The Hand Of Destiny (Eunmyeongui son)

Korea (1954) Dir. Han Hyeong-mo

A number of firsts are achieved with this South Korean film – it’s the first South Korean film made prior to the 1990’s that I have seen; it is one of the first spy thrillers from the South; and it features the first ever screen kiss in Korean cinema! So there is the answer to a trivia question you can hang on to.

Set in the South during the raw period after the Korean war, a woman named Jeong-ae (Yun In-ja) is known to most people as Margaret, a bar worker/hooker, yet this a front for her real work – a spy from the North! One night she is visited by police with battered student Young-chul (Lee Hyang-ja), wrongly suspected of stealing Jeong-ae’s purse.  

Feeling guilty about this, Jeong-ae tends to Young-chul’s wounds, becoming smitten with him. The next day she buys him a new wardrobe and treating him to night on the town. But Jeong-ae’s boss (Joo Sun-tae) isn’t happy his comrade seems to be embracing free life in the south and disapproves of her relationship with Young-chul, deciding to do something about it.

Not the most scintillating storyline for a noir thriller but with the country recently bifurcated, we can assume director Han Hyeong-mo felt it prudent to tread softly even with its blatant anti-communist sentiment. Nowadays a film covering the same topic would be bolder with such rhetoric, making this a historical curiosity for modern audiences if nothing else.

Surely then, a film with such cultural and artistic significance to it, vis-a-vis the first Korean screen kiss (only 60 years behind Hollywood) would be a well known, prestige movie? The sad reality is The Hand Of Destiny is little more than B-movie fare at best, which sounds like harsh judgement in lieu of the state of the country at the time, so it is best to approach viewing this  film with that in mind.

The opening scene is unique – a close up of a male hand holding a smoking pipe (not a freeze frame) which, after the credits and music end, moves to knock on a door, before the owner walks away. This man would be Jeong-ae’s boss  who is never shown above the neck until the last 10 minutes, and frankly isn’t as menacing as he sounds, but his signature goblin ring inform us of his presence.

Jeong-ae’s western alias of Margaret apparently denotes she is a woman of ill-repute which is considered a less scandalous vocation than being a spy for the North thus the perfect cover for Jeong-ae to coax classified secrets out of her high ranking military and political cliental. Then again, isn’t that suggesting the South’s top brass are a sleazy and unreliable lot if they frequent hostess bars and spill the beans for a quick jump?

But, earning money and living in a comfy, if bijou apartment is enough for Jeong-ae to re-evaluate the merits of her erstwhile beloved Communist Party and has come to the conclusion that being free to do what she wants is vastly preferable to marching to the beat of someone else’s drum. So when bedraggled student and labourer Young-chul is dumped on her doorstep, he becomes a symbol of redemption of sorts for her.

As a way to offload her ill-gotten gains and ease her conscience, Young-chul is a sort of Eliza Dolittle to Jeong-ae’s Professor Higgins, at least on the wardrobe front, while the romance blossoms almost immediately and inexplicably, without the usual “feeling out” process. Granted this is only an 89-minute film and the plot needs to get a move on, but this is expediate even for cinema, despite the first meeting moving at a glacial pace.

Young-chul is a hard character to take seriously as “student” usually means someone youthful, unless “mature student” is explicitly specified, yet Lee Hyang-ja was 40 at the time. This is also exposed in a huge plot twist involving Young-chul whilst Yun In-ja looks and acts older than her 31 years, leaving us confused about what the relationship is supposed to be – is Jeong-ae a cougar on the pull or looking for a Mr. Right of her own age.

The thriller aspect of the story begins in earnest in the second half of the film, following the aforementioned plot twist, prior to this the occasional reminders appearing via the visual aid of shadows and close-ups of the hand with the goblin ring. Despite two shoot outs and one of the worst fist fights ever seen, the drama doesn’t escalate to much of a tense conclusion, the rushed build to it very much to blame for this.

Had less time been spent on Jeong-ae seducing Young-chul and more on establishing her spy work before the moral quandary, this could have been a tasty noir thriller. The political critique is ham fisted, shoved into a last minute rant from Jeong-ae, again with no build up or conflict of emotions. Her boss is a token villain, more ominous presence than tangible threat, a similarly flimsy definition also afforded to Young-chul as the main protagonist.

A former cinematographer, Han Hyeong-mo’s best contribution is the visual noir staples he replicates to make it feel familiar and in keeping with the spirit of the genre, yet denies the film any Korean identity. In other words, this could have been a US, UK, European or even Japanese production, it is that by-the numbers in its presentation. Yet, the best is saved for last with a memorable and powerful ending, complete with the aforementioned 3-second kiss that rocked the native audiences.

For a historically significant film, The Hand Of Destiny is a bit of a damp squib. Ending aside, there is a palpable lack of confidence in hitting hard with its political themes that carries over into the half-baked drama, also missing the requisite sizzle to engage our interest. Despite this, cineastes should seek this out to see how far Korea has come with this genre.