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.

Rainy Days (장마, Yu Hyun-mok, 1979)

Rainy Season posterOften regarded as an “intellectual” filmmaker, Aimless Bullet’s Yu Hyun-mok returns to one of his central preoccupations in 1979’s Rainy Days (장마, Jangma). Released close to what would be an abrupt end to the oppressive and authoritarian rule of Park Chung-hee (which would be followed by another repressive military regime), Yu’s literary film falls into the anti-communist subgenre though Yu is careful to reframe his tale not as one of left versus right but of right versus wrong and of the dangerous gulf in-between. As it would in 1979, the political wind shifts without warning and then reverses itself leaving few untouched by the chaos and confusion of a government in flux. Rainy Days is a season of silence and tension, waiting for the sun but weathering a storm which may never end.

In the early 1950s, a family moves from Seoul to stay with relatives including Dongman (Choi Yong-weon) – the grandson of the older woman who is coming to live with her daughter’s family along with her university educated son Giljun (Kang Seuk-woo) and student daughter Gilja (Ju Hae-kyeong). Towards the end of the war, Maternal Grandmother (Hwang Jung-seun) has a prophetic and traumatic dream of trying to pull her own tooth which she interprets as a warning that Giljun, a serving soldier fighting for the South, has been killed in action. Sure enough, the next day a telegram arrives carrying the dreadful news back to the family. Maternal Grandmother tries to comfort herself as best she can, pretending to have grown used to the news thanks to her dream but in reality heartbroken and distraught by the loss of her only son.

Meanwhile, Dongman’s other uncle, the son of Paternal Grandmother (Kim Shin-jae), is off fighting for the North as a communist partisan hiding in the mountains. Suncheol (Lee Dae-geun) was once so kind hearted that as a boy he released the fish he caught in the local river, but when the communists took his village he was quickly seduced by their recently acquired power. While Giljun was forced to hide in a makeshift hollow covered by leaves in the woods, Suncheol was busy getting in with communists and though he claims to want to protect his family eventually informs on his brother-in-law only to find it blowing back on him when they doubt his commitment to the cause in not having turned the “Southern Sympathiser” in sooner. A simple man, Suncheol joins the communists and turns on Giljun as a reaction against his feelings of inferiority in the face of urban sophistication. Suncheol is cheerful and goodhearted, broadly liked by those around him, but he is also like a child who acts on impulse and takes things too far without considering the consequences of his actions just as he does when instigating a little “mob justice” against a villager who had tried to crack down on the trafficking of illegal moonshine much to the consternation of his neighbours.

The central conflict is dramatised by the sparky relationship between the two grandmas who have each passed into the age in which it becomes appropriate to voice one’s concerns openly without particularly caring how those views will be received. Paternal Grandmother, having opened her house to Maternal Grandmother and her children, feels herself to be in a position of superiority and is often wilfully unkind to her guests, offering a series of truly unforgivable words to the bereaved Maternal Grandmother who has, quite reasonably, cursed all the communists who are responsible for the death of her son. Seeing as Paternal Grandmother’s son Suncheol is a communist partisan she takes exception to this which provokes a fierce, accidentally political family row which may be eternally irreparable.

The North is, however, beaten back and the village retaken by the South. Suncheol is now a fugitive hiding in the mountains who has killed many men and fears he will not be forgiven even if he gives himself up to the authorities in the hope of rejoining his family. Proud Paternal Grandmother remains proud of her brave son, refusing to believe what they say about the partisans and secretly hoping for a resurgence of the North though like Maternal Grandmother before her she cannot say these words plainly for fear of getting into trouble with the authorities. When Suncheol makes a brief visit back to the family home, broken and desperate, to float the idea of turning himself in, it has grave consequences for little Dongman who is tricked into to informing on his uncle and earns the wrath of Paternal Grandmother in the process. Maternal Grandmother, however, has had more time to come to terms with her grief and is sympathetic to her grandson’s plight, knowing that he is just a child and did not understand the consequences of his actions.

Played by the wonderful Hwang Jung-seun, Maternal Grandmother becomes the heart of the drama. Having lost everything – her only son, her life in Seoul, her hopes for the future, she remains stoic, repeating the mantra that everything is fine because she knew all along how it would be. Following her painful outpouring of grief and war of words with Paternal Grandmother she comes to terms with her situation and tries to carry on as best she can with warmth in her heart. She even tries to forgive Paternal Grandmother and expresses sympathy for her as another mother losing a son in a stupid and senseless war. Paternal Grandmother cruelly pointed out that Maternal Grandmother would have no son to perform her funeral rites, but it is Maternal Grandmother who eventually performs the shamanistic ritual at the film’s conclusion in place of Paternal Grandmother, provoking a reconciliation of the two women and a banishment of the rancour which had existed between them.

