Randwick Ritz, Sydney:

Saturday May 11

Rating: Unclassified 15+
Duration: 112 minutes
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean (English Subtitles)
Cast: Choi Yoon-seok, Baek Gong-san, Bang Hie, Kim Jeong-ran
Director: Im Kwon-taek


Two Korean War warriors cross paths once again, 25 years on. But the ex-guerrilla commandant is vagrant and guilt-stricken, the ex-security cop’s a punch-drunk leftover from the War’s dirty home front, and both are locked together in the same psychiatric ward. Made under the Park regime’s 1970s ‘quality’ cinema rules, it seems at first like a familiar entry into South Korean cinema’s staple, anti-communist, North v. South spy thriller genre. But as old ideological manias won’t let go, we grasp that director Im Kwon-take is probing a deep, collective national tunnel-wound of historical memory.  Presented with the support of the Australia-Korea Foundation. Co-presented with the Korean Film Archive (KOFA).

“Jagko’s heroes are symbols of the enduring damage wrought by ideological strife… Today it stands as a humane and nuanced portrait of a man who committed what the military dictatorship considered the most serious crime possible: that of fighting for the other side. Having lived through the Korean War himself… Im Kwon-taek’s entreaty for peace comes across as unusually heartfelt.” - (Darcy Paquet, Far East Film Festival).

Jagko - Mismatched Nose (aka Pursuit of Death) is preserved and digitally restored in 4K by the Korean Film Archive KOFA.

Screens as a part of Cinema Reborn’s Korean Showcase: The Films of Im Kwon-Taek program. 


Korean director Im Kwon-taek (b. 1936) made over 100 features in a career made resonant with local box office hits, yet he still broke through local censorship taboos, gained break-out international film festival invitations and received western critical attention for Korean cinema, inspiring South Korea’s current generation of international arthouse film making superstars. 

Our 2024 festival screenings of Sopyonje (1993) in Sydney and Melbourne begin a short, follow-up season (in Sydney only) showcasing some of Im’s other key films, Jagko Mismatched Nose (1980), Ticket (1986) and Festival (1996), as well as the dynamic cinema restoration program of the Korean national film archive KOFA (see Webinar below).   


Friday 3 May from 2:00 PM AET

Join with the Korean Cultural Centre Sydney for a webinar exploring Im Kwon-taek’s career and the Korean Film Archive (KOFA)’s acclaimed program to restore and give global access to Korean filmmaking heritage. Join us online via IM KWON-TAEK AND KOREAN FILM RESTORATION: WEBINAR WITH CINEMA REBORN FESTIVAL – Korean Cultural Centre AU , with guests including film critic, academic and Korean cinema expert Russell Edwards, critic and Parasite subtitler Darcy Parquet, Korean Film Archive head Kim Hong-joon, and academic and screenwriter Kyung Hyun Kim.

Webinar free, but bookings required. Presented by the Korean Cultural Centre Sydney. 

Season presented with the support of the Australia-Korea Foundation. Co-presented with the Korean Film Archive (KOFA). Supported by the Korean Cultural Centre Sydney.

Im Kwon-Taek
By David E. James
Born on May 2, 1936, in Changsŏng, Chŏllanam-do, Im Kwon-taek is the most important and celebrated filmmaker in South Korea. Amid the poverty and chaos of the aftermath of the Korean War, he moved first to Busan and then to Seoul, where he found work as a production assistant in the embryonic film industry. Having directed his first feature, Farewell to the Duman River (Tuman’ganga Charitkŏra), in 1962 and his most recent, Revivre (Hwajang), in 2014, his career spans more than half a century. During this time he has produced an astonishing oeuvre of more than one hundred films that have made him popularly known as the ‘father of South Korean cinema.’ Many of these films, especially the earlier ones, were formulaic genre quickies for small, usually short-lived, studios that were dependent on immediate market returns. He had already made fifty popular entertainment features of this kind when, in 1973, a crisis of conscience that he has described in several interviews set him on the path to the art film. ‘One day I suddenly felt as though I’d been lying to the people for the past 12 years. I decided to compensate for my wrongdoings by making more honest films.’ Generally funded by the continuing popularity of his action films, these ‘more honest’ art films brought him international acclaim, earning him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002. Of them, a dozen concern nativist, premodern Korean culture.

