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Korea Blog: The March of Fools, a College Comedy Darkened by Dictatorship

Mixers, sports matches, drinking contests, brushes with the law, anxiety about the future — Western audiences have come to expect all these elements from college comedies over the past half-century, and they’ll recognize them all in The March of Fools (바보들의 행진), a movie that belongs to essentially the same tradition. But it renders its college-comedy tropes a few shades darker to better reflect the reality of mid-1970s South Korea, a time and place caught between the demands of a very old social culture and the equally rigorous ones of the relatively new dictatorship intent on developing the country’s economy and keeping its people in line. Its hapless freshmen protagonists may get into as much trouble as the denizens of Delta House, but those guys never had to look into quite so deep an abyss.

At first glance, the Korean college life of the 1970s portrayed here seems to combine several conditions that never simultaneously obtained in America. Though The March of Fools‘ protagonists, a couple of casually philosophy-studying freshmen named Byeong-tae and Yeong-cheol, seem to lead pretty freewheeling lives, they also complain of having gone completely dateless up to the beginning of the story. “I’ve never chatted up a woman other than my mother,” says Yeong-cheol, in a line that at once underscores his misfit nature: he also tirelessly insists that his bicycle is a car and dreams, after retiring on the fortune to be made from selling miniature umbrellas to facilitate cigarette-smoking in the rain, of going out to sea to catch one particular, probably imagined, “beautiful whale.” But it also underscores the traditional, sometimes suffocating closeness of family relationships, especially with mothers, that can give rise to complications down the line.

Potential relief from their lifelong dry spells appears to Byeong-tae and Yeong-cheol in the form of a large-scale double date (an activity known, then as now, by the Konglish term 미팅, miting) between the men of their philosophy department and the much-coveted women of Ewha Womans University’s French literature department. After managing to scrape together the small entry fee, the two friends thrill to the prospect that “we could meet our future wives” on this, their very first date. But on the day of the event, after they’ve put on their finest suits — or rather their only suits, and ones a little stylistically outdated at that — they run afoul of an officer from the “hair squad,” one of the policemen then charged with dragging just such shaggy college boys as our heroes back to the station for sensible haircuts.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.