Focussing tightly on the realistic emotions of the contemporary villagers who hold no particular political views but are caught in the middle of a war and simply trying to survive, Yu dramatises the tragedy of division not in a question of “good” Southerners, and bad “Communists”, but of bereaved grandmothers and broken families, ruined futures and fractured pasts. Yet once again he departs from the tragic ending of the novel for one which allows hope for the future. Little Dongman, put on house arrest by his irritated father, is finally allowed to go out to play with the other village children, rejoicing in the sunny skies and beautiful forrest scenery, returning to a childhood idyll now free of wartime confusion.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Yu Hyun-mok boxset. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s official YouTube Channel.

The Guests of the Last Train (막차로 온 손님들 / 막車로 온 손님들, Yu Hyun-mok, 1967)

guests who came by train 2Despite ongoing social and political oppression, the Korea of the 1960s was an upwardly mobile world in which increasing economic prosperity and global ambition was beginning to offer the promise of financial stability and a life of comfort to millions of young men and women, albeit at a price. Yu Hyun-mok, often thought of as among the most intellectual of “golden age” film directors, was a relatively infrequent visitor to the “literary film” but Guests of the Last Train (막차로 온 손님들 / 막車로 온 손님들, Makcharo on Sonnimdeul, AKA Guests Who Arrived on the Last Train), adapted from a novel by Hong Seong-won, is perhaps comfortably in line with his career long concerns in its focus on those who for one reason or another have been running to catch the rapidly departing train of modernity, pulling themselves on board just it prepares to pull away. A disparate tale of three men and their respective love interests, Yu’s film once again rejects the consumerism of the modern society in its cold and lonely search for soulless acquisition and finds comfort only in the fragile connections between the lost and hopeless.

The film opens behind a train station where a young woman, Bo-yong (Bo-yong), staggers and stumbles, grasping for something to hold on to but hardly able to stand. Eventually a man, Dong-min (Lee Soon-jae), turns up and tries to hail a taxi. Noticing the distressed woman, he manages to get her into a car and when she tells him she has nowhere to go, takes her home with him. Dong-min is currently off work with an illness which turns out to be terminal lung cancer and has only a few months left to live as a second opinion from his doctor friend, Kyeong-Seok (Seong Hoon), makes clear. Kyeong-seok is also facing a problem with a female patient, Se-jeong (Nam Jeong-im), suffering a nervous complaint after losing her wealthy husband and subsequently being hounded by her relatives over the inheritance. When Se-jeong leaves the hospital the pair end up having an affair but the money continues to present a problem – neither of them want the hassle of dealing with it. Meanwhile, Dong-min and Kyeong-seok reunite with another old friend, Choong-hyeon (Kim Seong-ok), who has just returned from Japan apparently having become fabulously wealthy. Choong-hyeon has pretensions of becoming an avant-garde artist, but is unable to get over his ex-wife who has left him to become a famous actress.

Each of the three men is in someway arrested, unable to move past something towards the future rapidly rolling away from them like a train leaving the station. Dong-min’s depression and listlessness is understandable given that he’s facing a terminal illness and knows that he has already reached the end of the line. Yet his ennui began long before. Kyeong-seok, describing his friend to a colleague, disapprovingly remarks that he used to be a mild-mannered bank teller but left to become a freelance translator and journalist. Unable to put up with the stringent, high pressure world of work Dong-min removed himself from it to try and grasp his freedom only to remain dissatisfied and eventually defeated by a cruel and arbitrary illness. Even so he retains his human feeling as demonstrated by his decision to help Bo-yong rather than leave a vulnerable woman alone to suffer on the streets. Staring blankly at the calendar on his wall, avoiding tearing off the sheets which serve as an all too obvious symbol of his limited time, he falls slowly in love with the woman who remains at his side whilst knowing that his existence is futile and doomed only to tragedy.

Kyeong-seok, by contrast, is merely disaffected. Dragged into a relationship with Se-jeong originally unwillingly, what he resists is responsibility. He wants to help her, but he does not want to get involved with her complicated familial and financial problems. As so often in Yu’s films, money is the root of all evil, presenting barriers between people where there should be none. Neither Kyeong-seok or Se-jeong are very interested in the money for its own sake, they want only simple lives of adequate comfort and emotional fulfilment – something which the hassle of dealing with other people’s money hungry machinations will actively destroy.

Money has also, in a sense, destroyed Choong-hyeon’s hopes though more through his misplaced faith in its ability to buy him back what he’s lost. His relationship with his wife is clearly over, she has chosen something else which is her right and privilege, but Choong-hyeon can not accept it and continues to look for her in all he does. Attempting to become an “artist” himself, he uses his money to get himself a show featuring his avant-garde pop art creations but neither of his friends rate his work or is careful enough about his feelings to avoid criticising it. Choong-hyeon spirals out of control, becoming dangerously obsessed with a schoolgirl he somehow wants to imagine as his wife. Dong-min and Kyeong-seok suspect that he will kill himself, but by this point they aren’t sure if they should care. What would they be saving him for? There is no possible salvation – no one can save anyone else, and no one can save themselves. Each is an individual and can offer no excuses. Love and friendship are but scant comfort in a cold and lonely world.

