When Isak first arrived in Busan, wracked by his illness, he brushed past Koh Hansu on the dock. I thought maybe this would be the extent to which the two would interact, but “Chapter Four” opens with Isak in a tailor shop getting his suit hemmed when in swaggers none other than Koh himself. It turns out Koh has been aware of Isak, as well as his tuberculosis, since his arrival, though it’s unclear if he knows of Isak’s new engagement to Sunja.
Koh says Isak’s clothes don’t fit him. Isak explains that’s because they originally belonged to his brother, who was taken in the crackdown following the Independence Movement. The Independence Movement was a long-simmering series of resistance actions taken by Koreans who were opposed to forceable Japanese rule. Korean Christians, like Isak and Somuel, were one of the more active groups participating in the Independence Movement. Koh scoffs and says it’s foolish to hang on to the past and offers to buy Isak a new suit.
Isak takes an uncomfortably long time to answer, and for a moment, I was afraid he’d accept Koh’s offer. Here, Isak and Koh are engaged in a strange staring contest; they’re looking at each other through the same mirror but also looking at themselves. It’s a remarkable sequence, at once visually intriguing while juxtaposing their worldviews and values through this discussion of clothes. Eventually, Isak declines and says he’ll be buying a new suit for himself and hemming the old suit. The new suit is for his upcoming nuptials, and his old suit, well, maybe it will fit his son someday. Koh’s face visibly falls. I guess he didn’t know about Isak and Sunja.
Said nuptials, though, are less than celebratory. Instead, a pastor tries to convince Isak not to marry Sunja because she’s an unwed pregnant woman and brings a scourge upon herself, her children, and Isak. When the pastor can’t convince the two not to get married and prays for them, and Yangjin, Sunja’s mother, observes the scene before her as if her gaze takes in every last detail before her daughter’s departure.
Yangjin goes to the market to buy white rice, a crop reserved for sale to the Japanese (just one more injustice in a litany of the large and small moments of Japanese violence). When Yangjin says Sunja is leaving Korea for Japan and she wants Sunja to have a taste of home before she leaves, the man gives Yangjin enough white rice for two bowls. It is not the celebration of marriage that moves him but the twin tragedies of Yangjin losing her daughter and Sunja losing her mother and motherland. A truly gorgeous sequence of Yangjin carefully preparing the white rice follows, ending with her serving the rice to Sunja and Isak. She closes the door behind her to leave the newlyweds to eat together. Sunja tries to hold back tears as she eats the rice. She knows the sacrifice it must have taken for her mother to procure such precious food for her wedding and departure.
The next day, Sunja goes to the market to say good-bye, but the farewells are interrupted by a Japanese soldier who orders her to follow him. Even in moments of sentimentality, occupation finds a way to intrude. The soldier leads Sunja to Koh’s office, where Koh proceeds to berate Sunja, saying that she will suffer in Japan without money and that Isak is no martyr but a sick man who knew he could not burden himself on anyone else. “Do you think you can forget me?” he asks, the question both sincere and threatening. Sunja counters by saying that she has heard rumors about what Koh does in Japan and that the implications of his shadowy dealings sicken her. He responds with rage. Again we see that Koh may have been gentle, even loving, to Sunja, but now, spurned and jealous, he can be a frightening man.
Finally, Sunja says good-bye to her mother on the dock. Yangjin gives Sunja a set of rings she’d received when she was first married. Every woman needs to hide away some money, she says, but Sunja tries to tell Yangjin to keep the rings. She has a gold pocket watch given to her by Koh when he was in love with her. Yangjin tells her to take the rings anyway, and the ship’s horn blows. Sunja breaks down, sobbing into her mother’s neck as they say good-bye, but Yangjin remains strong, dry-eyed, seeing her daughter off on her journey. Only when the ship has pulled off into the dusk does Yangjin break down, weeping on her knees.
