Screening one last time at Lincoln Center in NYC on Tuesday, September 12th, at 8:30 p.m. as part of their massive Korean Cinema’s Golden Decade: the 1960’s exhibition is Kim Ki Deok’s The Barefooted Young, a 1964 South Korean film that kicked off the Adolescent Film or Youth Film genre.
As with any genre tied directly to the temperament of the moment’s dominant generation, the Korean youth film has gone through waves of change, stylization, theme, and cultural importance. Rarely screened in the US, The Barefooted Young is a good film, if a little uneven, but its occasional clunkiness doesn’t hold it back, instead endearing the viewer to this raw, rebellious voice of a bygone young. Taking on class and generational divides through humor and forbidden romance, the afterimage of the film remains strikingly visible in the varied genre that it spawned.
Opening immediately with a rockabilly-noir vibe, the film introduces us to a small group of gangsters prepping for a job. Jo Doo-soo, a new gang member played by Shin Seong-il (A Day Off, Mist), is tasked with smuggling over a hundred watches across town to another gang, hiding the merchandise in a prosthetic arm. Jo Doo-soo is not missing an arm, he’s just going to hide his left one in his jacket. Do they address this beforehand? No. Does that rule? Yes. On his way out the door, Jo is warned not to stop for anything, not even a street fight.
So Jo stops for a street fight. Because he’s a rebel like that.
Joanna, played by Um Aing-ran (The Housemaid, The Coachman), is an ambassador’s daughter. She and a friend are exiting the home of a sick teacher when they are accosted by two ruffians. Suddenly, a voice tells them to knock it off. Across the street, Jo reenters the film with a hero shot so instantly iconic that this author sat up and involuntarily exclaimed “COOL!” Then our hero starts the epic street fight.
Running from the scene with a stab wound and carrying his duplicitous prosthetic arm in his hand, Jo collapses in the doorway of his intended destination. After resting up and receiving medical care, his gang asks him to turn himself in as the fight has become front-page news and the police have gotten a little too close to the smuggling operation in the process of investigating the fight. After turning himself in, Jo is freed when Joanna insists that he saved her life. Jo privately declares he cannot stop thinking about her and her eyes. When she tracks him down to his apartment for a date; that’s all they wrote folks. They’re in love, and the world will just have to deal with it.
“I won’t die. No, I can’t die now. As long as I’m with you, no matter what happens, I can’t die.”
In 1963, the year before The Barefooted Young’s release, the Military General Park Chung Hee, who had seized power in 1961 in a coup, was elected president of South Korea, which he continued to rule with an iron fist. This film is about hopeless rebellion against the status quo. It’s a romance centered on class and cultural divides yes, but, more than anything, it’s about the optimism of youth trying in vain to rebel against a world it cannot change. This type of throughline is typical of Youth Films, as rebelling against your parents’ generation is part of growing up. But The Barefooted Young stands the test of time for the fierceness of its struggle. These are the children of a generation which has chosen, or gave into the illusion of choosing, to live under fascism. Where a Youth Film of today would be about rebelling against tradition or expectation, this film instead rebels against a society that chose to enforce the status quo through force. All of this is backdrop to the magnetic chemistry between Shin Seong-il and Um Aing-ran, who both carry the film with aplomb. It’s funny, it’s heartwarming, it’s devastating, and it’s screening at the NYC Lincoln Center during the Korean Cinema’s Golden Decade: The 1960s retrospective.
Screening at the Lincoln Center Tuesday, September 12th, at 8:30 pm.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Korean Cinema’s Golden Decade: The 1960s Event Information:
Film at Lincoln Center and Subway Cinema announce “Korean Cinema’s Golden Decade: The 1960s,” a sweeping retrospective that features 24 films from this remarkable period in Korean film history. The series will run from September 1–17 and is one of the largest retrospectives ever of 1960s Korean Cinema outside of Korea, including many rarely screened films, several presented on 35mm archival prints.
Long before Bong Joon Ho, Hong Sangsoo, and Park Chan-wook catapulted South Korean cinema onto the world stage, the foundation of their country’s film industry formed in the aftermath of the Korean War. The period kickstarted a wealth of eclectic and innovative filmmaking that culminated in the 1960s. Closer inspection of this decade, now widely considered Korea’s premier film renaissance, reveals the arrival of seminal works from auteurs such as Kim Ki-young, Shin Sang-ok, Yu Hyun-mok, Kim Soo-yong, and Lee Man-hee, alongside a meteoric rise and reinvention of genres—from melodramas and period epics to action, horror, war, and giant monster movies. Although the military dictatorship still imposed tight constraints throughout this era, what these filmmakers managed to accomplish under such conditions, in arthouse fare and unabashed popular entertainment alike, continues to reverberate and inspire to this day. This September, Film at Lincoln Center and Subway Cinema are thrilled to showcase this rich period and its remarkably varied films, encapsulating a generation’s collective endeavor to define a national cinema.