“Chilsu and Mansu” seems to be a film that depicts the hopes and aspiration of Korean youth in the late 1980s, when the country was gradually democratizing. However, as the film progresses, the film does not turn out to be what the audience intended and ends with a standoff between the protagonists and the establishment.
The movie starts with a very upbeat mood with Chilsu falling in love with Jina. Chilsu, the main character, appears to be very upbeat and excited about the changes that are going around him: Korea has begun to democratize and he has fallen in love with Jina. He is so elated at how things are going that he decides to quit his job painting movie billboards to work with Mansu, telling his old boss that he now has the freedom of choice.
In spite of this, things are not what they seem and the director gives out hints to let the viewers know. First, the film begins with a civil defense drill, which is used by the South Korean authorities to condition citizens to deal with a North Korean attack and as a form of control to keep the populate on edge. Second, there is a newscast that makes a vague reference to the working-class tale “A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball” with a reporting about a man climbing down an apartment chimney to look for his wife. Finally, the biggest giveaway is that the characters are constantly in need of money while other characters are reaping the benefits of the economic and political changes at this time.
Later in the movie, we learn that both characters are downtrodden and have minjung (working class) connections. The optimistic Chilsu is actually from a region in the ROK that is dependent on American soldiers for income. His worst problems stem from the fact that his sister was disowned for selling herself to Americans, and his father is leeching off his new wife. What is even worse is that Chilsu’s sister has not spoken to his family and Jina was actually leading him on the entire time, which means his dreams of immigrating and marrying Jina were a delusion. On the other hand, Mansu’s problems are because of his father’s affiliation with the communists; which denies an education, decent employment and is the root of his extreme pessimism.
Their frustrations reach their climax when both characters confide their secrets to each other. As a result, they climb up to their just-completed billboard and vent their frustration at the “rich bastards” in downtown Seoul, which culminates with a tense standoff with the authorities. I believe that Chilsu and Mansu anger symbolizes the minjung’s frustration of being marginalized from the Korean economic miracle and the standoff near the end represents society’s inability to understand their plight. As a whole, the film was engaging with its message of hope and the need to fight for change.