“Chilsu and Mansu” is a familiar movie. Taken in context as a South Korean movie, made at a time when the country itself was going through a tremendous upheaval, the movie might be better than I give it credit for. At the time the movie was made and released, South Korea was, quite literally, a nation in turmoil and at the crossroads. It was not only planning on hosting the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, but it was going through a tremendous change in democracy and all that entails. Protests filled the streets and students demanded free elections from a supposedly already “democratic” government.
With the whole world watching, South Korea’s government couldn’t simply crack down on the protestors like they usually did, so in a way, winning the Olympic games did in the South Korean’s dictator-like government and paved the way for election reforms and South Korea’s first real democratic elections in 1992. This is the background in which “Chilsu and Mansu” is told.
Despite all of the above, “Chilsu and Mansu” is just not a very good movie. It’s good in the sense that the director knows what he’s doing, but it’s bad in the sense that the movie offers nothing new to the international viewer. Perhaps, from a South Korean perspective, the movie might seem daring and even new. But to an outsider who has seen hundreds of movies of every ilk, this one comes across as just…good.
The movie is about two down-on-their-luck blue-collar workers — Chilsu, a smart-aleck 20-something and pathological liar; and Mansu, a 30-something not-so-smart-aleck who is constantly getting drunk to forget his problems. The two men are obviously the stand-ins for the nation of South Korea.
Like other films that focuses on the much-ignored working class, “Chilsu” concentrates on the two main characters as they struggle through life, overcoming one obstacle after another. The obstacles are courtesy of the world around them, which they have no control over. Our leads, you see, are two ants in a big ant farm, and they are so low on the totem pole of social stature that they don’t even exist. Both men are painters, and while they paint parking garages and movie billboards within the burgeoning and growing big city, they are nevertheless invisible and do not count in the large scheme of things.
It is not coincidence that whenever we see the two men interacting with the ever shifting and ever-growing South Korean world around them they are placed against gigantic and towering structures like billboards. These things make our characters look small, insignificant, and most of all, unheard. The movie’s central motif is the lack of ability by the leads to be heard.
“Chilsu and Mansu” is not at all subtle in its message, so be prepared to be hit over the head. Otherwise it’s a good film with terrific performances by the two leads.
Kwang-su Park (director)
CAST: Sung-kee Ahn …. Mansu
Chong-ok Bae …. Jina
Joong-Hoon Park …. Chilsu