Mandala (曼陀羅 / 만다라, Im Kwon-taek, 1981)

Mandala posterIn a world defined by suffering, does one have the right to retreat into the self and engage in a personal quest for enlightenment or is true enlightenment to be found in the confluence of human consciousness? Im Kwon-taek has some profound questions to ask about human spirituality, the futility of existence, and the transcendence of the self in his 1981 masterpiece, Mandala (曼陀羅 / 만다라). Two monks with very different ideas of spiritual fulfilment meet, part, argue, and perhaps finally understand each other as they walk solitary, individual paths towards Nirvana, each also doubting the purpose of their quest and its ultimate resolution.

Beob-wun (Ahn Sung-ki) dropped out of university and broke-up with his girlfriend in order to become a monk. Consumed with nihilistic thoughts about the futility of existence, he could not go on living a meaningless life. Six years later, Beob-wun is on a bus which is stopped at a checkpoint. Another man in monk’s robes fails to furnish an official monk’s ID card to the authorities and is unceremoniously ejected. Beob-wun gets off the bus too out of a sense of professional courtesy and a desire to help, but Jisan (Jeon Moo-song) is not exactly the kind of monk a serious minded man like Beob-wun would usually want to associate with. Nevertheless, he is oddly fascinated by him, conflicted yet drawn.

Jisan has a sad history of his own. After an indiscretion with a girl at a mountain temple, he was falsely accused of rape and subsequently defrocked. Nevertheless, he continues to practice as a wandering monk, seeking enlightenment in his own way and at his own pace. Jisan’s Buddhas are buried at the bottom of bottles of soju and in the hearts of women – most especially that of the girl from the temple, Ok-sun (Bang Hee), to whom he often returns and is unable to forget. Beob-wun retreats when tested, he doesn’t look at the things which tempt him. Jisan runs headlong towards his demons and defeats them by satiation, but the relief is only temporary – the old emptiness soon returns and the cycle of spiritual deaths and rebirths begins itself again.

When Beob-wun’s former girlfriend, Young-ju, tracks him town to a mountain retreat and confronts him over his “selfish” decision to run away from all his problems by hiding in a temple, he tells her that temples aren’t places for the defeated but to lead one’s life and save the lives of others. She quite fairly asks why he can’t save her life by returning to the world, but Beob-wun looks away. Beob-wun is in denial. He can’t forget Young-ju and has come to resent her as an obstacle to his path towards enlightenment, blaming her for existing rather than himself for his failure to “overcome” her.

There is something dark and dangerous in Beob-wun’s wilful negation of his desires which later manifests as violence, first in a memory or perhaps a fantasy of rape, and then more directly against a woman who was attempting to tempt him into breaking his self affirmed vows of chastity. Jisan’s philosophy is melancholy and perhaps hopeless in its own way, but brighter and free from artifice or malice. Having separated from Jisan, Beob-wun reunites with a fellow monk who has taken their mentor’s instructions to “burn away” the fetters of the mind literally by setting fire to his fingers in order to transcend himself through conquering physical pain. His friend tells him of a funny monk he met on an island who was the only one to rush in and help when the islanders were struck down by a mysterious plague. Jisan fulfilled his duty to others. The other monk sat in the woods on his own praying for his personal enlightenment while the islanders continued to suffer alone.

Jisan, and later Beob-wun’s friend Sugwan, have chosen to look for themselves as reflected in the souls of others, but Beob-wun remains trapped within his own solipsistic belief that he can only overcome his suffering and find an answer to his existential crisis through entirely negating the outside world. Beob-wun is the kind that keeps his head down and avoids getting involved with other people’s troubles – the reminders of an authoritarian regime are everywhere, but a part of him knows that Jisan, for all his faults, is the most “enlightened” man he’s ever known, if only for being the least like himself. The quest for “enlightenment” might be an intensely selfish act of self harm, but the need to create meaning from meaningless persists, for good or ill, and Beob-wun remains lost on the never-ending road to Nirvana, a solitary traveller without hope or expectation.


Mandala was screened as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Korean Film Nights 2018: Rebels With a Cause screening series. It is also available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Im Kwon-taek box set, as well as online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.

A Woman Judge (여판사, Hong Eun-won, 1962)

woman judge posterThe 1960s were a time of great social change the world over, but while Doris Day was showing the world how to have it all (to a point, at least), not everywhere found the idea of women’s liberation quite so aspirational. In the comparatively more liberal period before the Motion Picture Law brought in by Park Chung-hee there had indeed been a fair few films challenging persistent misogyny and advancing the cause of equality, but there had also been those which ran the other way and pushed an intensely conservative message. Han Hyung-mo’s A Female Boss from 1959, for example, centres around a seemingly successful female editor of a woman’s magazine whose business is in trouble. Eventually she ends up marrying an employee and becomes a housewife, neatly reinforcing the idea that women do not belong in the work force. Three years later and just just before the advent of a more stringent censorship environment, Hong Eun-won’s A Woman Judge (여판사, Yeopansa) takes a much more positive attitude to the idea of women having the right to personal fulfilment outside of the home but again only to a point and only partially.

