The Last Witness (최후의 증인, Lee Doo-yong, 1980)

Last Witness Restoration posterThe Last Witness (최후의 증인, Choehuui jeungin), a pregnant title if there ever was one, begins with a melancholy voice over by way of a warning. It tells us that the path we are about to embark on will be a dark one but strikes a more optimistic note in affirming that 1980 was the year old evils were cleared away and, the narrator hopes, such darkness will have been left behind in the approaching new decade. Sadly this will not come to pass. The Last Witness is adapted from a novel by Kim Seong-jong which was published in 1974 but Lee Doo-yong filmed his adaptation in 1979 during the brief surge of hope for a brighter future following the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee which ended with the military coup staged by general Chun Doo-hwan placing the country under martial law. A detective is assigned a case, but his investigation takes him on a long, soul searching journey into the recent past in which he finds countless crimes, betrayals, and proofs of human cruelty which ultimately destroy his ability to believe in the better, brighter future which has been promised yet denied.

Oh (Hah Myung-joong), a recently widowed, strung out police detective is handed a case by his sympathetic boss which seems to have been buried. A brewery owner, Young Dalsoo (Lee Dae-keun), has been murdered whilst fishing at a river and there appear to be few clues save that the woman he was living with was apparently not his legal wife. Oh’s preliminary enquiries all point back to an incident 20 years previously when Young was the youth leader in the village and supposedly helped to capture/kill a squad of rebel communist guerrilla fighters who had been hiding on Mt. Jirisan. 

Lee structures the tale to mimic Oh’s investigation; we follow him as he follows leads, jumping back to the 1950s and then forward again the world of 1980. The war becomes a corrupting and dividing line but Lee is bold in his tenet that the wounds did not heal after the truce. The villainy and greed continued, women were used and abused, men were cheated and betrayed. Justice no longer existed and the system continued to be bent to the will of the powerful rather than used for the defence of the weak.

It’s no surprise that Lee had such trouble with the censors. The version of the film restored by the Korean Film Archive runs 154 minutes (the first cut apparently ran 158) but for its original release the mandated cuts took it down to 120, leaving an already complex narrative near incomprehensible. Aside from the scenes of rape and violence, the censors took issue with the depiction of judicial corruption and particularly with its manipulation to facilitate sexual coercion of a defenceless young woman.

The woman at the centre of the storm is Son Jihye (Jeong Yun-hui) – the daughter of a wealthy man who nevertheless became a commander of a communist guerrilla unit during the war. When General Son went into the mountains he took his daughter with him, but realising he was on the losing side, and resenting orders he believed would result in nothing more than martyrdom, Son lost faith in “communism” and was murdered by his own men in an act of mutiny. Before he died he entrusted a treasure map marking the spot he buried his ancestral wealth to a fellow officer with the instruction to look after his daughter and make sure she gets her inheritance. The soldier failed to keep his promise. Jihye is raped and then gang raped, rescued by a sweet and simple man, Bau (Choi Bool-am), whom she later marries, and then forced to become the mistress of an official who also raped her. Jihye and Bau are the innocents chewed up by the system, good people pushed into a corner by the politics of others and then let down by a society so riddled with corruption that it can no longer command any degree of faith from its continually oppressed people.

The Korea of 1980 is being attacked through the legacy of 1950 but whether in concession to the censors or no, the communists do not come off well either. Son, described as an eccentric, is clearly a misguided madman who has betrayed his class on a superficial level, saving his own wealth for a rainy day, but he is allowed a semi-noble death in finally renouncing communism as a cruel, ambitious underlying has him brutally executed by bloody, violent bayonets while his daughter watches from behind a nearby bush. Once Son is dead the madness sets in as the guerrillas hide out beneath a primary school, listening to small children sing happy songs while they tie up and rape a terrified teenage girl having abandoned all concessions to morality and their supposedly noble cause.

If the communists were bad what came later was worse. Interviewing a witness, Oh is keenly aware that the man is telling him only a part of the truth, leaving out a painful detail but leaving in just enough for a skilled investigator to understand. It is this act of selective silence that Oh has come to challenge, exposing the whole sordid story of his nation across two decades of war, trauma, economic recovery and political oppression. Oh cannot resist meting out a little justice of his own in reciting the man’s hidden truth back to him, forcing him to confront the ugliness of his of youth and the guilt that he has long been repressing. Unable to prosecute him for his crimes, Oh hopes that the man will be punished “emotionally” by his words but his actions have far more severe consequences than he ever could have anticipated.