Meanwhile, the women continue to suffer in silence. Yu chooses to focus on his trio of male misfits rather than the pair of unlucky women whose story lies at the centre of the narrative. Se-jeong married an older man for apparently legitimate reasons but the marriage was unsuccessful and also ruined her friendship with her husband’s daughter who, unsurprisingly, turns out to be Bo-yong. Looking for love and not money, Se-jeong is only holding on to her inheritance in the hope of someday reconciling with Bo-yong and handing it all to her. Meanwhile, Bo-yong has been on the run from her former life. Once an air stewardess, Bo-yong dropped off the radar when a former fiancé planted drugs in her suitcase and got her sent to prison. Like Se-jeong she is looking for support and companionship and finds it in the kind if melancholy Dong-min, vowing to stay by his side even if she knows their time it limited. The two women are eventually “reunited” at a wedding, but the crowd keeps them apart, breaking into factions fighting over the inheritance that neither Se-jeon or Bo-yong actually want.

Yu declines to tell us whether the women are eventually able to meet and repair their friendship, but he does make clear that both have rejected the superficial comforts of wealth in asking for a small and simple life with their respective partners. In this he offers both hope and despair. The couples are rejecting the new future their nation has planned for them, yearning for small comforts and an end to their loneliness and struggling to find it in an increasingly alienated world. Bo-yong, at least, steps forward to grasp her chance at happiness however small it maybe, waiting for the train and seeing red lights change to green only when her gesture of sincerity is finally accepted.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Yu Hyun-mok boxset. Not currently available to stream online.

The Daughters of Kim’s Pharmacy (김약국의 딸들 / 金薬局의딸들, Yu Hyun-mok, 1963)

Daughters of Kim's Pharmacy poster“Literary Film” had become a kind of genre of its own in Korean cinema, both embracing and rejecting the nation’s taste for melodrama with differing degrees of artiness. Director Yu Hyun-mok, however, was not generally associated with the kind of affectation coupled intense sentimentality that sometimes marked the worst examples of the genre but with a unique brand of cinematic realism which attempted to address the social issues of the day whilst still getting past the censors who were hot on politics but increasingly lax on sex and violence. Nevertheless, The Daughters of Kim’s Pharmacy (김약국의 딸들, Kim yakgukjib daldeul) is a “literary film” adapted from a novel by Park Gyoung-li and set firmly in the recent past. Yu eventually gives in to the inherent melodrama of a small family battling a legacy of pain and destruction, but tellingly subverts it by discarding the tragic ending of the original novel for something that offers a degree of hope albeit in an all but hopeless world.

The film begins at the close of the Joseon Dynasty as a young man runs into another man’s house and desperately reaffirms his love for a woman who is now married to someone else while he is also married to woman from his village. The woman refuses to see him while he pleads with her, sobbing, but when her husband returns home unexpectedly he doubts his wife’s virtue. Threatening her and then chasing off the lover, the husband kills him by accident and is forced to flee while the woman takes poison and kills herself in her misery leaving her son, who will later become Kim the pharmacist, orphaned and alone, and the family forever “cursed” by her unquiet spirit.

18 years later Kim himself is forced into an arranged marriage which he wanders away from on the wedding day, leaving his aunts to wonder if he hasn’t been “possessed” by the vengeful spirit of his late mother. Despite the “curse” the marriage is successful in that it is not particularly unhappy and produces four daughters who are each of age when the story begins thirty years after Kim’s wedding.

The central heroine, Yong-bin (Um Aing-ran), is a “modern woman” of the colonial era, taking advantage of a shift forward into a progressive new world by leaving her tiny home village for university in Seoul. Though she longs to be free of the primitivism of her origins with its shamanistic rituals and patriarchal traditions, she is also of an elegant, conservative disposition and loves her parents deeply – something that provokes conflict in her desire for the comforts of home and the promise of away.

Of the other three daughters, each represents a particular kind of trap of the age. The oldest, Yong-sook (Lee Min-ja), has given birth to a child out of wedlock and lives alone independently raising her son in penury. Meanwhile third sister Yong-ran (Choi Ji-hee) is no longer a child but continues to loll around the house showing off her legs and posing provocatively. Her father is thinking of marrying her off to a local fisherman who has taken a liking to her, but the plan is scuppered when it is revealed that Yong-ran has been taking frequent nighttime excursions to the graveyard in the forest for secret trysts with one of the servants. When they are discovered, Kim chases the man away leaving Yong-ran publicly shamed and heartbroken. Eventually she is married off to someone befitting her social class only to discover that her new husband is impotent thanks to an opium addiction. She is routinely beaten and abused but can do nothing to escape her life of violence and terror. Yong-oak (Kang Mi-ae), the youngest sister, will eventually suffer a similar fate if one more usual, when she marries Yong-ran’s fisherman suitor only to find him rough and resentful as the fishing industry continues to fluctuate.