Jin-suk (Moon Jeong-suk), a youngish woman from a humble home, is studying for the judges’ exams. Though her father is supportive and encourages her to study, Jin-suk’s mother (Hwang Jung-seun) worries – she cannot envisage a life for a woman who does not marry and doesn’t want her daughter to end up alone, unhappy, and isolated. Jin-suk also finds unexpected resistance from her childhood sweetheart, Dong-hoon (Park Am), who makes a motion to solidify a long held but never spoken promise that the pair would marry but only on the condition that Jin-suk give up her intentions of becoming a judge and agree to be solely his wife. Jin-suk, of course, refuses. Meanwhile, a construction magnate who caught sight of her on the road has taken a liking to her which is only deepened when he reads of her success in the papers. He becomes determined to get Jin-suk to marry his son, Gyu-sik (Kim Seok-hun), and add some sophisticated modernity to his otherwise soulless home.

The great surprise (or perhaps it is in its own way unsurprising) is that Jin-suk’s greatest supporters are two middle-aged men – literally her patriarchal elders in the form of her own father and her father-in-law. Each of the two men is impressed by Jin-suk’s fortitude and intelligence, they believe in her want her to succeed. The women, however, feel quite differently. Jin-suk’s mother is caring and supportive but locked into the social codes of her youth, unable to envisage a successful life for a woman which does not involve marriage or children. Jin-suk’s mother-in-law by contrast is harsher, actively resenting Jin-suk’s insistence on maintaining her career and seeing it as a rejection of the idea of the good wife. The most surprising enemy, however, is Jin-suk’s new sister-law, Geum-won, who, despite being a modern woman exhibits extremely conservative values even at one point berating Jin-suk for not showing the proper respect to her husband and failing in her wifely duties. Women oppress other women, making it almost impossible to break free of the conspiratorial forces of a conservative social order even when there are women as brave and determined as Jin-suk willing to pave the way.

That said, Jin-suk is only prepared to go half the distance. She marries and then resigns herself to double duties, insisting that she can manage both a career and a home with no support. There is no suggestion of a rebalancing of the domestic world, no one asks anything of Jin-suk’s petulant husband Gyu-sik other than he do what he’s told. Gyu-sik married Jin-suk knowing she would prioritise her career, but it’s less the fact that she works that begins to irritate him than her growing “celebrity” as “the woman judge” coupled with the paternal oppression he too feels as his father’s son. Even though he is head of accounts, his secretary won’t cash his checks without his dad’s signature – he’s not “in charge” at home or at work and feels himself increasingly emasculated. Which is perhaps why he lets his sister manipulate him into an affair with his mousy secretary who conforms much more strongly to the feminine ideal and therefore allows him to feel like “a man”.

The affair between Gyu-sik, and his lonely secretary, Miss Oh, eventually turns dark and leads the pair to consider double suicide. Gyu-sik, a coward, is unwilling to leave his “unhappy” marriage but Miss Oh does not want to end up a perpetual mistress. The first case Jin-suk presides over is a divorce in which a man has cited his own adultery to divorce his wife because she works too much. Obviously, Jin-suk does not approve of his reasoning but it’s the accomplice who becomes unexpectedly sympathetic. Jin-suk asks her if she knew her lover was married to which says she did not and that had she known she would never have become involved with him. When the woman affirms that she only slept with the man because she believed they would be married, Jin-suk asks her perhaps a cruel question with a wry smile – if she thought the same thing with each and every man she had ever slept with (implying there must have been many in an unintentional act of slut shaming). Rather sadly, the woman replies that yes she did – she may be naive, but she loved them all and firmly believed they would marry her only to be let down just as she’s being let down now.

Such is the difficult position women find themselves in in a liberalising but not liberal society. One of Gyu-sik’s friends even petitions him to get Jin-suk to help him get rid of a paternity suit filed by a girl he’s got into trouble while engaged to marry someone else and has now disowned. In fact one of the frustrations fuelling Gyu-sik’s resentment is that he has become a mini conduit to Jin-suk as just about everyone attempts to make use of the familial connection to ease their legal woes, little knowing that Jin-suk is not that kind of judge. She entered the law to heal society like a doctor heals the sick, but begins to doubt herself when the disorder in her own home threatens to boil over.

