From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 1994). — J.R.
A beautiful and powerful spiritual epic from South Korea (1991), directed by Im Kwon-taek — Korea’s most famous and popular film director, whose filmography runs to 80-odd titles — from an ambitious script by Kim Yong-ok. Covering roughly four decades from the 1860s through the 1890s, the film charts the growth and eventual stamping out of Kae Byok (from which comes the film’s original Korean title), a radically humanist and egalitarian religious sect founded on the belief that God is everyone and everything; in particular it focuses on the sect’s charismatic leader, Hae-Wol (very effectively played by Lee Duk-hwa), who was born a poor farmer, and his three wives. Though closer in some ways to a historical pageant than a conventional narrative, with numerous printed titles inserted at the beginning of various episodes to explain their historical contexts, the film is anything but slow or ponderous (unlike Wyatt Earp, for instance). Composed mainly of short, economical scenes, flurries of action against breathtaking landscapes that stunningly reflect the seasons, this may make more intoxicating use of color than any Asian film I’ve seen since Mizoguchi’s New Tales of the Taira Clan, and the story itself has an epic grandeur worthy of Mizoguchi. The movie was a box-office flop in Korea despite its hefty budget and was obviously made as a labor of love rather than a commercial project, yet its beauty as spectacle and its spiritual message couldn’t be more universal. In short, this is the greatest Korean movie I’ve ever seen. It’s being shown here only once, so if you’re as tired as I am of lumbering summer Hollywood blockbusters — or simply want to be stirred by epic moviemaking at its near best — don’t miss it. (JR)