Modernity as cinematic perversionLee Jang-ho’s “Knee to Knee” presents a disturbing dichotomy of East and West. In the film, the East is seen purely as a victim, and the West only as a colonizer.
The east is portrayed in the form of a young Korean woman who was sexually molested as a child by her American tutor. The West, on the other hand, is a constant subject that seduces, enforces and threatens the East.
The story lays out this juxtaposition, relying mostly on the social mood of the early 1980s, when cultural trends like rock ’n’ roll, MTV and the sexual revolution, which the film assumes are forms of “contamination” from the West, permeating the younger generation of Koreans.
Ja-young (Lee Bo-hee), a young flutist who was raised under a strict mother, sees sex as sinful. Yet she has a bizarre manifestation of sexual desire after her the trauma of being molested by her music tutor.
The film is obscure in depicting Ja-young’s psychological state.
She tries leading a proper life, dating her demure classmate Jo Bin (Ahn Sung-ki), yet the couple seem to be at odds in every way.
He studies gugak (traditional Korean music) at college, and is deeply immersed in traditional rituals and customs. She frequents the French Cultural Center to watch arthouse films.
In fact, both Bin and Ja-young possess certain ideas about the East-West dichotomy that the film tries to deliver.
He is moral and righteous.
She is free and rebellious.
Ja-young appreciates his presence, but she also feels distant from him due to his rigidity, the tradition and values that he imposes on her life.
To escape, she becomes sexually involved with other men, but more out of desperation than for pleasure.
Her sexual experimentation stops only after she is brutally gang-raped by village hoodlums.
The film ends with her walking through a hospital compound clad in a white dress, returning to her peaceful life with Bin, as if to suggest a homecoming.
Strangely, the return of Ja-young to Bin almost seems a surrender of modernity to tradition, west to east. The scene even seems like a visual commentary, a message of consolation that eventually Korean society will return to where it was before.
“Knee to Knee” was a revolution in Korean cinema when it was first released in 1984. It was one of the most sensational erotic dramas released here, sprinkled with the latest fashion and cinematic trends of the time.
The film still is one of Lee’s most erotic films, with scenes featuring explicit sexual gestures and loaded with cultural metaphors.
The drama of the film preserves its tension. It lacks subtlety: It seems to overstate its premise that Koreans have somehow been contaminated by ideas of pleasures imported from the West ― sex, music, etcetera. But considering the mood of Korean cinema at the time of the film’s release ― films about sexual decadence were hugely popular at the time ― it’s no surprise that “Knee to Knee” prompted a strong reaction from critics and audiences.
Knee to Knee
Directed by Lee Jang-ho
Starring Lee Bo-hee, Ahn Sung-ki
Running time: 101 minutes
by Park Soo-mee