Disorder shifts into murder. A surprising second act twist puts us back in the realms of the courtroom drama as Jin-suk finds herself first a suspect and then presumed an intended victim before being forced to interrogate, literally, her own family and prove her devotion to it in the process. Though it’s Jin-suk determination, perseverance and legal skill coupled with compassion and emotional intelligence that eventually save “the family”, the jury is still out on whether she will be allowed to continue her legal career or be forced to give it up to fully repair the fracturing family home. While Jin-suk is committed to the idea that all women have the right to fulfil their potential, she too is wedded to the patriarchal ideas of the home and family and never truly considers living outside of them, only insisting on being allowed to continue working as a wife if not, ultimately, as a mother (though it is also interesting that she never suggests her career necessitates a rejection of those things or that there is an active choice available to her). A Woman Judge provides a fascinating insight into the prevailing social codes of Korean society in the early 1960s, even if taking only small steps towards a larger goal.


A Woman Judge was screened as part of the Rebels With a Cause season of free film screenings at the Korean Cultural Centre London. You can also stream the film for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

The Sea Knows (玄海灘은 알고 있다 / 현해탄은 알고 있다, Kim Ki-young, 1961)

The Sea Knows posterThe Korea of 1961 was a land in flux. The corrupt regime of Rhee Syngman had been brought to its knees following mass protests regarding the rigged 1960 elections but hopes for a new democracy were cut short when military General Park Chung-hee staged a coup, later declaring himself president for life and continuing his authoritarian rule until he was assassinated by one of his own subordinates. Kim Ki-young’s The Sea Knows (玄海灘은 알고 있다 / 현해탄은 알고 있다, Hyeonhaetaneun Algoitta) arrived perhaps at just the right time, ducking under the radar before the Motion Picture Law of 1962 would forever change the industry and if not prevent at least frustrate any attempt to discuss the controversial themes at the heart of Kim’s drama. The Sea Knows is, like much of Kim’s work, a tale of power and desire only this time on a wider scale as he examines the complicated relationship between Korea and Japan as mediated through romantic melodrama.

We open in 1944. Korean student Aro-un (Kim Wun-ha) has been conscripted into the Japanese army following an incident in which he embarrassed a high-ranking official (something which has made him a local hero at home). Despite the fact that Korea has been inducted into the Japanese empire and Koreans are now sons of the emperor too, the regular Japanese troops are not exactly grateful for service of their brethren from across the sea. Koreans are a pain, they decry. They’re always going on about justice and fairness. They won’t just shut up and take their lumps like regular Japanese soldiers. The “50 year tradition” of the Japanese army is to break the will of new recruits through violence, strip them of their individuality, and reduce them to a finely tuned hive mind.

Needless to say, Aro-un is not eager to comply. There’s a strong strain of homoeroticism in the strangely camp banter between the higher-ups. At the first inspection the commanding officer takes a good look at Aro-un, decides he resembles a “cute puppy” and recommends he come to his room to get some “biscuits”. Meanwhile a particularly sadistic NCO, Mori (Lee Ye-chun), pinches the chest of Aro-run’s judo champion friend Inoue (Lee Sang-sa) and decides he’ll not be an easy target – unlike the short and wiry Aro-un who is too righteous to know what’s good for him. Mori, an insecure and under qualified NCO, makes use of men like Aro-un to entrench his own position through the “50 year tradition” of military discipline. The humiliations mount until Aro-un is forced to lick Mori’s excrement encrusted boots in punishment for having failed to polish them to his satisfaction.

Yet, unlike in the majority of Korean films dealing with war and occupation, the Japanese are not universally bad – there are many just like Aro-un who are uncomfortable with the militarist line and are doing what they can to resist, albeit often passively. Aro-un’s university friend, Nakamura (Kim Jin-kyu), is just such a man, turning down the possibilities of promotion to avoid endorsing the regime while acknowledging that there is little more he can do to free himself from it. It’s through Nakamura that Aro-un meets his own source of salvation in the unlikely figure of a young Japanese woman – Nakamura’s sister Hideko (Gong Midori). Hideko originally betrays the common prejudice against Koreans in claiming that the perpetrators of a nearby robbery were most likely Korean seeing as Koreans can’t get jobs and therefore have no other options than to steal, though in retrospect perhaps her assertions were a more logical comment on poverty and entrenched oppression than they were on racial stereotyping.

