Times are tough for an old-fashioned horse-and-cart man in a blossoming South Korea.
“That’s it. You’re going to pay!”
After the country was split into two, South Korea felt something of a terrible recession, but around the 60s, things started to turn, with new jobs and heavy modernisation taking over. Despite being seen as a positive change, it did spell trouble for some, like our titular coachman. Kim Seung-ho plays Chun-sam, and has been single-handedly raising his four children, despite earning a meagre salary. His horse-drawn cart is becoming more and more obsolete in a changing world and he struggles to make ends meet.
He’s helped out by his eldest son Su-eop (Shin Young-kyun) who has tried a few times to pass the bar exam, but things aren’t looking great on that end either. His nonspeaking deaf daughter (Jo Mi-ryeong) is currently caught in a horrible marriage with a man who openly cheats on , insults and even beats her. His other daughter Ok-hee (Um Aing-ran) starts dating an unscrupulous businessman and his youngest son is frequently arrested for petty theft. It’s a tough time for everyone, and the pressure is on everywhere as characters try their hardest to get past this road block before them.
As a study of contemporary class relations, A Coachman succeeds very well. Your knowledge of 1960s Korean life doesn’t have to exactly be top range in order to appreciate the dynamics at play. The story speaks to issues experienced today and as a result the movie feels timeless in a way that isn’t always obvious in stories set in particular time periods. It’s a universal tale of people trying to get ahead and up in life but fail constantly because the world is cruel. And it’s in Chun-sam and his family that we have a relatable, and very watchable group of characters.
Once again, Kim Seung-ho smashes it in the lead role. Having seen him in Under the Sky and Seoul and A Woman Judge, I hadn’t been exposed to his work until this year but it’s clear just versatile an actor he is. In each of those movies he’s played a different character – from successful businessman, traditional doctor and downtrodden coachman – and he nails the performance each time, bringing his natural affability and charm to each role. The entire cast here does great, but the movie does sit on his shoulders as the emotional backbone keeping it all together.
I had a lot of fun with some of the side characters. One of Chun-sam’s friends, his boss’ maid, is a charming personality who acts as his guardian angel in more than one scene, and there’s a particularly funny scene or two involving the money lender, who flexes his goofy villainous muscles wonderfully, and helps add a few moments of levity in what is otherwise a pretty serious story, although that seems to be entirely by design. A Coachman knows that life is rough, and doesn’t sugar coat it, but knows when to lighten the mood, and when to randomly kill off someone.
But let’s go back to Chun-sam because ultimately, A Coachman is his story: it’s the story of how he deals with the constant crap that’s thrown his way, down to sudden, unpredictable tragedies. His children are behind him, when they’re not causing problems, and it’s hard to see him never catch a break. So when the group of characters all comes together in harmony it’s a rewarding, pleasing experience that might be a bit of a downer at times, but knows where the real value is.
Verdict: Sincere, sweet and wonderfully acted, A Coachman is old-school Korean cinema doing what it does best.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Carts: So passé
Horse names: Dragon is pretty great
A Coachman (1961)
Also known as 마부 – Mabu
Director: Kang Dae-jin
Writer: Lim Hee-jae
Kim Seung-ho – Chun-sam
Shin Young-kyun – Su-eop
Um Aing-ran – Ok-hee
Jo Mi-ryeong – Ok-nyeo