A woman in her 30s boards a train for the southern coastal city of Yeosu. She is going, as she says, to “meet a man who won’t appear.” As the train pushes south, narration and a string of flashbacks fill us in on the dramatic course her life has taken so far. For the most part, her experience has been that of suffering and betrayal at the hands of men.
The longest flashback, which takes up almost two-thirds of the film, is also set on the train to Yeosu. At this point in her life she is a prisoner, who in the midst of serving her sentence is granted a temporary release to visit her mother’s grave. Accompanied by a female prison warden, she meets a young man on the train.
The famously eccentric Kim Ki-young only once in his life remade a film by another director (though he frequently remade his own films). His decision to shoot this new version of Lee Man-hee’s lost masterpiece Late Autumn
(1966) was partly motivated by his genuine admiration of the original work (other directors would follow suit, including Kim Soo-yong in 1982 and Kim Tae-yong’s adaptation starring Tang Wei in 2010). But Kim also recognized that the framework for this story, radically re-imagined, could provide the perfect vehicle for his own unconventional worldview.
The end result is both beautiful (with a texture and murky color palate by cinematographer Jung Il-sung that you could never find in contemporary films) and exceedingly bizarre. Kim’s tendency to wildly exaggerate the emotions of his film takes us into the far reaches of expressionism, but it is not just the style of Promise of the Flesh
that makes it so distinctive. Kim used to brag that he had read more of Freud than anyone else in Korea, and this film seems to exist not in the world we are familiar with, but rather in the realm of Freud’s unconscious. The men speak in an almost unfiltered expression of their id, while our embittered heroine merely clings for psychic survival in a hostile world with no rules.