Hideko is, as Aro-un later points out, a very unusual Japanese woman. A free spirit, she finds herself drawn to Aro-un and is committed to pursuing a course of true feeling over that laid down by the codes of her society, choosing his sensitivity over the brutalisation of her militarist nation. War, Aro-un muses philosophically, is about the manipulation of the present. Love is about the foundation of a future. Yet there is also something dark and imbalanced even in their otherwise pure romance as each finds themselves becoming a symbol of suffering and violence. Aro-un is drawn to Hideko’s unexpected warmth as she sheds tears for his suffering on hearing of his various degradations, seeing no difference in the tears of a Japanese woman and those of his Korean mother who each felt his pain as their own, but Hideko’s insistence on hearing of his latest humiliations almost takes on a sadistic quality as the pair become bound by suffering as much as by innocent connection.

Kim’s central tenet is a bold one for the increasingly volatile world of 1961, making a case for borderless connection over nationalistic chest thumping and championing the resilience of the human spirit as well as the enduring power of love as a counter to the horrors of war. War is, in another of Aro-un’s philosophical musings, just something that happens to you and makes enemies of those who might have been friends. Making extensive use of stock footage and model shots, Kim plunges Aro-un into a fiery hell from which only love and will can save him. An unexpectedly nuanced but no less harrowing tale of wartime brutalisation and spiritual resistance, The Sea Knows is an impassioned plea for humanity in an inhumane age in which there are no heroes and no villains, only victims and resistors caught in a vast web of power and madness.


The Sea Knows was screened as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Korean Film Nights 2018: Rebels with a Cause series. You can also watch it online for free courtesy of the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel. The existing print is, however, incomplete and badly damaged – four sequences in which there is picture but no sound or sound but no picture are missing / unsubtitled in the online version but are present in the restoration.

The DMZ (비무장지대 / 非武裝地帶, Park Sang-ho, 1965)

DMZ 1965 posterTalking about the “reunification” of Korea could be a risky business in the increasingly censorious 1960s. Directors had been jailed for less, and the anti-Communism drama was fast becoming a staple genre in the rapidly expanding film industry. Director Park Sang-ho had been at the forefront of Korea’s burgeoning International cinematic success when his 1963 film A Happy Businesswoman had been selected for the Tokyo film festival. Whilst there to present the film (which picked up a best actress award for Do Keum-bong), Park was met with consternation by foreign delegates who assumed he was Japanese and could show them around Tokyo. On learning he was Korean all they wanted to know about was the Demilitarised Zone and the village that was trapped inside it – Panmunjeom. Park had no answers for them. He’d never been to Panmunjeom and knew nothing about it, but he was surprised and concerned that an obscure little village and an ongoing political dispute had come to dominate the thinking surrounding his country with Panmunjeom emerging as a grim tourist destination for those interested in experiencing the “thrill” of life in a dormant war zone.

On return to Korea he knew he had to make a film about the DMZ, but the subject was a difficult, perhaps taboo one which had to be approached carefully. Park’s first cut which was released in theatres ran to 90 minutes and conformed more obviously to the standard commercial cinema of the time. In a radical move, the director then decided to re-edit it with the intention of submitting to foreign film festivals. Cutting most of the scenes with well known actors, Park retained only the stock footage which bookends the film (apparently enough to qualify the remainder as a “documentary” rather than narrative feature), and the central drama focussing on two small children desperately wandering the ruined landscape alone in search of their mothers.

The younger of the two, Yong-ha (Ju Min-a) – a five year old girl, falls into a lake and is rescued by an 8-year-old boy (Lee Yeong-gwan) she originally mistakes for a grown man because of the ragged military uniform and soldier’s helmet he is wearing. The unnamed little boy tells Yong-ha he had a little sister with her name, and there are enough coincidences in their back stories to make one wonder if they really might be related, but in any case the boy “becomes” Yong-ha’s big brother and agrees to protect her while they each look for their long lost mothers.

As the pair are only children, they do not really know that they’re in the “DMZ” or what the DMZ is, they only know they are alone and surrounded by danger. Skeletons and decomposing bodies are a frequent sight, as are abandoned tanks, overturned trucks, broken trains, and rusty equipment. There are no other people, and nature has begun to reclaim the land – wild dogs and foxes are potential perils, while Yong-ha later finds herself separated from her brother after chasing a cute rabbit into a woodland grove and then being unable to find her way back.

The allegory becomes clearer as the children engage in absurd games exposing the arbitrary and destructive nature of the division itself. Walking up to the line, the boy gleefully jumps over to show Yong-ha how meaningless it is. Yong-ha, enjoying the game, thinks “division” seems fun and they should try it out for themselves. Her brother agrees, marking his territory and then insisting that they turn their backs on each other and refuse to speak. He keeps this up for quite a while until Yong-ha becomes distressed, at which point he jumps up and smashes the makeshift division marker to pieces so he can once again embrace his sister.