What Oh finds when he solves the crime is a long history of rape, secrecy, betrayal, selfishness, and the misappropriation of law by the powerful to oppress the powerless. It all goes back to the mountain and the war, a young woman robbed and violated, her protector imprisoned, and a legacy of pain which will come back to haunt those responsible but bring only ruin and anguish to its original victims. The question of the “last witness” remains unsolved – will these be the last witnesses to an era of fear and impotence now that the bright future is on its way, or is Oh the last witness, deciding to take his terrible knowledge with him to a better place? Then again the film itself stands as a testament to its times, butchered by censors but carrying forth its own hidden truths only to deliver them 30 years later than expected. Lee’s powerful murder mystery is an investigation into the death of a nation about to be reborn which makes its grim yet inevitable conclusion all the more painful in its brutal negation of a long buried hope.


Screening as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 at Regent Street Cinema on November 4th, 2pm.

The Last Witness is also available on all regions dual format DVD & blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. In addition to English subtitles on the main feature, the blu-ray disc also includes subtitles for the commentary track by Park Chan-wook and film critic Kim Young-jin, while The DVD includes subtitles for the commentary track by Kim and Lee Doo-yong as well as an additional commentary by director of Kilimanjaro/The Shameless Oh Seung-uk and journalist Ju Sung-chul.

The accompanying booklet is fully bilingual and includes essays by Kim Young-jin, Ju Sungchul (Editor of Korean film magazine Cine 21), and Inuhiko Yomota (film critic – the booklet also includes the original, untranslated essay in Japanese), as well as a note on the restoration from the KOFA conservation centre.

(Not currently available on the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel)

Original trailer (Restored, English subtitles)

People in the Slum (꼬방동네 사람들, Bae Chang-ho, 1982)

People in the slum still 2The Korea of the early ‘80s was not an altogether happy place. One dictator fell in 1979, but hopes of returning to democracy were dashed when general Chun Doo-hwan staged a coup and instigated martial law, brutally suppressing a large scale democracy protest in Gwangju in 1980 (though the news of the incident was also suppressed at the time it took place). People in the Slums (꼬방동네 사람들, Kkobangdongne Salamdeul), adapted from the best selling novel by Lee Dong-cheol, is not an overtly political film but takes as its heroes those who have lost out in the nation’s bold forward march into the capitalist future. Opening with a voice over from the author himself, the film dedicates itself to “the memory of neighbours of bygone days”, remembering both the hardships but also the fierce sense of community and warmth to be found among those living at the bottom of the heap.

Myeong-suk (Kim Bo-yeon), a still young-ish woman with a young son, lives in a slum outside of the city with her second husband, Tae-sub (kim Hee-ra). Nicknamed “Black Glove” because of the glove she always wears on her right hand, Myeong-suk is about to open her own business – a small grocery store serving the local residents, but her happiness is tempered with anxiety. Tae-sub, despite his promises, steals money from Myeong-suk to go drinking and gambling, is occasionally violent, and does not get on with her son, Jun-il, who refers to him as Mr. Piggy. Jun-il is also a constant worry because he’s picked up a habit of stealing things and generally causing trouble around the neighbourhood. When Myeong-suk’s former husband and the father of Jun-il, Ju-seok (Ahn Sung-ki), catches sight of her by chance one day, the past threatens to eclipse the small hope of her future.

Life in the slums is not easy. There are few resources, few people are working and there are lots of children with no money to feed and clothe them. Fights are frequent but often unserious. The community pull together to support each other, turning out in force for the grand opening of Myeong-suk’s shop or the 60th birthday celebration of a fellow resident. Besides Myeong-suk, her second husband, and son, the slum is home to a collection of unusual characters from a widow who dresses in white and does strange dances to entertain the locals, to the pastor who does his best to help where he can. A poor drunken woman makes a fool of herself all over town, nursing a crush on the pastor but seemingly unable to move past her dependency on alcohol and whatever it is that caused it and landed her in the slum.