When Yong-bin’s mother (Hwang Jung-seun) meets her at the harbour on her return from Seoul she mentions the family curse by way of bemoaning their increasing ill fortunes. Yong-bin dismisses her mother’s concerns, preferring to think that its one’s own deeds that determine one’s future, but her mother sadly shakes her head and repeats that it’s all fated. Yong-bin’s modern way of thinking will increasingly come into conflict with her superstitious upbringing, but there’s no denying her family has had a run of bad luck – one which is only set to intensify as time moves on.

This is the central tragedy – the Kim family, trapped in the past, is unable to move beyond its “curse” and whether fated or not is set to destroy itself through outdated thinking. Though it is undoubtedly not the message the film is intended to convey, it’s impossible to ignore the degree of unhappiness which has been caused by the system of arranged marriages and the convention that true feelings must be suppressed in order to maintain ancient social codes. The Kims’ “curse” comes from the death of a woman scorned in love and betrayed by a prideful husband. If only she had been allowed to marry the man she chose, there would be no curse, no violence, no fear. As long as personal happiness is undervalued, there will be only suffering and misery for all but most particularly for the young women of Korea.

Yong-bin, an urban sophisticate, knows this more than most. Her father thinks he ought to marry her off first so he can marry off Yong-ran whose precociousness is beginning to alarm him. Yong-bin, however, wants to finish her education before submitting herself to a lifetime of servitude as someone’s wife and later mother. Her father has his eye on a match – the son of a usurious loanshark who is also a Japanese collaborator. Luckily, Yong-bin likes the man her father has chosen and sees only a romantic fantasy in marrying a childhood friend despite a warning from another mutual acquaintance that Hong-sub is a timid yet ambitious man – a dangerous combination which is unlikely to yield much happiness. She is going to get her heartbroken in more ways than one, her illusions of innocent romantic destiny shattered and her heart wounded by a spiritual as well as physical betrayal by the feckless Hong-sub who turns out to be not the man she thought he was but the one she was warned about.

Yet there is something in Yong-bin’s modernism that cannot be denied. This being the colonial era, the influence of the Japanese is felt even in this tiny village. Kim has sold the family pharmacy because of the influx of Western medicine coming in through Japan. He invested heavily in fishing, but the Japanese are ruining that too through invading local waters and overfishing them. Yet Kim still thinks of himself as a feudal lord with a real duty towards the people of his village. When his boat is ruined in a shipwreck and many sailors killed, he feels he must compensate the victims’ families who are now without the means to support themselves. This leaves him open to exploitation by Hong-sub’s usurious father who is in big with the Japanese who are, to an extent, the route cause of all these problems. Hong-sub’s father laughs when Kim declares his need of extra cash to support those who’ve suffered because of his failed fishing venture, thinking his sense of duty merely stupid but also seeing that it’s another hook for him to exploit that brings him closer to his goal of harnessing Kim’s ancestral estate with its large amount of farmland and property.

The Japanese play into a small sub-plot in which Yong-bin’s cousin (Shin Seong-il) is engaged in the resistance movement and eventually leaves for a covert mission in Japan. Before he leaves he introduces Yong-bin to a friend, Kang-geuk, who has been arrested and is being carted off to Japan for trial but has apparently fallen in love with her based only on his friend’s stories and a photograph. She’s back to a romantic fantasy once again and gravitating towards the spectre of arranged marriage which the film has already done such a great job of discrediting. It is, however, the perfect symbiosis of the film’s themes allowing Yong-bin to embrace both sides of herself. Meeting again after the liberation and a succession of terrible tragedies for the Kim family, Kang-geuk responds to Yong-bin’s intention to leave her hometown forever by asking her to name a place which is not tinged by loss and tragedy, and of course she can’t. Suddenly, her village doesn’t seem so bad anymore.

The “curse” is broken in being acknowledged and Yong-bin exercises her freedom to choose, consenting to a marriage, and making a decision to stay rather than being forced to leave. Yu’s comparatively hopeful ending in which Yong-bin nevertheless places herself back within a patriarchal value system stands in sharp contrast to that of the novel in which the Kim family’s failure to reconcile themselves to modernity provokes their downfall, but there is only so much hope in this hopeless world and Yong-bin, like her surviving sisters, will continue to suffer in an existence which offers little else to Korea’s oppressed women, remaining complicit in her own misery.   


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Yu Hyun-mok boxset. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s official YouTube Channel.