Nevertheless the anticommunist sentiments are present in the form of a cruel and callous North Korean spy who tries to kidnap the children and take them away with him. To add to the spirit of adventure, the boy sings a nationalist song which honours those who have given their lives to “liberate” the country from “oppression”, while a propaganda broadcast tries to do something similar whilst the children are playing division by offering a message of solidarity to those in the North who might like to come South. Dangerous as the situation is, the children’s innocent naivety eventually leads to a small diplomatic incident when they unwittingly pick up a landmine to use as a firestone but are frightened away by the approach of soldiers just before it explodes, leading both sides to claim the act as one of provocation by the other.

Park takes the dangerous step of shooting directly within the real DMZ with all of its eeriness as a place abandoned by humanity and filled with man made dangers. The children attempt to survive in it alone – foraging for food, using the wood from crosses put up as grave markers to start fires, and looking after each other in the absence of adults. They play when they can, swimming, pretending to commandeer tanks and steal trains, pilfering left behind supplies and always talking about their families and how best to find them. The theatrical version, as was expected at the time, apparently has a more positive ending but Park refuses to soft-pedal the disproportionate suffering experienced by children in time of war, even whilst adding a pointed statement to the end advancing the cause of Korean brotherhood and calling for an end to the unfair and arbitrary separation of a people which feels itself to be of one blood. Unusual for the time but ending on a note of hope (if however bleak), DMZ is part anti-communist propaganda, part unification treatise, and most of all the story of two unlucky orphans created by a war and a diplomatic stalemate who find themselves alone in no-man’s land with no safe refuge in sight.


The DMZ (비무장지대 / 非武裝地帶, Bi-mu-jang Ji-dae) is available on DVD with English subtitles courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. The set also includes an English subtitled documentary about the career of director Park Sang-ho as well as a 32-page bilingual booklet. Not currently available to stream online.

The Devil’s Stairway (마의 계단 / 魔의 階段, Lee Man-hee, 1964)

devils-staircase-poster.jpgBy 1964, Korea’s economic situation was beginning to improve and for many there seemed to be a bright light shining in the distance, a fixed point to which they could aspire and felt was in their grasp if they could only catch a lucky break. Throughout Lee Man-hee’s relatively short career (the director sadly passed away at the young age of only 45 – apparently a casualty of his fondness for drink and intensive work habit which accounts for his high output), his protagonists struggle with a conflict between the desire for the new kind of “success” their society promises them, and a feeling that they can never truly obtain it. Ambitious surgeon Dr. Hyeon (Kim Jin-kyu) attempts to climb The Devil’s Stairway (마의 계단 / 魔의 階段, Maui Gyedan, AKA The Evil Stairs) by abandoning the compassion that ought to define his profession for coldhearted pragmatism but discovers that the path has its price while his victims are not quite so passive as he’d assumed them to be.

When we first meet Dr. Hyeon he’s lounging around in bed while his female companion, Nurse Nam (Moon Jeong-suk), dresses and prepares to leave. Somewhat coldly, Hyeon tells her to exit via the back stairs and avoid being seen by the security guard on her way. Irritated, Nam leaves and the pair go back to work at the hospital the next morning pretending there’s nothing more between them than the relationship between a nurse and a chief surgeon. This situation might have continued indefinitely were it not for the fact that Jeong-ja (Bang Sung-ja), the daughter of the hospital’s head doctor, has taken a liking to Hyeon and seeing as her father has no sons to take over when he retires, an arranged marriage is in the offing. Dr. Hyeon, who is ambitious and emotionally cold, considers accepting the offer but Nurse Nam is unwilling to let him go, especially as she is pregnant with his child. When she threatens to spill the beans about their illicit relationship, he decides to kill her by dosing her up with sedatives and throwing her body in the pool behind the hospital to make it look like she drowned herself in heartbreak and shame, but Nurse Nam refuses to go quietly.

The titular “Devil’s Stairway” is a literal staircase from the hospital floor to the head doctor’s office. There has recently been accident in which the bannister was broken and a woman was killed. The banister is repeatedly mended throughout the film but represents a point of fracture in the spiritual path to success. Nurse Nam is another early casualty when she and Hyeon argue in the middle of the stairs and the recently mended bannister breaks as he struggles with her. Despite the minimal drop to the floor, Nam is left with serious injuries requiring surgery, loses her baby, and gains a conviction that Hyeon bears her ill will. Her position is extremely difficult – the accident has exposed the fact that she had conceived a child outside of wedlock and though she has not yet disclosed the name of the father, Hyeon fears that she will destroy his bright future either by speaking out or through forcing him to marry her to avoid social disgrace.

