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Korea Blog: No Sex Please, This Is the Korea of Jang Sun-woo’s The Road to the Race Track (1991)

Since the liberalization of international travel in 1989, Koreans abroad have become a more than occasional subject of Korean cinema. My own favorite example remains Hong Sangsoo’s Night and Day (밤과 낮), from 2008, about a boorish artist in Parisian exile from a drug charge. But then, Hong’s films — modestly budgeted, dialogue-heavy, and improvisatory in construction, celebrated at European festivals (most recently in Berlin this year, where he won the Silver Bear for Best Director) and routinely compared to the work of European auteurs — are in some sense foreign themselves. But they aren’t entirely without precedent: for the Korean movie that first found all of its substance in the dissimulating conversations and abortive sexual encounters of half-formed intellectuals, we must look to Jang Sun-woo’s The Road to the Race Track (경마장 가는 길).

The Road to the Race Track came out in 1991, five years before Hong’s debut feature The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (돼지가 우물에 빠진 날). What the films have in common begins with their origins in literary source material, once almost a matter of course in Korean cinema. They also both involve journeys from Seoul out to smaller provincial cities and back, and both of them spend time in cafés and motels. But when describing the Korea of the early 1990s, in the capital or elsewhere, the English words for those places don’t suffice: much more evocative, for anyone who knows this country, to say that these movies time in dabang and yeogwan. The two main characters in Jang’s film use those very terms with some frequency, commenting in certain lines on how they seem to go nowhere else.

In fact there are practically no characters but those two, called only R and J. R, a bespectacled, jacketed and necktied academic in his late thirties, exits baggage claim at Gimpo Airport to meet J, a woman in her mid-twenties with a bouncy late-80s perm, set somewhat apart by a faintly Continental style of dress. And indeed, both have spent time on the Continent, specifically France: R has just returned from half a decade earning his doctorate in literature there, a task J herself completed the year before. For three years of their overlapping time abroad they lived together as lovers, yet when J drives R to his yeogwan — like a motel but smaller, cheaper, and somehow both garish and spartan — she makes to leave as soon they arrive, puzzling R with her reluctance to pick up in Korea where they’d left off in France.

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