Sunja and Isak go into the belly of the ship. In the crowded, squalid conditions, Sunja is overwhelmed, sick, and sweating, and Isak leaves to go find her some water. While he searches the ship, he meets a crew of Korean men who have been hired as miners to work in Japanese coal mines — another of the historical abuses of Koreans perpetrated by Imperial Japan. On the first-class deck above Sunja, Isak, and the miners, an expensively dressed Korean singer sits next to an ancient Japanese man, his fingers crawling possessively at the nape of her neck. Earlier, this singer dropped her scarf on the dock and briefly conversed with Sunja, who picked it up for her. She promised Sunja that she would sing a song that night for Sunja and her son. On the dock, the singer, in all her glittering finery, stood apart from the other travelers. But as we watch her take the stage to sing opera in front of a room full of hostile Japanese eyes, we see that she is also waging her own struggle.
Suddenly, the singer stops mid-aria and sings in Korean, her voice changing from its earlier tame soprano into a deep, solid belt. The Japanese listeners look confused as the song’s sound travels through the pipes below deck, where the Koreans recognize it as their own. They are delighted and pound in time to the tune. This is the song the singer is singing for Sunja and her someday child. Abruptly, the song ends. Above deck, the singer has taken a steak knife to her own neck, choosing instead to end her own life than continue to be a songbird in a gilded cage. It’s a moment that rings as both ominous and triumphant; the singer has taken agency of her own life and voice, but she loses her life in the process.
In 1989, Solomon also falls on his own sword of sorts. The day has finally arrived for the Korean landowner to sign the documents that will finalize the sale of her land. She arrives in the conference room and is presented with business cards by the so-called important people (read: Japanese and white men) in the room, but she has no patience for the pleasantries. Everyone gathers around the table, copies of the contract are passed, and she reads the contract despite her son’s foolish protest.
When the landowner reaches the end of the contract and looks up, everyone waits for her to sign on the dotted line. Instead, she tells the story of how her father came over to Japan and worked in the mines, how she and her mother came five years later, how her father and the other Korean miners went on strike and were fired for their efforts, how no Japanese person would rent to Koreans. The landowner’s adult children, Tom, and the other businessmen are visibly annoyed by the detour. Until this point, the woman has been speaking in Japanese, but here she switches to Korean when she tells Solomon how the Japanese used to call Koreans cockroaches who ought to be pounded into the ground. She asks, If Sunja were sitting here, would he tell her to sign? Solomon has been so sure of the power of money to render his Korean-ness null and void that I was afraid he’d coax her over the finish line. But, as if pulled from somewhere deep in his gut, he tells the landowner in Korean that she shouldn’t sign. She breaks into a huge smile and leaves the table without signing the contract — upending Solomon’s business deal and path to promotion.
In the exhilarating final sequence of the episode, Solomon runs down the stairs of his office building. The shot perfectly mimics the ship stairs Sunja descended to start her journey to Japan. He runs outside, pushing through crowds of people who pop open their umbrellas in dreamy unison when it begins to rain. Solomon sees a band in the subway playing a cover of the Cure’s “In Between Days.” He begins to dance with abandon, his body free and moving through the rain.
Old Sunja also stands in the rain but on a different shore, having gone back to Busan for the first time since she left it. The fact that it’s raining in both places is a reminder of how geographically close Japan is to Korea and yet how far it has seemed for her after all these years of never returning home. She stands in the pounding surf, crying and laughing at once.
• Bravo to the writers, directors, and cinematographers in this episode. The flashback format really was used to its utmost strength with exquisite double-exposures in the scenes of Sunja packing to return to Korea and Yangjin packing for Sunja to go to Japan woven together.
• Some may find it slow or dull, but I appreciate the visual focus on the mundane trappings of life. The shots of folded-up blankets, of people cooking and doing laundry — for me, these come together to populate a fully realized world that isn’t just plot-driven but driven by the needs of the characters as well.
• I feel as though there’s a deeper meaning behind the Chagall painting hanging in the conference room where the landowner ultimately decides not to sign the contract away, but I’m not sure exactly what it is. Could it be Chagall’s experience of diaspora, oppression, and occupation as a Lithuanian Jew meant to be seen as a potential parallel to the Korean experience in Japan? Art historians, do you have any thoughts?