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WHALE HUNTING

Feb 02, 2021
  • Writerby Pierce Conran
  • View1047

1984
112 MIN | Drama
DIRECTOR BAE Chang-ho
CAST KIM Soo-chul, LEE Mi-sook, AHN Sung-ki
RELEASE DATE March 31, 1984
CONTACT Korean Film Archive
Tel +82 2 3153 2001 
Fax +82 2 3153 2080 

When student protests changed the direction of politics in Korea in 1987, the local film industry welcomed the ‘Korean New Wave’, a group of politically charged works from filmmakers who were afforded greater laxity than anyone in the industry had in the past. However, that’s not to say that savvy and oftentimes damning political commentaries didn’t seep into the industry prior to that movement, during the darkest periods of the military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s. 

Filmmaker such as HA Gil-jong (The Pollen of Flowers, 1972) and KIM Ki-young (Ieoh Island, 1977) were slyly getting past censors with very controversial works, but these films seldom struck gold at the box office. For the socially conscious BAE Chang-ho however, he scored big on his third try with Whale Hunting, a film that encapsulated the malaise and oppression of society and in doing so the zeitgeist of the times. It became the top grossing Korean film of 1984 and ranks at number three on the list for the 1980s.

Byung-tae (rock star KIM Soo-chul) is a desperately shy college student with a big crush on a girl in his school who is way out of his league. One night, as he miserably prowls the streets alone, he gets into a hot spot when a prostitute tries to take advantage of his naivety. He’s about to be booked by the police, but he’s saved by a beggar in the jail cell named Min-woo (AHN Sung-ki). The pair repair to the streets and the worldly and lively Min-woo takes Byung-tae under his wing. He brings him to a brothel, where Byung-tae falls for the mute Chun-ja (LEE Mi-sook). Hoping to restore Chun-ja’s voice and help her return to her hometown, Byung-tae and Min-woo rescue her from her pimp and go on a cross-country odyssey through snow-swept highways and hills during a bitterly cold winter, while her former pimp and his stooges chase them through the countryside.

The film’s title ‘Whale Hunting’ refers to a saying about hunting for something valuable in life, which was hard to do during a suffocating military dictatorship. Byung-tae expresses to Min-woo his desire to hunt a whale. In his case, it’s saving Chun-ja, someone he has romantic feelings for, but also someone that he wants to do something for. Unlike many people in the day, his goal is not economic betterment, but rather something beyond the commodities that the Park Chung-hee administration had conditioned citizens to covet in the 1970s.

‘Whale Hunting’ is also the name of one of the most famous songs by folk artist SONG Chang-sik, which featured in HA Gil-jong’s earlier counter-counter-cultural masterpiece The March of Fools (1975). In fact, both The March of Fools and Whale Hunting were based on stories by CHOI In-ho, and each feature similar lead characters named Byung-tae. Director BAE made at least one significant change to CHOI’s story, switching out its summer setting for a memorable and beautifully captured winter landscape.

AHN Sung-ki, working for the third time straight with Director BAE (they would unite yet again the following year for Deep Blue Night, the top grossing Korean of the 1980s), gives an uproarious performance as Min-woo. However, beneath the comedy lies a character with significant symbolic importance.

It’s hinted that Min-woo was a college student so we can assume that he’s deliberately chosen a life on the streets, free from materialism and the rat race of modern society. He carries everything he needs in his trench coat, a MacGuyver’s delight of knickknacks, which contains an object suitable for any occasion, whether it is public restroom grooming or escaping a phalanx of pimps in the winding alleys of central Seoul.

Whale Hunting also belongs to the cannon of classic Korean road movies, which typically follow male characters who have lost their way and wind up breaking from society, often with disastrous consequences. These have included LEE Man-hee’s A Road to Sampo (1975), LEE Doo-yong’s The Last Witness (1980) and LEE Jang-ho’s The Man with Three Coffins (1987).
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