Hyeon gives in to darker instincts. He tells Nam that his heart is hers, perhaps intending to carry on an arrangement even after he’s decided to accept the marriage proposal, but excuses himself for stringing her along by reminding her of his lack of financial stability and comparatively low social status. We are reminded later that he is old be unmarried and, even stranger, is assumed to be a “virgin” – a solitary, perhaps dull, bachelor not known for mixing with women. This again signals his coldhearted ambition – he waits and he calculates. He wants a hospital of his own and knows his only way to get one is to marry into it, and so he does even if it means sacrificing “love” and emotional happiness for the cold comforts of conventional success and the false acclamation of social status.

Hyeon thinks he’s got away with it, but his crime haunts him. Going slowly out of his mind, Hyeon sees Nam everywhere, placing a strain on his relationship with his new wife who grows wary of his increasing violence and bad temper. His madness culminates in a tense surgery scene in which everyone around him has Nam’s face and he finds himself surrounded by his crime, forced to confess himself as a murderer in order to free himself of her ghost. Yet, things are not quite as they seem and it is not he alone who finds his grand plan floundering.

Hyeon posits his poverty as a reason for his crime, but it’s his greed which guides him towards the Devil’s Stairway. He could have married Nam, had his child, and led an ordinary middle-class life of relative comfort perhaps even opening his own clinic in good time, but he chose the quick fix in marrying for money and (literally) throwing over the woman he claimed to love to ease his feelings of insecurity and resentment at his position in the social order. His murder is cowardly but, as Nam points out, the law may protect him while there are precious few looking out for her, a betrayed woman, pregnant outside of marriage, and without a family to press her case.

As he did in the same year’s Black Hair, Lee co-opts the murkiness of the film noir, sending its sense of betrayed morality into the realms of the gothic with an ever increasing atmosphere of supernatural dread. The pond seems to emanate evil while the stairs beckon ominously, the wind rattles the doors open without warning and the rain pours down outside adding to the claustrophobic gloom of the creepy old hospital as if attempting to embody the evil that lies at its centre. Drawing heavily from Les Diaboliques, Lee declares no winners in his tale of fractured morality and emotional betrayal, painting it as a symptom of a confused era in which all emerge tarnished from a struggle to gain some kind of personal agency in an otherwise oppressive environment. Taut to the last, The Devil’s Stairway is a forgotten masterpiece of psychological horror and a mild condemnation of a society’s slide into national paranoia and greedy consumerism at the cost of true human feeling.


Available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

The Descendants of Cain (카인의 후예 / 카인의 後裔, Yu Hyun-mok, 1968)

Descendents of Cain poster 1Yu Hyun-mok, often regarded as among the more “intellectual” of film directors in Korea’s Golden Age, is also among those to have been arrested for violation of the Anti-Communist laws. Yu was later exonerated and went back to filmmaking as before but it remains true that Yu betrays a little more ambivalence to the anti-communist message so often required than many of his colleagues. That is to say, Yu often leans economically left in his frequent criticism of social inequality and his anti-consumerist stance, but remains socially conservative if with a strong desire for social justice. The Descendants of Cain (카인의 후예 / 카인의 後裔, Kainui Huyea), adapted from a novel by Hwang Sun-won, is as anti-communist as they come, but also offers its share of ironies in painting “communism” as a kind of disease born of greed and self-interest which thrives on fear and eventually consumes those who are seduced by its false promises.

Irony is indeed our starting point as our cheerful villagers enjoy a raucous celebration in honour of Independence Day only for the communists to suddenly turn up and spoil the party. Worst of all, one of the communists is a long lost son of the village – Choe is the absentee husband of Ojaknyeo (Moon Hee), a maid, who has developed an affection for her boss, the nephew of the local landlord, Park Hun (Kim Jin-kyu). The communists’ first action is to close down the school that Park Hun opened to provide education for the peasants and co-opt it as their base. Park knows he’s in a dangerous position and has little power to resist, opting to wait it out and see how far the communists really intend to go. The peasants, however, are becoming excited hearing about the land redistribution programme and are starting to forget everything that Park and his family have done for them over the generations, swayed by the false promises of the communists who preach equality while insisting on deference.

The central conflict is, in many ways, between the feudal past and the “democratic” future. Set in what would shortly the “the north” in 1946, Descendants of Cain positions itself on more than one kind of dividing line with the lingering spectre of tragedy always on the horizon. High on a ridge there’s a large stone slab erected as a memorial to the late Park, Park Hun’s grandfather, whose solicitous care for the villagers had earned their eternal respect and perhaps their love. The Parks are “good” landlords. They take their “feudal” responsibilities seriously as evidenced by Park Hun’s school and his father’s desire to finish construction on the local reservoir which is both his legacy and an important failsafe precaution against draught which is in the interests of all. By all appearances this is a well functioning village where no one is hungry or alone. The peasants have not felt “oppressed” or been unhappy, which is not to say they don’t want to better their lot but they have no burning desire for revolution and have nothing in particular to rebel against.