Though various in their narrative strategies, The Genealogy (Chokpo, 1978), Mandala (Mandara, 1981), Surrogate Mother (Ssibaji, 1986), Adada (1987), Come Come Come Upward (Aje Aje Para Aje, 1989), Sopyonje (Sŏp’yŏnje, 1993), Festival (Ch’ukche, 1996), Ch’unhyang (Ch’unhyangdyŏn, 2000), Chihwaseon (Ch’wihwasŏn, 2002), Beyond the Years (Ch’ŏnnyŏnhak, 2007), and Hanji (Talbin kirŏolligi, 2011), all dramatise with ethnographic detail and accuracy ancient customs or art forms, and several also explore their precarious survival into the present. Mandala, for example, very beautifully dramatises the traditional customs and art of Korean Sŏn (Ch’an or Zen) Buddhism as it narrates the stories of two monks who differently attempt to reconcile their religious faith and insight with their desire to live in the modern world. These films sometimes include quasi-documentary interludes that interrupt the diegesis [the fictional world] and pedagogically elaborate the elements of the nativist culture in question, but more frequently they dramatise such material in popularly accessible and often spectacular narrative forms that exploit the conventions of film melodrama that Im had mastered during his earlier work as a journeyman director.

Their resistance to global capitalist culture’s homogenising erasure of the past and cultural difference in its promotion of a totalised corporate postmodernism marks the overall importance of these historical retrievals. But, beyond this, their specifically Korean significance can hardly be overemphasised, given the devastation inflicted on the nation and nativist culture in the twentieth century: the Japanese annexation that lasted until the end of World War II; the brief “day of freedom” before the division of the country between the subsequent U.S. neocolonial occupation of the South and the communist dictatorship in the North; the civil war; and then in the South the series of U.S.-maintained military dictatorships that endured until the free election of a civilian president in 1992. This history of trauma and chaos jeopardised the continuity of much of Korea’s unique cultural heritage as it had coalesced during the half millennium of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1897), when, instead of being divided and ravaged by foreign intruders, Korea was unified, largely in isolation from the outside world. The rituals and customs of this period, its forms of civic organisation and judicial administration, and its architecture, pottery, music, painting, and dress matured into distinctive, integrated forms, a unique cultural economy. Preeminent within it was Han’gungmal, the singular Korean language that many linguists believe has no genetic relationship to any other, and Han’gŭl, the writing system designed exclusively for it – a unique visual language.

In respect to the renewal and reassertion of specifically Korean culture, Im’s ethnographically oriented features had three main functions. First, their dramatisation of neglected and endangered cultural traditions pedagogically displayed their aesthetic value and affirmed their social function, reeducating a population on whom, for a century, the presumptive superiority of Japanese and then US capitalist culture had been imposed. Second, the domestic box office success of some of them (especially Sopyonje, whose acclaim ignited an extraordinary revival of popular interest in the traditional folk opera, p’ansori). The recognition they achieved in festivals abroad fostered the growth and international prestige of Korean cinema generally, opening the way for the younger filmmakers of the New Korean Cinema and for a revival of interest in neglected older ones. Third and most important, the narrative focus on art and artists provided the basis for Im’s allegorical exploration of the present state of Korean culture and especially of his own filmmaking. The representation of a specific traditional artist, art form, or cultural practice in any given film generated reflexive patterns of similarity and difference between it and Im’s film about it, providing him with a vocabulary through which the possibilities of his own art could be explored. (1) The possibilities and limitations of the artists he depicted, their artwork, and its social existence provided a model in respect to which Im himself, his films, and their social function could be imagined. He made them into allegories of cinema.

