A man wanders around the mountains with a bleeding leg, holding a rifle in his hand. Seemingly a fugitive, he runs from as-yet unknown pursuers, but he also seems to be following somebody. As he hides in a secluded cave, past memories sweep through his exhausted mind, memories of lifelong cowardice and evasion. And this recollection leads to a reconstruction of early 20th century Korean history, from the Japanese occupation to the Korean War, through the eyes of a passive intellectual, or in a certain sense, a conformist.
Best known for Aimless Bullet, “the Citizen Kane of Korean cinema,” director Yu Hyun-mok is often misleadingly described as the godfather of Korean realist cinema. While that film’s vivid portrait of postwar society is unmistakable and it is true that Yu repeatedly dealt with heavy social issues throughout his career, the label “realist” wrongfully overlooks the director’s vigorous experimentation with film language.
In Flame, Yu experiments with narrative structure, relying extensively on subjective flashbacks. From the opening scenes, the film delays its “objective” delivery of narrative information; the identity of the protagonist, the motives for his action, and the time and space of the event remain unknown until flashbacks intervene. Neither are these flashbacks motivated by the discourse of witnesses or written texts. Without explanatory dialogue or indicative action, the film foregrounds graphic and aural continuity to evoke the protagonist’s fragmented memories (reminding us of Bernardo Bertolucci’s time-weaving skill in The Conformist). Furthermore, each flashback consists of many separate scenes, which are also linked by the flow of consciousness, rather than a continuity of time and space. As this “loose” structure combines with the expressionistic lighting, color schemes and unusual camera angles typical of Yu’s oeuvre, the whole narrative becomes a montage of impressions, rearranged in someone’s mind.
This fragmented, retrospective design reveals how the formation of the character occurred in the midst of profound social upheaval. Although the story spans several historical tragedies, the film doesn’t indulge in the usual “innocent victim of his environment” theme. In presenting the panorama of his past, the narrative induces the protagonist to reconsider the meaning of every event and his reaction to it, how each decision shapes and alters his personality. It is true that he lived as a sort of pacifist, never intending to harm anyone and only wanting to live a peaceful life. Still, fragments of the past imply that such a modest ambition itself could be a result of small compromises and renunciations, which led to bigger ones, and in the end made him a fugitive from his own life. And only after this disillusionment, the protagonist can discover his own reason to act, to continue living. Whether his decision in the end will actually bear meaningful fruit we do not know, and perhaps, shouldn’t ask.
Often misunderstood as a typical piece of anti-communist propaganda made to fulfill the requirements of the foreign film import quota, Flame survives as a masterpiece not by judging a certain ideology, or by simply supporting one side, but by its scrupulous questioning. How can we unconsciously deceive ourselves in the midst of hardship? And how easily can such self-justification paralyze our lives? These are questions to awaken the tattered souls of a dark age, the film believes, and to make them start to live their lives for the first time.