Serving the People is the movie we expected more during the pandemic. A little masterpiece, it could be somewhere between Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Empire of the Senses; that is, among the best works of both literature and cinema. A black work by director Jang Chul-soo, the film is also an adaptation of Yan Lianke’s famous 2005 Chinese novel of the same name. What makes this little gem so bright?
* Love for the army
The country in which the action takes place is not mentioned, but it is clearly a so-called socialist and militarized state, like Maoist China or North Korea. Mu-Gwan is a small peasant, but also a model soldier. For the sake of his wife and child, he wants to climb the ladder of hierarchy. He takes a job as an assistant and cook at the home of a high-ranking officer (played by the gorgeous Jo Sung-ha) and his young wife (played by Ji An). The hard-working Mu-Gwang is the laughingstock of his fellow soldiers. The scene where he washes and irons his chef’s kangaroo pants will go down in history. He is a high-ranking officer’s slave little dog until the day he is called out. This is where the latter’s very reserved wife comes into play. Visibly unaffected, she humiliates the little soldier and then seduces him with games with prophetic erotic overtones. At first frightened and alienated by the boundless respect he has for the political dogmas of the regime and for his boss, the robust peasant will gradually become the lover of a frail young woman whose submissive exterior hides a rebellious nature. Ironically, the mini-stela reminding us that we must “serve the people” will now serve as a call from the beauty to her lover.
* Anti-ideological instigator
As in Oshima’s Empire of the Senses, a film also set in a military context, the passion that will consume lovers is fueled by the rejection of ideologies that alienate both mind and body. The film directly quotes Ōshima with a scene of mutual strangulation where the lovers vow to destroy anything that might stand in the way of their love and threaten to kill each other if they betray the freedom that the desire for love alone has forced them to discover. However, they won’t go that far. But the beautiful scene of the destruction of all the symbols of ideological power marks the film’s turning point. Almost everywhere in the house there are statues and portraits of leaders, ideological slogans: everyone goes there.
* Eros rebel
The film was too quickly relegated to the erotic category. However, it is clear that a clear balance between the plot, aimed at denying military-populist dogmas, and the lovemaking of lovers puts the film on the rank of a novel based on social criticism. No simulated sex scene like in “Empire of the Senses” or “Nine Songs”, but a very beautiful series of kama sutra-style poses to the maximum to emphasize the diversity and creativity of lovers in a monotonous and boring world. Moreover, the director brightens up the passage of militarism, for example, with a scene in which the lovers quietly go for a walk in the village, and the grain stands guard on the way to the couple and back. While they were intoxicated for several hours with the enjoyment of nature, the rump waited in endless sadness, posting a useless guard.
* Aesthetic performance
The superiority of the film over anything that comes from local production is due not only to its plot, but also to the quality of the shots and lighting of Jang Chul Soo and his chief cinematographer. The rosy skin of Ji An, an unfaithful wife bathed in pale sunlight, will be remembered for a long time when she wakes up after fainting from pleasure in the arms of her lover. Similarly, the camera rolls around and takes on bold angles and lights, especially in the second part of the film. Here is an inverted image of naked lovers on a large table in the dining room; or Ji An again, hidden under an old sink, naked and terrified when her husband surprises her and shoots her (in one of the nightmarish injuries of a soldier who struggles to shake off his fears of an ideological outsider). Check out actor Yong Woo Jin’s performance as a shy and passionately in love peasant. Able to play with his body during erotic scenes, he is also perfect for the role of a bad father and husband, steeped in nostalgia for his short but intense love. Apparently, the film was poorly received by local critics. Seeing North Koreans eating, drinking, dancing and making love like everyone else can still be embarrassing for those who were inundated with propaganda during the dictatorship, propaganda that portrayed Northerners as crazy, even monsters. The very Maoist aspects of the soldiers in the film may also be reminiscent of the troubling battalions of Korean resistance fighters employed by the Chinese military in the early 20th century. In short, “Serving the People” is probably the first great adaptation of this Chinese novel (banned by his country’s censors), but which shows that independent cinema in South Korea (there is no CJ Entertainment or Lotte in this film) is able to do much better than the usual insipidity, to which we are (also) accustomed.