Such a reflexive allegorical use of the past to investigate the possibilities of contemporary Korean culture was not without contradictions. While their aural and visual exoticism made the spectacular elements in Chosŏn culture well suited for cinematic reproduction, other aspects complicated allegorical use of it. Whether aristocratic or folk, Chosŏn’s almost entirely artisanal mode of cultural activity differed fundamentally from the industrial mode of production of capitalist cinema and the specific forms of alienation intrinsic to its consumption. Other difficulties appeared in two recurrent motifs by which Im elaborated the cultural past: images of women and images of the natural landscape, most often brilliantly photographed by Im’s virtuoso cinematographer, Chŏng Il-sŏng. (2) Many of them, Adada, Sopyonje, and Ch’unhyang most notably, were thematically and visually pivoted on images of the violation and exploitation of beautiful women, often set in the context of the Korean Peninsula’s mountains, valleys, and shores, variously enhanced by sunshine, mist, or snow. As figures for the nation, the women and their tragedies were offered as a vocabulary by which the suffering and the spirit – the han – of the distant past could frame, if not diagnose, the traumas of the present, while the beauty of the natural landscape conversely proposed an ideal to which the nation might be restored. Im has typically justified the cruelty inflicted on his heroines by pointing out that, in Confucian society, women were sequentially subjected to fathers, husbands, and sons, and so did indeed bear a disproportionate share of hardship and suffering. But in a period when feminists radically retheorised gendered visual codes, such representations, it was argued, also reproduced the conditions that allowed for the continued subjection of women. Similarly Im’s celebration of Korea’s uninhabited, unworked spaces mobilised an essentially touristic nostalgia that could hardly provide a generative metaphor for social renewal amid the rapid industrialisation of the late twentieth century and the state-enforced vicious exploitation of the working class. Severely hierarchical and without a middle class, the rural agricultural Chosŏn era could only vaguely parallel modern urbanised Korea, and the forms of resistance available to feudal peasantry bore little relation to the democratic mobilisations of the Minjung movement [Ed: the “common people’s movement” for democratisation and inclusion]. Intrinsic to the disparities between Im’s present and the received Confucian cultural heritage, such aporia in his project could never be fully resolved. But his great achievement was to work with and through them, setting them in different contexts and manipulating them in different permutations to make them the narrative, thematic, symbolic, and especially affective materials of his cinema.


[1] The possibility of Im’s critical cinema only emerged with the end of the military dictatorship. His nativist films began with The Genealogy, released the year before the assassination of Park Chung-hee and the end of the Yusin period. Mandala, the first film in which his new direction was widely recognised, and Surrogate Mother followed, separated by half a decade. The frequency of the new nativist films increased during the first years of the Sixth Republic, culminating in Sopyonje in 1993, the year after the election of the first civilian president. At the same time, the relaxation of censorship made possible the emergence of the Korean New Wave, including for the first time a radically contestatory political cinema, most importantly the work of Park Kwang-su; in the late 1980s and early 1990s his films’ releases virtually alternated year by year with Im’s: Chilsu and Mansu (Ch’ilsuwa Mansu, 1988), The Black Republic (Kŭdŭlto Urich’ŏrŏm, 1990), To the Starry Island (Kŭ Sŏme Kago Shipta, 1993), and A Single Spark (Arŭmdaun ch‘ŏngnyŏn Chŏn T‘ae-il, 1995). But in this period, Im maintained his distance from the new political radicalism: in Come Come Come Upward (1989), for example, one of the main protagonists, a Buddhist nun struggling to find redemptive meaning in her life, explicitly rejects association with the student activists of the Democracy Movement and with ‘poor farmers and city laborers.’ And, even though his own parents had joined the partisans after the liberation, Im’s lack of any discernable endorsement of the leftist guerillas of this period in The Taebaek Mountains (T’aebaeksanmaek, 1994) contrasted markedly with Park’s sympathy for them in the previous year’s To The Starry Island.