Myeong-suk’s early life would not have suggested her current trajectory, as Bae reveals in Ju-seok’s flashbacks of his courtship to the woman who would become his wife. Ju-seok, a pickpocket, spotted Myeong-suk on a bus and it was love at first sight. Eventually he married her but never revealed his illicit occupation until he was finally arrested. For the sake of his wife and child, Ju-seok attempts to go straight but his efforts are frustrated by bad luck, temptation, and unforgiving policemen. No matter how hard Ju-seok tries to be a decent, hardworking, family man, the economic instability of late ‘70s Korea will not allow him to do it.

Myeong-suk waits for him, but there comes a point she cannot wait anymore. Her second husband is no better than her first and, just like Ju-seok, is hiding something from her. Tae-sub is a bully and a bruiser who is only using Myeong-suk as a convenient place to hide. She cannot rely on him for affection, protection, or financial stability. Ju-seok, at least, did love Myeong-suk even if that love was the very thing which kept leading him back into a life of crime which then took him away from her. Once again love is a luxury the poor cannot afford .

Where the general atmosphere may seem destined for a tragedy for the resilient, suffering Myeong-suk, her damaged son, and reformed taxi-driver former husband, Bae gives them hope for a warmer, if not a better, future. As Myeong-suk prepares to leave the slum, the pastor, encircled by the residents, reads out a passage reminding the locals that a neighbour’s suffering is one’s own suffering while the drunken woman who previously hated children appears to have sobered up and happily hugs a child. Myeong-suk makes a selfless gesture of atonement and solidarity in giving the money from selling her shop to another single mother whose youngest three all have different fathers, perhaps indicating the difficulty of her life since the father of her eldest passed away. Tae-sub too reforms, decides to face the past he’s been running from and make amends for his former life, facilitating a possible reunion for the star-crossed lovers Myeong-suk and Ju-seok. The future suddenly looks brighter, but it remains uncertain and who knows if love and a taxi-driver’s salary will be enough to keep Ju-seok on the straight and narrow as a responsible husband and father in turbulent ‘80s Korea.


People in the Slum screens as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 which is hosting a mini Bae Chang-ho retrospective of three films at each of which the director will be present for a Q&A.

The film was also recently released on all regions blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. In addition to English subtitles on the main feature, the blu-ray also includes English subtitles for the commentary track by Bae Chang-ho and film critic Kim Sungwook, and comes with a bilingual booklet featuring essays by Jang Byung-won (programmer for Jeonju International Film Festival), Lee Yong-cheol (film critic), and Chris Berry (King’s College London).

You can also watch the entirety of the film legally and for free courtesy of the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Barefooted Youth (맨발의 청춘, Kim Ki-duk, 1964)

barefooted Youth posterThe “Seishun Eiga” or youth movie had long been a staple of Japanese cinema by the time the short-lived “Sun Tribe” movement took hold in the mid-1950s, but, for understandable reasons, it did not make its way to Korea until a decade or so later. When it comes to so called “adolescent films”, Kim Ki-duk’s 1964 Barefooted Youth (맨발의 청춘, Maenbaleui cheongchun) is hard to beat. The film had, in fact, been filtered through Japanese cinema as its star Shin Seong-il – then riding high as a youth idol and wanting to star in as many youth movies as he could before his era came to an end, had seen Ko Nakahira’s Dorodake no Junjo which starred ’50s idol Sayuri Yoshinaga alongside her frequent co-star Mitsuo Harada in a tragic tale of love across the class divide (this enduring story was later remade in 1977 with another idol, Momoe Yamaguchi, as the female lead). Shin was keen to star in a remake of Dorodake no Junjo and petitioned his studio to set it up. The plot of Kim’s version is almost identical and was widely seen as a deceitful remake at the time of its release, but that’s not to say it failed to speak of a certain kind of hopelessness among the young people of Korea battling valiantly against an unforgiving society.

Petty gang errand boy Du-su (Shin Seong-il) has been sent on an important mission to deliver some smuggled watches to a fence. On his way out, his boss reminds him not to get into unnecessary fights and risk being late for this very important date. Du-su ignores him and comes to the defence of two nervous middle-class girls in the middle of being mugged by thugs of a different nature. One of the other thugs has a knife and stabs Du-su in the stomach, causing him to drop the prosthetic arm he’s been wearing “as a joke” as well as one of the watches. Turning the knife back on the attacker, Du-su gets away and eventually delivers the goods.