This leaves the communists with a problem – they have little leverage over happy peasantry which has never acknowledged its own oppression let alone longed for freedom from it. Their approach is therefore one of divide and conquer. Cynical in the extreme, the communists set about exploiting petty village disputes to foster discord between people – something which eventually contributes to a murder which they also manipulate for political gain. The “landowners” are of course a prime target, but their judgement must be at the hands of “the people” by means of a farmers’ trial. Having recruited something close to a former village leader, the communists assume they will have the villagers on side but they all (bar two) refuse to indict the Parks. The communist leader, fond of irony, gestures towards towards his armed men and reminds the villagers that no one here is “impinging on their freedom”. That is, their freedom to express the views they are required to express or suffer the consequences.

Threatened with violence and intimidation, feudal deference bends or perhaps shifts to a different master. The villagers, losing their attachment to the Parks, salivate over the possibility of “redistribution” and of being handed “free land”. Their desires are material and not political. Thus when the Parks’ estate is “returned” to the people, they simply walk in and start taking things. Not the most sensible way to redistribute wealth concentrated in the hands of the elite – the fast get horses, the indecisive dented pans which sounds like a recipe for rancour and discontent. When the old village chief becomes disillusioned with his choices and smashes the memorial to old Park, a small fight breaks out among villagers keen to snag the large pieces of stone for various other projects. Happy peasants who once shared everything and wanted for nothing, are now fighting with each other over rubble and trinkets.

The communists, far from fostering collective spirit, have become the evil feudal lords they rail against, oppressing the peasants with their rules and regulations while wilfully creating an atmosphere of fear in order to better oppress them. Their hypocrisy is rammed home early on by the slimy Cheol who complains about his wife’s supposed faithlessness while molesting a barmaid and smugly repeating the story of a large scar he has on his forearm. His superior, believing he got the scar during a labour dispute at a mine, promoted him for his communist spirit, but Cheol really got the scar in a scuffle over a girl (not his wife, incidentally).

Cheol is “a” force which comes between the two lovers, Ojaknyeo and Park Hun, as both are too morally upright to pursue a full romance when Ojaknyeo is still married to another man, even if the other man’s first action on seeing her is to throw her to the ground and begin kicking the living daylights out of her. Later Ojaknyeo gets another, more serious, beating from her father but this time because she’s chosen the wrong side in refusing to step away from the feudal world in her responsibility to Park Hun and his household, even if that responsibility is partly romantic desire. Yet Park Hun and Ojaknyeo are also separated by the feudal world’s rules in their obvious class difference. Communism is supposed to break down these barriers, not to mention removing the “patriarchal tyranny” of marriage, yet the communists would rather award Ojaknyeo to her former husband, little caring that he is abusive and neglectful. Ojaknyeo, at least, will not be freed from her oppression any time soon.

If Yu is making a mild defence of paternalistic feudalism as a metaphor for compassionate government, it is probably a little ambitious given the times in which he lived. Following a regular pattern, Yu paints the world as a terrible place where fear and self interest trump all, only to find small rays of light in the closing moments when an act of violence provokes a series of unexpected epiphanies and reconciliations. He ends on a note of hope in which an older man sacrifices himself for a younger one but is then rewarded with the possibility of salvation and a happier future with the woman he loves (and is now unafraid to pursue) south of the border. Communism seduces and betrays, whereas liberal democracy at least affords the “freedom” to be miserable with personal integrity.


Screened as part of the Korean Novels on Screen season at the Korean Cultural Centre London.

Lovers of Woomuk-Baemi (우묵배미의 사랑, Jang Sun-woo, 1990)

The Lovers of Woomook-baemi posterJang Sun-woo, a former political activist and underground filmmaker, is best remembered for formal experimentation and pointed social commentary, but his third feature The Lovers of Woomook-Baemi (우묵배미의 사랑, Umukbaemi Eui Sarang) stands out in his filmography in its fiercely naturalistic portrayal of working class life on the margins of a society in flux. Based on a novel by Park Yeong-han, The Lovers of Woomook-baemi is a classic melodrama with infidelity at its core but it’s also a story of futility, the destructive effects of patriarchal social codes and toxic masculinity, and the frustrated promises of a new era for those excluded from its various benefits.

Jang begins his tale in the middle as Bae Il-do (Park Joong-hoon), a frustrated husband, returns home late to a troubled “wife” (Yoo Hye-ri) who promptly kicks him out again. Complaining furiously, Il-do dreams of another woman, Gong-ryae (Choi Myung-gil), with whom he had a brief affair, idly thinking that he might have been happy if he hadn’t got his current partner pregnant and got himself stuck with her for life even if they aren’t technically “married” in the legal sense.