[3] Beginning to work with Im on Tears of the Idol (Usangŭi Nunmul) in 1981, Chŏng Il-sŏng shot Mandala, Adada, Fly High, Run Far: Kaebyok, Sopyonje, Ch’unhyang, Beyond the Years, and many others of his greatest films of the 1980s and 1990s, including the blockbusters The General’s Son I, II, and III (Changgunŭi Adŭl). Together with Im himself and his long-time producer at Taehung Pictures, Chŏng formed what was known as the ‘Troika of Korean Film’; see Chŏng Sŏng-il, Im Kwon-taek (Seoul: Korean Film Council, 2006), p. 44.

Editor’s note: this article uses the long-standing McCune-Reischer system for romanising original Korean characters into English. Since 2002 the South Korean government has officially adopted a new, Revised Romanisation system, but it is still not consistently used when translating from Korean (or used at all); other sources may use different spellings for the film titles referred to.

This article is an extract from David E. James, Power Misses II: Cinema, Asian and Modern. Indiana University Press, 2020. It is republished with permission and thanks to Prof. James.

The Film
By Quentin Turnour
Jagko (1980) is positioned somewhere in between the ‘ideological absolutism of anti-communist South Korean cinema of the 1950s-1970s and the more equivocal ‘Division films’ of the 1980s [see grey box], and harks back to the generic traits of Im’s films of the 1970s.

Jagko begins deceptively, appearing to be an observational, docudramatic work of social realism, which it actually turns out not to be. A prowling police car gathers up an homeless man sleeping in a doorway. Under the opening credits, he’s shipped off next morning to the ‘Seoul Rehabilitation Centre’, which, like many asylum institutions, does little rehabilitation. In long, economical shots, Im Kwon-taek has laid bare the inhumanity of institutionalisation, as men are processed more as prisoner than patient and have to give up any valuables. We also learn that our protagonist is Song Gi-yeol, and that he has an end-stage stomach cancer that probably no one has bothered to tell him about. Song’s processing and the credit sequence end in his induction into the communal hospital ward from which, we already can guess, he’s unlikely to leave alive. A roving close-up introduces western audiences to this different, unfamiliar kind of shock corridor: bed-less, the inmates sleep side by side on two raised pallets. The shot admits some hospitality:  house plants, a small single TV up one end, a few personal items such as tea pots, toilet paper, and small jangseungtotems warding off evil spirits. But as the voice of the ward’s prefect intones the day’s dull routine (‘for a few hours we get some sunlight’), we get a visual roll call of the inmates coughing, rattling, scratching, prostrate in agony and foetally lying in various stages of despair and disengagement; in the words of one of Song’s pallet mates: ‘This is a waiting room for the dying and the angels of death’. We seem set for a docudrama about how the poor died in 1980s Korea. If Yilmaz Gurney suggested, in Jagko’s near contemporary Yol (1982), that all of modern Turkey was a prison, then Im is showing us a modern South Korea that’s a prison pretending to be a hospital

But Jagko has already inserted a few quirks in the conventions of the anti-institutional narrative. Parting with his few valuables, Song only becomes agitated when they take away his cherished police-issue binding rope, the sort used on arrested suspects. Terrified by the realisation of his fate, Song pleads to leave. To that, an inmate in the diagonally opposite corner (in the first of many mirrorings), so far barely noticed, props himself up from a blanket and tells him to shut up. Peering through his spectacles Song sees a distinctive mole and asymmetric nose. He has a shock of recognition, not of an angel of death, but a ghost of his past: his old nemesis from his security police days, Baek Gong-san, who had fought as a leftist guerrilla leader. Hints Im has already planted in the film’s prologue of Song’s obsessive personality suddenly burst out. From a little black book he’s managed to hide from the custodians he reads back Baek’s name, address, statistics, and criminal record from its first pages. ‘Education: none…’ but a blacksmith by trade, Baek had joined the communist partisan brigade at the start of the war in 1950, made weapons and led terror attacks under the nom de guerre, Jagko (‘uneven nose’), been arrested soon after the armistices of 1953, but escaped during his prison transfer. Song then announces that Baek is under arrest, reaching instinctively for the police cord he was stripped of in the opening scenes. For the other inmates and the staff it’s all paranoid fantasy. Anyway, they know Baek as Kim Sam-su, a fisherman from the south.