This event profoundly alters Du-su’s future prospects, firstly because he’s brought himself to the attention of the police and also risked putting them on the gang’s trail if the police have picked up the missing watch and discovered it’s a smuggled Hong Kong knock off that might be connected to Du-su. Secondly, the woman Du-su saved, an Ambassador’s daughter called Johanna (Um Aing-ran), is overly grateful and quickly becomes attached to him. 

Johanna is everything Du-su is not – wealthy, cultured, elegant, and religious. Her world could not be more different than Du-su’s yet there is an inescapable bond that exists between them. Unlike many class difference love stories, both parties move closer towards the centre, trying out the other’s world and finding it different but perhaps not impossible. After their first few hours together when Johanna finds her way to Du-su’s run down flat in a lower class neighbourhood, Du-su puts on a Beethoven record at his local club (much to the consternation of the other patrons) and orders himself a glass of juice, while Johanna swaps her usual bible based bedtime reading material for an English language boxing magazine and takes her first swigs of whisky directly from the bottle.

However, trying out the other world for real does not go as well – Du-su, having overdone it with a formal tail coat, falls asleep at a concert, while Johanna finds it difficult to adjust to the rowdiness of the boxing ring. When Johanna finally takes Du-su home, hoping her mother will help him find an honest job so he can go straight, his presence is met with horror and a meal with a hoped for ally goes about as wrong as it possibly could, exposing Du-su’s lack of sophistication as he picks up a steak to eat with his hands (not being confident with a knife and fork), and then spills water all over the hostess who points out his lack of employable skills. 

Trapped on all sides – by the gangsters worried he’ll expose them, by his origins as the son of a prostitute and a man who died in jail, and by the general lack of opportunities for poor boys in economically straightened 1960s Korea, Du-su has nowhere left to go. Johanna is also trapped, in a sense, by a prospective arranged marriage and an overbearing but well meaning mother determined to send her abroad to save her from her reckless amour fou. Du-su, facing prison and life in a gang, and Johanna facing losing love for respectability, have hit an impasse. Having managed to transcend their class differences on a personal level, they see no way they can ever be together and if they cannot be together in life then they see no option but to escape from a world which has no place for them.

The economic inequality and enduring inviability of their love is signalled in the closing scenes in which Johanna’s funeral procession is several miles long with flowers and hearses and a crowd of mourners dressed in white. Meanwhile, Du-su’s body, barefoot and covered by a sheet on the back of a cart being pulled by his grief-stricken friend, is unattended. Not only could they not be together in life, they are forever separated even in death. As in the title of the Japanese film (taken directly from the book which inspired it), it is the lovers’ “purity” which comes to define them and adds extra poignancy to their fate. Du-su and Johanna share a single kiss but Kim obscures it from view, photographing the pair through a window pane in which the crossbars once again divide them. When the bodies are discovered, the first question that is asked is if they had had sex before they died – the answer is a resounding “no”, to which the man replies “good, I’m glad” though he is not especially referring to the poetry of their chastity in death but some kind of pointless and retrospective moral judgement on the “illicit” quality of their relationship.

Unlike the respective Japanese versions which tend to pivot around the leading actress (here Shin is the star, but both the actresses in the 1963 and 1977 versions were the headliners) Barefooted Youth tilts towards Du-su who literally becomes the “barefooted youth” of the title on his funeral cart, causing his friend (whose feelings are perhaps more than those of brotherhood) to remove his own shoes and place them on Du-su’s icy feet, trudging through the snow in his socks remarking that Du-su’s burial is witness to a greater and warmer love than the superficial flashiness of Johanna’s procession. Having resented Johanna for taking his friend away, he now respects her for joining him in death. The tragic end of these two young people is not only a romantic tale of doomed love, but an indictment of an unforgiving society in which social inequality, entrenched social codes, and the rigidity of the older generation have destroyed youth’s expectations of a brighter future. Du-su’s final advice to his friend is to live his life to the fullest and die without without regrets while he dreams only of being like a white crane flying in the blue sky, a pure soul enduring in eternity.


Available to watch on the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel and as part of the Kim Ki-duk DVD box set.

