Yi Bŏmsŏn’s (1920-1981) short story “An Aimless Bullet” is rightfully among the best short stories ever written in Korea. In summary the story goes like this:
After the devastation of the Korean War, accountant Song Ch’ŏrho lives with his family in the poor slumps of Seoul the ‘Liberation Village’. It doesn’t matter how hard he works, he still does not earn enough money to make a living and care for his families needs. At home there are his mother, who has gone crazy because of the war and can only cry out to ‘go north’. His younger brother, who hasn’t been able to find a job for two years after returning from the army, his younger sister who has become a prostitute for American soldiers, and his wife and child.
He is suffering from a toothache, but cannot spare any money for a dentist. Meanwhile his brother is dreaming of becoming an instant millionaire by unlawful means. Not soon after their argument he gets a phone call from the police with the news that his brother has been arrested for robbery. Back home he hears that his wife has died while giving labor. After confirming her death, he aimlessly enters a dentist to let his molars be pulled even though the dentist warns him that it is dangerous to pull both at the same time due to the blood loss it causes. After this he enters a taxi, but cannot decide whether he has to go to his office, the police station, the hospital or home. The taxi driver complains that he one’s again has picked up an “aimless bullet”.
After hearing this, Ch’ŏrho thinks to himself: “I’ve too many roles to fulfill. As a son, a husband, father, older brother, a clerk in an accountant’s office. It’s all too much. Yes, maybe you’re right—a stray bullet, let loose by the creator. It’s true, I don’t know where I’m headed. But I know I must go, now, somewhere.”
The story poignantly depicts the hopeless social situation directly after the Korean War of many Koreans. Soldiers returning from the army found themselves without jobs, and even if a job could be found, it was hard to make ends meet. Of all places, the “Liberation Village” in which the story is set was one of the dreariest places of all. The shanty village consisted of refugees returning from forced labor or prostitution after World War II, North Korean refugees before the Korean War and Korean War refugees. None of these people had much hope of getting up in society.
Yi’s story received the Tongin prize in 1961 and was also made into a movie in that same year. The movie that was made out of the story is on top of my favorite Korean movie list, probably mainly because of my interest in 1940s/1950s Korea and the impression it gives of the hopelessness that many people living in post-war (South) Korean society felt.
A translation of Yi’s short story (translated by Marshall Pihl) can be read here, while the complete movie can be seen here.