But Im has already planted enough intimate close-ups of Baek’s trembling hands and eyelines to suggest Song is telling some sort of truth. And he won’t let go of his obsession with ‘Kim’ as Baek as Jagko, confronting him in the meal room, stealing a knife, upsetting the fatalistic order both staff and inmates much prefer. We’re not quite certain either, until a romantic scene in a K-soap opera screening on the tiny TV that night provokes the first of Song’s many flashbacks, introducing us to what would become one of Im’s favourite stylistic and narrative tools (and a recurrent, ambiguous interest in Korean pop TV as both a place of coarsened national emotions – yet also of Korean ‘han’, or painful feelings of national memory: something more deeply explored in 1986’s Gilsoddeum. Although this is a film about contested and fading memories, Song was indeed once the man he says he is, even if he struggles to understand he’s not that man any more: a rising young security police sergeant in the early 1950s, zealous enough to wear his sunglasses home to his village home town, taking enough pleasure in his red-hunting to bring home campaign stories for his pretty young wife. Although in time the other intimates accept the truth that their Kim is in fact Song’s Jagko, they mostly don’t care: they’re dying anyway. When Song corners Baek and finally gets an admission, Baek asks the same question: why bother? Baek at least understands that he’s long since stopped being Jagko. Or even Baek.

In more generic anti-communist South Korean films of the 1970s, this would be a quest thriller; Jagko the terrorist would probably be villainously hiding out, or even embedded for future deployment by the North, fooling everyone but Song, whose waning anti-communist fervour would be reawakened at film’s end. But that Song and Baek’s conflict is played out as tragedy is one aspect of Jagko’s break with Im’s filmmaking past. So is the reveal of Song’s true motivation for pursuing Baek; less ideological justice, more for personal and career reasons. As Im builds a chain of flashbacks (and in a typical Im narrative gesture, nested flash-backs within flashbacks, often from different characters’ points-of-view) that recount Song’s initial arrest of Baek on a post-war mopping up mission, and the desperation and genuine internecine, retaliatory crimes committed by Baek and his comrades as their ranks are hunted down, we also quickly realise that Song’s own class origins are not that dissimilar from the ones he reads out from Baek’s file. Both are underclass, self-made, and brutalised by the partisanship of the Korean War. Both lose their wife and children as much to their obsession as to the forces of that war. And both are cadres – and pawns – in South Korean class war, really differentiated only by the side that circumstances and the uniform put on them. Some sort of veteran instinctive recognition and ‘frenemyship’ seems inevitable; the seeds of mutual recognition date back even to when Song was marching Baek to prison in 1953 (bound in the white police cord that’s a constant motif through the film).

Broken stomachs, broken noses and broken eyesight recur throughout the film. Song and Baek are men alone; their bodies seem to be eating themselves. But it is sight and insight that forms Jagko’s most recurrent motif.

Although the film is spearheading one of the most action-rich film genres of Korean action cinema, Jagko is itself largely actionless, at least on the chronological plane of the present in which it opens and closes. And at its end the whole film seems to lose consciousness, in an ending that for western audiences is reminiscent of and as open-ended as Midnight Cowboy.

The Restoration
Jagko / Mismatched Nose was preserved and was digitally restored by the Korean Film Archive KOFA.

Cinema Reborn acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which we live, learn and work. We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.