Assassin (암살자, Lee Man-hee, 1969)

Lee Man-hee Assassin vertical

Lee Man-hee thought he’d made an “anti-communist” film in 1965, but apparently he was wrong. The Seven Female POWs was severely edited and retitled Returned Female Soldiers when eventually released, meanwhile Lee did some jail time for supposedly breaking the law in his sympathetic depiction of leftist soldiers. In 1969’s Assassin (암살자, Amsalija) he takes no chances. Set directly after the liberation, Assassin makes no attempt to deny that this was a cruel and chaotic time in which loyalties were to be questioned and honour mourned.

The hardline communists have a problem. One of their top generals, Nam (Park Am), is about to defect and ally with the ruling regime. They need to get rid of him in a hurry. Their plan is to hire an assassin and frame “the Right” before Nam can defect. The Assassin (Jang Dong-hui) they call on is the number one pro but some worry he’s too softhearted for what they have planned. Despite his cold hearted profession, the Assassin has been raising the daughter of a man he killed nine years ago as his own and will not take being dragged away from her at short notice kindly,

Though the communist agents turn up somewhat ominously – one hiding out and lending an umbrella to the Assassin’s little girl and the other inviting himself into the house, they do not directly threaten the Assassin or even offer him money when he tries to turn them down. He eventually decides to take the assignment only on hearing the target’s name and realising he would make a perfect addition to his hit list firstly because they have an old score to settle and secondly because the Assassin has long wanted to see the face of a man meeting his death bravely as he pulls the trigger.

Shooting in colour and with a more experimental mindset, Lee’s use of time is strange and bewildering. The entire enterprise takes place over one night yet much of the outdoor scenes are in daylight. He stages two monologues as a conversation by cutting between two different couples on boats – the Assassin recounting his childhood to a communist foot soldier, and Nam having a heart to heart with his lady love. Meanwhile, Lee also cuts back to the Assassin’s home where the innocent little girl is chatting playfully with another of the communist goons who has been sent to keep an eye on (and then perhaps eliminate) her while her father is out on the job.

Lee begins with a voice over stating that the film will expose the truth about communist violence, instantly locating its own political intentions. The communists are a bad bunch who have no honour, no loyalty, no compassion, and no interest in anything other than their own cause. The cause itself is thereby rendered irrelevant through their own hypocrisy. In order to get the job done, the communists have recruited a local boy to drive the boat and carry messages. They’ve promised him a place in a good school in Seoul. Needless to say they will not be honouring that promise. No one can know of this job – it’s supposed to be a rightest plot, and so all loose ends must be eliminated, including those currently members of the communist faction. 

The Assassin does not approve of this. His ideas are old fashioned and he believes in a kind of code even within the darkness of his own profession. The Assassin’s only joy is in his little girl – really the daughter of a man he murdered. This is both proof of his adherence to his code of honour and to his generally compassionate nature. Nam is much the same. He has his code too, though it has recently been ruptured by the intrusion of love. Before, he could have said anything but now he’s found love he’s happy to go and will bear his sentence with dignity. Strangely, neither Nam nor the Assassin pause to consider what will happen to the women in their lives when they are gone, even if it is these women and their relations with them that have humanised their otherwise calculating hearts.

The Assassin’s little girl remains completely unaware of her adopted father’s profession or of the danger posed by a man she doesn’t know sitting at her bedside fondling a gun. Her one request of her father is that he bring her back an apple with the leaves still on it – a symbol of her own innocence and naivety, but the apples he picks for her are later smashed to smithereens under a communist’s boot. The communist gets his own comeuppance (these communists do seem to be quite a dim bunch, gleefully felling their fellow officers yet never guessing they may be next), but Lee’s rather unsubtle message is clear as “the left” stomps all over any and all signs of love, compassion, innocence or beauty.

Unlike Lee’s other films this one ends with a heavy handed voice over but no “The End” – presumably the story of the struggle against communism is not yet finished. The story is an old one, men who live by the sword die by the sword – they know this and accept it almost as a religious rite. Both Nam and the Assassin know their place within this cycle and so they submit to it with bravery and stoicism whereas the strangely manic villain attempts to run from his fate but fails miserably. Lee experiments with time and form, perhaps attempting to move past the obvious propaganda element of the project but never manages to escape it. Still, The Assassin is oddly moving in its final moments even if tinged with cynicism and a sense of the world’s cruelty untempered by Lee’s generally forgiving melancholy.


