Class struggle is present in almost every society, but it seems that Korean culture is especially obsessed with this theme. It is ubiquitous in Korean popular culture, from the lightest and fluffiest of K-dramas to the most serious films. In fact, The Pollen of Flowers is quite similar to the most famous Korean film in this genre, The Housemaid, which has itself been remade at least a few times.
The 20th century was perhaps one of the most tumultuous in the country’s history. Japan colonized the country for the first half of the century, stripping away Korean people’s identity. Then, the Korean War happened shortly after Japan lost control of the country after its devastating defeat in WWII. Korea became a pawn in the hands of other, bigger countries during the war, after which the country was divided in two. North Korea was undergoing a cruel, yet mysterious, dictatorship while South Korea was wracked with instability as dictator after dictator tried to enforce absolute rule.
The people who remained relatively unscathed through all of this were, of course, the rich, though not all escaped the vicissitudes of history. Films like The Housemaid and The Pollen of Flowers seemed to be motivated by this resentment against this elite, even when these films were confined largely to the houses the families lived in. In The Pollen of Flowers, Hyeon-ma (Nam Koong-Won) is a rich businessman who takes under his wing a young man named Dan-ju (Ha Myung-joong), with whom, it is strongly hinted, he has a homosexual affair. Living with him are his concubine, Se-ran (Choi Ji-hee) and her younger sister Mi-ran (Yoon So-ra). When Hyeon-ma brings Dan-ju to his house, the young man’s presence disrupts the tight, claustrophobic nature of the household as he inspires (and plays on) the desires of the women in the household, especially Mi-ran and to a lesser extent, the maid Ok-nyeo (Yeo Wun-gye).
Director Ha Gil-jong led a tumultuous life starting with the early death of his parents. Against great odds, he enrolled in the extremely competitive Seoul National University where he majored in French literature, with a pronounced emphasis on the symbolists such as Apollinaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, etc. He also made his way to UCLA and studied at its film program, the very same that would be host to Francis Ford Coppola and Paul Schrader. He had the opportunity to work in the States for MGM, but turned it down because of the racism he encountered. He seemed to be a man displaced regardless of his environment since his films were so boldly stylistic and controversial compared to Korean cinema of that time.
The Pollen of Flowers is a fever dream of a picture. Ha Gil-jong effortlessly weaves surreal and heightened visual storytelling with a sharp, close, almost suffocating examination of the wealthy family at the center. Truthfully, there were some moments that can startle a viewer into laughter, especially some of the dramatic intense close-ups punctuated with loud music. The sound design and Shin Joong Hyun’s psychedelic score create a world that resembles real life but is ever so slightly heightened, such as the scene where Danju is chasing down Mi-ran at the bus station. The announcements of the bus arrivals and departures sound alien and ghostly, as familiar as they might be to most people.
Perhaps Ha’s greatest strength is his ability to maintain his style and create the specific world that these characters live in even when the landscape changes dramatically. In many ways, this is Hyeon-ma’s movie as he has created an enclosed world in which people are his to do what he wants. It is telling that when Mi-ran gets her period during the film, he almost immediately becomes suspicious of her, especially when she is around his protege Danju. He, in typical patriarchal fashion, wants to control everything about the women in his care – even their sexuality.
Even the controversial homosexual nature of the relationship between him and Danju is complex and ahead of its time. Rather than portraying homosexuality as some sort of mental illness or social ill, it is seen as an extension of Hyeon-ma’s need for control. His relationship is not so much between a mentor and a protege as he claims it to be, but more of a master and a slave. His reaction is all the more violent because the two young people are the ones he thought he had the most control over. Perhaps this is not the ideal way that a gay relationship should be portrayed on screen, but it is fascinating that Ha is more interested in the power dynamics of the relationship rather than the “perversion” of the relationship itself.
Though the movie is claustrophobic and rarely mentions the outside world even when the characters are ostensibly in it, Ha very much meant this as a critique of the times. Park Chung-hee was the dictator of South Korea at this time and while his regime saw great economic growth, it also saw a severe suppression of civil liberties. Ha himself was part of student protests against Park’s dictatorship while Pollen composer/rock musician Shin Joong Hyun was actually imprisoned and tortured by Park and his thugs. The best political satire is rarely didactic and obvious and The Pollen of Flowers ranks among the best. Even without knowing South Korean politics and history, The Pollen of Flowers is still a fascinating work of art, beautifully stylistic yet genuinely weird and unsettling.