow, though their characters subsist in the direst poverty. Watching Zenzo Maruyama's "Niji no Hashi (Rainbow Bridge)," a 1993 film set in a Kyoto nagaya (rowhouse) neighborhood in the Edo Period, I was reminded of those 1950s Hollywood musicals in which the action unfolds in a Technicolor dreamscape, bursting with choreographed high spirits. The whole community lives together as one happily flourishing, if frantic, organism, though hardly anyone has two sen to rub together. That little of this has anything to do with the dark realities of the era is beside the point -- which is to allow the audience to revel in this best of all possible Japanese worlds.

The same atmosphere is present in "Yoru o Kakete (Through the Night)," a serio-comic drama set in a Korean shantytown in the late 1950s. Though based on a novel by ethnic Korean author Yan So Gil and featuring several Korean names among the cast and staff, including that of director Kim Su Jin, the film stereotypes its Korean characters in a way that recalls Stepin "feets do yo stuff" Fetchit. Though bubbling with human warmth, they are vulgar and gross to a cartoonish extreme. (One character spends what seems to be the entire film inside a public latrine, engaged in a perpetual bowel movement.) What, I had to wonder as the film began, were Kim and his collaborators thinking?

But as the film told its story of the shantytown dwellers' rise out of the refuse pile to which Japanese society had consigned them, I saw that Kim's angle of approach was not as self-flagellating as it had first seemed.

"You can't say anything worse about us that we do ourselves," he seems to proclaim, "but Koreans also had the grit and smarts it took to survive in this country." This anti-PC attitude can also be found in hip-hop culture, but Kim's expression of it is more exuberantly theatrical than aggressively confrontational. Also, "Yoru o Kakete" is rooted in the realities of Korean life in the 1950s and presents them with more nuance than its noisy surface would suggest.

The plot rolls into motion when a tottering Korean granny discovers a cache of scrap metal in the bombed-out site of a Japanese munitions plant, 13 years after the surrender. The site is off limits, but, on hearing the news of the granny's find, shantytown residents are determined to explore it. Prices for scrap are high and this looks to be the mother lode.

But how to transport it? Recently returned after a three-year absence, hot-blooded, quick-thinking Yoshio (Taro Yamamoto) proposes carrying it by flatboat, on a river that borders the shantytown. A party of men goes out on the boat and comes back loaded with metallic loot. Happy days are here again.

Well, not quite -- the men, who call themselves "apaches," have to work under the cover of darkness, with one eye out for the cops. Also, with a few yen in their pockets, they drink, carouse and, inevitably, quarrel. Meanwhile, Yoshio has personal issues to deal with -- he came to Japan with his father before the war, but now both his parents are dead and he is living with his young half-brother, Takashi, and his stepmother, Keiko (Jun Fubuki). Somehow he has to provide for them, while sorting out his own future, but Yoshio is a pro-active type, who would rather lead yet another raiding expedition on the plant site than brood. "This is not work," he explains to another apache. "This is war."

Against whom? Not just the cops but, as Yoshio makes clear, the entire social structure that has relegated Koreans to the bottom. An instinctive socialist, he wants to share the wealth with everyone in the shantytown, not just those carrying the biggest loads.

This selfless idealism, however, is put to the test when Hatsuko (Ryoo Hyoun Kyoung) appears on the scene. Another war orphan, she has come to live with her aunt -- the granny who found the scrap bonanza -- and work at a shantytown bar. Struck dumb by her beauty, Yoshio falls in love at first sight. But though he barely says a word to her, he hates the thought of sharing her with the bar's drunks and louts -- i.e., his apache comrades.

A more formidable rival, however, is Ken'ichi (Jundai Yamada), a gangster who has returned to the shantytown after a stretch in prison for killing his father and brother. Sneering at the heavy lifting of the apaches, he dreams of a bigger, easier score. He also has his eye on Hatsuko, while contemptuously brushing Yoshio, her defender, aside. But Yoshio is not to be so easily dismissed -- and wins Ken'ichi's respect for his spunk. After a bank robbery by Ken'ichi and his crew goes wrong, Yoshio finds himself unexpectedly on the side of his rival. Then the police decide to crack down -- and the apaches' "war" comes to the streets of the shantytown itself.

Shot on location in South Korea, "Yoru o Kakete" has a grittiness absent from the usual Japanese period film, which looks as though it has sprung from the pages of a coffee-table book. The scrap looks like the real clunky thing and the wooden shacks reek of poverty. Also, Yamamoto expresses Yoshio's longing and determination with a welcome simplicity and directness. If only Kim had turned down the histrionics to match his star and sets, he might have had a better movie -- or at least one less clouded by nostalgia for the good old, bad old days.

A Korean director of Yoshio's generation might have had a clearer, if darker, view of the story, but he never could have shot it in the Japanese film industry of 40 years ago. I'm glad that we have it on the screen -- though I could have done without the shot of a certain character's brown-stained behind.

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