Assassin is the fourth and final film in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet. Also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

A Day Off (휴일, Lee Man-hee, 1968)

vlcsnap-2017-08-09-23h50m27s782Prolific as he was, Lee Man-hee had his fair share of troubles with the censors throughout Korea’s turbulent 1960s, most famously with his arrest for breaking anti-communism laws with The Seven Female POWs which was later heavily edited and released as Returned Female Soldiers (perhaps a neat nod back to Lee’s mega hit, The Marines who Never Returned). Before that, however, Lee’s poetic meditation of the difficulties of being young in the increasingly heartless capital, A Day Off (휴일, Hyuil), was banned altogether for painting an all too gloomy picture of modern life and love. Though modern Korean cinema has gained itself a reputation for gloominess, that of the gloomy years was still expected to be, in some way, “inspirational”. Refusing to end on a happier note, Lee shelved the film leaving it unseen until rediscovered for a retrospective in 2005.

The elliptical narrative begins with Huh Wook (Shin Seong-il), trapped by another listless Sunday and remembering a girl he used to spend them with, Ji-youn (Jeon Ji-youn). Huh Wook and Ji-youn can only meet on Sundays, they count down the hours until they can be together again but then when the day closes they almost wish they’d never met at all. Neither of them have any money – Huh Wook can’t even afford a cup of coffee, let alone a wife. The relationship reaches a crisis point when Ji-youn, whose constitution is weak, becomes pregnant.

Huh Wook and Ji-youn’s conversation is raw and painful, filled with half spoken thoughts and an unwillingness to confront the depth of their despair. The couple half discuss their predicament with the assumption that they are talking about a child they cannot afford to have and an abortion they cannot pay for but it turns out the operation that Ji-youn means may be for an unrelated illness. When they finally see a doctor he advises that Ji-youn have an abortion because her health is so poor that she would likely not survive a pregnancy.

This is a city which is rapidly expanding, living conditions and opportunities should be improving but for the left behind like Huh Wook and ji-youn Sunday is all they have to live for, and so they can hardly stand it. Their situation is so hopeless, so filled with despair that there is nothing at all waiting for them but a perpetual cycle of work and release. While Ji-youn is in hospital, Huh Wook wastes time at a bar where he gets chatting to another woman. They talk, they drink, they spend the night together in a derelict building before Huh Wook is woken by church bells and remembers poor Ji-youn lying in hospital, fighting for her life.

Huh Wook is the more romantic but also the least willing to confront the situation. He criticises Ji-youn for her silence but she fires back at him with a description of an idealised life she knows they can’t have – a nice house, flowers in the garden, and yes, children. An ordinary dream but one she knows will never be a reality. Huh Wook leaves her alone to try and borrow money, wasting one of their precious Sundays. His friends have all found different kinds of release – the first is a womaniser but flat refuses Huh Wook money he assumes is for an abortion, the second is a drunk who advises him to have the baby and spend the money on drink, and the third is a wealthy man with a live-in maid. Huh Wook never gets round to asking him for the money but steals it from his jacket while he’s in the bath. 

Released in 1968, A Day Off has echoes of Antonioni in its beautifully empty cinematography and bleak view of human connection in an increasingly modern world. Huh Wook and Ji-youn appear to have a deep and genuine connection but their existence is so fraught with financial and social difficulties that the future is always an impossibility and, in a sense, already the past. Huh Wook wanders alone. Beaten up by the friend he stole the money from, he’s tired, bloody, and worn out. Yet all he feels is relief. All his hope is gone and now he’s free of its burden, left with nothing other than the false promise of a new dawn on the unforgiving streets of Seoul.


A Day Off is the third in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet. Also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Black Hair (검은 머리, Lee Man-hee, 1964)

Black Hair 1964 posterFilm noir can be the most contradictory of genres. A moralistic world filled with immortality, fatalism mixed with existential angst, and a rage against society which is always tinged with a resignation to living on its margins. Genre in Korean cinema has always been a little more fluid than elsewhere and Lee Man-hee’s seminal crime thriller Black Hair (검은 머리, Geomeun Meori) is also a melodrama – the story of a self loathing man committed to his own arbitrary codes, and a woman he expects to pay the price for them.

