During the 80's, and particularly due to the Korean government's gradual relaxation of censorship and control over the film industry, a new genre was introduced to the public and became quite popular very quickly. The genre was titled "Folk Erotic", and "Mulberry" was among the most famous entries, spawning two sequels and a 2014 remake.
The story takes place in the mid-20s, during the Japanese occupation, in a village in the mountains named Yong-dam, and revolves around An-hyeop, one of the inhabitants, a woman of extreme beauty. Her life, however, is not content at all, since her husband, Sam-bo, is a traveling gambler who returns home for short periods after months away, leaving his wife to survive by herself. An-hyeop helps in the rice fields and picks mulberry leaves for her landlady, who raises silk-worms. Since the money are not enough though, she also sleeps with any man is able to bring her food or any other goods, which includes almost every male in the village, and even ones from the nearby ones, with the dates being set by her landlady. The women in the village are very frustrated by the fact, but since the majority of the men have slept with her, they cannot make her leave. The only man An-hyeop refuses to have sex with is Sam-dol, the village servant, a very strong but almost half-wit man, who grows more and more frustrated by her denials. His actions and the fact that An-hyeop eventually goes too far with her actions, have some very dramatic consequences.
True to its erotic nature, Lee Doo-yong directs a film that is filled with sex scenes, although with very little nudity, as most actions are implied rather than depicted. His focus however, is much deeper, since the movie deals with a number of social issues. To begin with, the life in the secluded villages is portrayed with realism, both as a general setting and regarding the nature of the inhabitants, who are curious, gossipy, crude and naive, but also very hard-working, always cheerful and always eager to help each other. This presentation benefits the most from Son Hyun-chae's cinematography, who manages to capture all the beauties of the rural area and to portray the setting (the fields, the houses etc) with utmost realism. The erotic scenes also benefit the most from his work, as he induces them with a combination of subtlety and humor, with the one with the squeezing grapes being the most memorable.
The main point of interest, though, is An-hyeop, and it is through her character that Lee Doo-yong presents most of his social comments, regarding the place of woman in the then society (which becomes even more pointy when her actual story is revealed) but also human nature. Her metaphorical comparison with the mulberry worms is quite evident, as she offers sex for food, expecting the latter to be provided by others, just as the worms expect others to bring them the leaves to eat in order to produce silk. Her true character remains an enigma, as occasionally she seems to enjoy the sex, while her promiscuous nature is more than palpable. The fact that, as her landlady utters in one scene, she will do anything for money, is also obvious, but at the same time, she is one of the most hard-working individuals in the village and remains faithful to her husband, although she could have easily abandoned him. The fact that she is also petty and even vengeful (not towards him though, where she is the exact opposite) highlights her country-bumpkin nature, but is also what brings her demise, eventually. Lastly, through her, Lee Doo-yong presents the fact of how weak men are in front of female beauty, with her interaction with the elder being the most direct sample.
Gorgeous Lee Mi-sook is exceptional as An-hyeop, highlighting all the aforementioned aspects of her character with gusto. As her promiscuous character, her continuous denial to sleep with Sam-dol and the violence that ensues from her actions are depicted on screen, I could not help drawing comparisons with "Nymphomaniac" and "Malena", to the point that, in the end of the film, I was left considering if Lars Von Trier and Giuseppe Tornatore have ever watched this film.
The other comments of the movie are subtler, and deal with the attitude of the Japanese soldiers and the hardships of the poor in the remote areas of the country.
Despite the serious comments, and the two shocking scenes of violence, Lee Doo-yong retains a happy-go-lucky atmosphere, which is heightened by the cheerful music of Choi Chang-won and the relatively fast pace of Lee Kyung-ja's editing (although some scenes were missing, due to partial damage of the original copy). These aspects, along with the humor and the erotic element keep "Mulberry" quite entertaining and easy to watch at all times, in one of the best samples the "folk erotic" genre had to offer.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[Guest Film Review] "Mulberry" + Full Movie"
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