Moving backwards, we see Il-do, having failed in Seoul, returning to his home village with his common-law wife Sae-daek and infant child after an offer of work in a small seamstressing firm. The only man among a room full of mostly elderly women, Il-do is something of a novelty but is also taken by the woman on the machine next to him, Gong-ryae, who he later learns is also unhappily married and intensely lonely in her small town existence. After some initial indecision, the pair embark on an affair (still illegal at the time of the film’s release) but their prospects for future happiness seem slim given the restrictive quality of their lives.

The world that Jang depicts, for all its naturalistic flair, is intensely misogynistic. Il-do’s early recollections of Gong-ryae revolve around her bad marriage to an impotent man (Lee Dae-Geun) who mercilessly beats her – indeed, we later see her turning up for work after suspicion has arisen about her relationship with Il-do with a black eye and bruises on her face while the other women giggle over the obvious awkward gossip. Domestic violence is, however, just a part of life in the village and the older women in particular view it as a sign of a healthy marriage. One woman even exclaims that she wishes she had a man to beat her but thinks she’s unlikely to find anyone given her age and the fact that she already has numerous children.

Il-do, by contrast, proves somewhat popular among the ladies at the shop because of his relative lack of machismo. Like Gong-ryae, Il-do is also a victim of domestic violence – his wife beats, slaps, and attacks him verbally, later even dragging home home by the testicles along a very public walk of shame. He is not above violence or aggression but as in much of Jang’s work, male violence is a sign of weakness rather than strength and each of Il-do’s violent episodes is more to do with defeat and repressed emotion than it is about strength or conquest. This also seems to be true for Gong-ryae’s husband whose violence and jealously is perhaps a reaction to his impotence, but when we later meet him we find a man much like Il-do. Chastened, Gong-ryae’s husband politely asks the man who bedded his wife if he knows where she is and if he sees her to please tell Gong-ryae that he’s sorry and wants her to come home.

As he does with Gong-ryae’s husband, Jang plays with our sympathies and allegiances, switching perspective to reveal to us that villains and victims are often one and the same. Sae-daek originally seems like our villain – a shrewish, henpecking “wife” who won’t let our hero go despite the evident toxicity of the pair’s non-marriage, but seen from her point of view we understand her plight. After running away from a violent home environment she winds up a bar hostess in the city where she builds up a spiky relationship with Il-do which goes south when he gets her pregnant. Despite this being the age of illegal adultery, it’s not so much a marriage certificate that binds a man and a woman together for good or ill but a child. As a neighbour puts it, a woman might leave her husband, but what sort of woman leaves a child? Sae-deok cannot care for her child alone and she cannot abandon it with Il-do and so she must keep him no matter how much personal suffering she must endure as the common law wife of a no good philandering ne’er do well.

Il-do likes to drift off into philosophical reveries in which he idly remarks on the futility of his existence, but in a very real sense he’s not wrong. He tried life in the city but it didn’t want him and he came home. Sae-deok, oddly enough, likes it in the village with its sense of community especially among the other put upon and oppressed women who attempt to support each other (whilst accidentally supporting the mechanisms which continue to oppress them), but there’s no pretending there’s anything more to life in Woomuk-Baemi than work and drink. Il-do knows this, as does Gong-ryae, and it’s their mutual sense of existential ennui which finally forces them together in an impossible attempt to rebel against the futility of their existence through transgressive sex and an attempt at emotional connection.

In the end, Il-do is dragged (by the short and curlies) back into the past – literally, as Sae-deok takes him back to his mother’s house to complain about the terrible way she’s been treated. Creating a scene outside, Sae-deok eventually manages to get through to her mother-in-law who had previously rejected her because of her lowly peasant background and history of sex work, enabling the two women to bond in their shared disappointment with Il-do who has now failed as a “man” on every possible level. Briefly reuniting with Gong-ryae in the greenhouse in which they used to meet, now reduced to ruins, Il-do declares that his love is like a mummy – wrapped so well it will endure for thousands of years without decay, but it’s already too late. Choices have been made, implicitly, which cannot be reversed. Jang leaves his protagonist where he started – frustrated and inert, suffering without hope in an oppressive environment which he knows, in his heart, he does not possess the courage to resist.


Available on region free blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive which also includes an audio commentary in English from film scholars Darcy Paquet and Marc Raymond, and Tony Rayns’ documentary The Jang Sun-woo Variations, as well as a 36 page bilingual booklet featuring essays by Rayns and film critic Lee Yeon-ho. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.