In a brief prologue that has little to do with the ongoing narrative, ruthless gangster Dong-il (Jang Dong-hui) extorts a corrupt CEO by blackmailing him over some illicit smuggling. Meanwhile, across town, the gangster’s wife, Yeon-sil (Moon Jeong-suk), meets with a man, Man-ho (Chae Rang), in a hotel room. She’s come to pay him off, hoping it will be for the last time but Manh-ho, an opium addict, knows he’s onto an endless cash cow and refuses to put an end to their “arrangement”. Sometime ago, Man-ho raped Yeon-sil and has been blackmailing her for money and sexual favours ever since. Yeon-sil threatens to tell her husband and the police and suffer the consequences, but Man-ho knows she won’t. Dong-il’s gang have a strict rule about adultery and if Yeon-sil trusted him enough to believe he would believe her about the rape, she would have told him already.

Another goon hides behind a screen, snapping photos of Yeon-sil and Man-ho which he later passes on to Dong-il. The boss is shocked and shaken. He knows he has to enforce the rules he himself set down for the gang, but he never expected them to cost him his wife. Eventually Dong-il orders an underling to slash Yeon-sil’s face with a broken bottle, after which she is exiled from the gang. Anyone who tries to repair her scars or help her in any other way will be treated as an enemy.

At this point the narrative splits as Yeon-sil is cast down into a sleazy underworld, living with her blackmailer who pimps her out as a common streetwalker and then steals all her money to spend on drugs and booze. She pines for her husband whom she has been prevented from seeing, longing to at least explain why she did what she did and ensure he knows that her heart has always been with him. Dong-il, by contrast, is going to pieces – his gang no longer respect him, he feels guilty about the way he treated his wife, and he has no idea where to go from here.

Unlike other films of the era or film noir in general, Lee’s world view is non-judgemental in its treatment of the respective paths of Yeon-sil and Dong-il. Yeon-sil is left with no choice than to enter into a life of casual prostitution and the film forgives her for this – the fault is that of Dong-il and Man-ho rather than her own. Having been horribly scarred, she wears her hair longer on one side to hide her disfigurement but is constantly reminded of her emotional damage through its physical manifestation and the reactions it often elicits. Picking up a client in the street, she’s threatened with violence and cruel words for having “deceived” him when he catches sight of her disfigured face. A passing taxi driver witnesses the attack and challenges the man so Yeon-sil can escape. The cabbie then hires her and they spend the night together in a nearby brothel. He surprises Yeon-sil by being entirely unfazed about her facial scarring, offering to help her get it treated if that’s what she wants, and making it clear he would like to spend more time with her off the clock.

Yeon-sil’s life is completely controlled by her triangular relationship to the three men – her unforgiving husband Dong-il, the cruel and venal Man-ho, and the good and decent cab driver. After meeting the cabbie, Yeon-sil tries to see Dong-il again but his boys stop her. They say they’ll take her to see him, but really they’re planning quite another destination. Luckily, in a staggering coincidence, they’re spotted by the taxi driver who once again saves Yeon-sil, taking her home to stay with him and proposing they embark on a more formal relationship.

This is more of a problem than it seems for Dong-il’s guys who now fear their boss will find out they tried to kill his wife in an effort to wake him up from his ongoing existential malaise. The rules of the gang are tough and clear – adultery is not permissible, no woman is allowed to leave, no exceptions are to be made. Dong-il, however, is beginning to rethink the code he himself designed. A conversation with his childhood nanny throws up a number of interesting questions. She blames herself for giving Dong-il “evil” milk which has led to his spiritual corruption, though Dong-il later tells Yeon-sil that he did not choose evil so much evil chose him. He created these “evil” gang rules, but failed to live up to them in continuing to feel attached to Yeon-sil – he feels he must punish himself for the “sin” of being unable to forget her and abide by his own honour system which he now feels to be pointless and arbitrary. Effectively issuing himself a death sentence, Dong-il changes tack confirming that he has, in a sense, chosen evil even if it was a “choice” of refusing to resist the path set down for him. Suddenly realising the emotion he felt for Yeon-sil was love, he is struck by a terrible feeling of loneliness. 

As in much of Lee’s work, Yeon-sil and Dong-il are trapped by their own society and belief systems and finally perhaps by feeling. Yeong-sil is frequently captured behind bars or caught in a window, imprisoned within the frame as she tries to reconcile herself to her precarious position, daring to hope for a new, decent life with the good hearted taxi driver while also mourning her love for Dong-il and living with the humiliation caused to her by Man-ho. Lee’s structure is sometimes unclear as he introduces a fairly pointless subplot about the taxi driver’s modern woman little sister who has moved out to be independent but works in a hostess bar, inhabiting the same sleazy world as Yeon-sil and Dong-il, only more innocently, but never does much with it beyond contrasting the lives of the two women who occupy slightly different generations and have very different options open to them. There’s a fatalism and inevitability in the way Yeong-sil and Dong-il live their lives to which the taxi driver and his sister do not quite subscribe but Lee breaks with the genre’s trademark pessimism to offer the glimmer of a bittersweet ending and the chance of a new beginning for the much abused Yeon-sil now freed of her dark associations.


Black Hair is the second in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet. (Not currently available to stream online)

The Marines Who Never Returned (돌아오지 않는 해병, Lee Man-hee, 1963)

Marines Who Never ReturnedLee Man-hee was among the most prolific of Korean directors until his untimely death at the age of just 43 in 1975, but even among so many well regarded works The Marines Who Never Returned (돌아오지 않는 해병, 돌아오지 않는 해병, Doraoji Anneun Haebyong) has taken on an especial place in Korean film culture. Lee had himself served in the Korean War and brought his own ambivalent attitudes to the piece, expressing both an abject rejection of the senseless loss of life but also a warmth and nostalgia for the camaraderie born only out of such immediate danger. The film’s title, as melancholy as it is, points to this same ambivalence by signalling the eventually unhappy fates of these ordinary men but also according them a ghostly, unresolved future.

In the midst of the Korean War, a squad of South Korean soldiers is on patrol and taking fire from the Chinese in an urban environment. While they bide their time in a trench, a young girl and her pregnant mother run out of a nearby building. The girl runs clear but the mother is shot and killed in the crossfire. One of the soldiers is deeply struck by the scene and insists they at least make sure the little girl is safe. Pushing deeper into the building, the soldiers come upon a truly horrifying, hellish scene of men trussed up and hanging from the ceilings while bodies of the townspeople lie piled along the floor. The same soldier who wanted to save the little girl finds his own sister among the dead, just one face among so many.

From this point on the tale is narrated by the little girl, Young-hui (Jeon Young-sun), who is adopted by the troop of marines and smuggled around inside an old army kit bag so that the superiors do not find out about her presence. Young-hui proves a resilient little girl who obviously misses her parents but begins to care deeply for the soldiers who have taken her in. Giving each of her new uncles nicknames, Young-hui becomes the squad’s mascot and a symbol of everything it is they’re fighting for. Yet this makeshift family also has its share of difficulties. A problem arises when Young-hui recognises a new recruit, Choi (Choi Moo-ryong), as a man from her village. Choi is the brother of the man who joined the other side, took Young-hui’s father away and killed the sister of Private Goo, discovered so casually among the many dead in Young-hui’s village alone.

The conflict between Choi and Goo is emblematic of many ordinary families throughout Korea as fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, decided on different paths and found themselves on opposing sides of a war. Choi, as is pointed out, is not responsible for his brother’s actions – he clearly does not condone or agree with them, but still he feels responsible enough to understand Goo’s anger and resentment. Goo in turn realises his anger is pointless and misdirected but is powerless to change the way he feels. This situation is no one’s fault, but they’ll all pay the price anyway.

Lee spares no expense in recreating the hellish battles scenes more akin to the first war than the second with its outdated tanks, dugouts, and trenches. The easy, familial life of the camp soon gives way to action and danger as the squad meet their ends one by one. Away from the battlefield the men feel displaced within their own country – caught in the midst of a civil war yet also subjugated by foreign forces, barred from UN only bars and referred to as “tuppenny Koreans” by the “hostesses” in comparison to their big spending compatriots. Making his goodbye speech, the commanding officer instructs his comrade to return home and ask if anybody really needs to go to war, but rising from the trenches their thoughts are all for their fallen friends who will never see home again. These men remain “lost” on the battlefield, a lingering memory of loss and sacrifice which is impossible to resolve even so many years later.


The Marines Who Never Returned is the first in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet but the film is also currently available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.