Horse-Year Bride (말띠新婦 / 말띠신부, Kim Ki-duk, 1966)

In the relatively conservative Korean society of 1966 it’s surprising that film like the Horse-Year Bride (말띠新婦 / 말띠신부, Maltti Sinbu) could have been made at all. On the one hand it embraces and subverts common notions of gender by positioning its “horse year women” as somehow deviant from the norm, difficult to deal with and undesirable, but also places them centerstage as individuals making independent choices in their own lives rather than simply trailing along behind their men. Technically the second in a trilogy of films, the first and last being directed by Lee Hyung-pyo, Kim Ki-duk’s Horse Year Bride is a raucous sex comedy, tame by modern standards but transgressive by those of the time. Adopting a mild, if ironic, issue movie stance, Kim also satirises social attitudes to “horse year women” and councils against a trend of aborting babies set to be born in the year of the horse lest they be female and turn into vicious harridans.

The film opens with a wedding in which middle-aged (presumably 35 or 36 year old) Bok-soon (Hwang Jung-seun) marries the extremely miserable looking professor Seok-du (Park Am). The wedding photographer who later turns out to be a horse woman herself and a private eye is surprised to notice that Bok-soon has horse’s hoofs rather than fancy shoes under her wedding dress. A fortune teller (Kim Hee-kap) then introduces us to his matchmaking service and claims the wedding we have just witnessed is a result of his best ever match before introducing us to two more couples – Soo-in (Nam Mi-ri) whose husband Sang-won (Yoon Il-bong) has gone full on domestic to look after her while she’s pregnant, while Mi-hae (Um Aing-ran), also pregnant, fends off the sexual advances of her frustrated husband Keun-ho (Shin Seong-il). The two as yet unmarried horses include the aforementioned private detective, Young-hee (Bang Seong-ja), and a dancer, Suk-ja (Choi Ji-hee), who is engaged but not above making use of her sex appeal for material gain.

Bok-soon, one horse cycle ahead of Soo-in and Mi-hae, laments her long period of matronly virginity and is keen to make up for lost time. Seok-du, however, is not exactly a love machine and is completely worn out by his wife’s appetites, even going so far as to return to the fortune teller and complain that his excellent matchmaking has turned him into an exhausted sex slave. The matchmaker suddenly grabs a picture of Napoleon and has a novel explanation for where the famous general’s hand might be. Anyway, his advice is to practice yoga to increase stamina and keep Bok-soon happy.

Meanwhile, Soo-in and Mi-hae have both lied to their husbands about being pregnant in order to avoid sex so that they don’t conceive a daughter that, like them, will be born in the year of the horse. This particular “White Horse” year is thought to be especially inauspicious and daughters born as White Horses will apparently be total nightmares and have terrible lives. The two relationships send up various culturally accepted norms of martial gender roles as the women both manipulate their husbands to get their own way. Soo-in’s Sang-won is so solicitous about the pregnancy that he’s put Soo-in on virtual bed rest and blossomed into a mother hen clucking around doing the housework but making a total mess of it (because, after all he’s a man, and men aren’t “built” for this sort of thing). Mi-hae’s problem is the opposite in that Keun-ho’s sexual needs are a constant source of frustration to him in which he resorts to pounding a giant mortar in an unsubtle attempt to relieve his pent-up energy. Bok-soon too is subtly manipulating Seok-du by feeding him an “aphrodisiac” and secretly practicing yoga herself to get the most out of her married life.

Unmarried Suk-ja attempts to manipulate men by promising more than she means to give but finds herself in hot water with a grumpy salaryman (Joo Sun-tae) who seems determined to take what he thinks he’s owed. Suk-ja later pays heavily for her rejection but the other women rally to her side to take revenge on the lecherous businessman whom they regard as “human scum” and intend to “re-educate” to treat women better. The vengeful band of women taking revenge on the male sex with each of its various double standards and chauvinistic assumptions derives part of its humour from the relative lack of power available to them but does manage to make a sensible point about the sexist world they inhabit.

Eventually, when the women have given up their power and allowed themselves to become pregnant by their men, even the doctor at the hospital assumes they will want abortions to avoid the threat of White Horse daughters. By this point the women have also resolved that there’s nothing wrong being Horse Women or even White Horse Women, with women excising power (even if in necessarily feminine ways), or with enjoying full relationships with their husbands, but they’re still bound by otherwise typical ideas of female gender roles in the importance of maternity and dream their daughters will be Miss Koreas rather than great scholars or forces for good in the world. The doctor raises an interesting point when he suggests the fear of White Horse Women is an unwelcome foreign import from Japan which both paints it as another symptom of colonial corruption and ignores the fact that the reasons for the ongoing stigma are part of the essential social fabric of Korea. He does, however, find some darkly comic reasons against abortion in citing the economic effects of empty schools and lonely classrooms while also suggesting the women’s daughters may have an easier ride thanks to the lack of competition.

In contrast to his previous films, Kim adopts a youthful, pop-culture infused approach which makes frequent use of domestic and foreign pop music with a lengthy animated title sequence plus extended scenes of music and dance often unconnected to the main drama. Extremely frank in its treatment of modern sexual relations, Horse-Year Bride is an unlikely ‘60s Korean sex comedy filled with silly gags and slapstick humour but proves an extremely effective satire of the complicated social mores of ‘60s Korea.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Ki-duk box set. Also available to stream online for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

North and South (南과北/남과북, Kim Ki-duk, 1965)

north and south posterMelodrama has often been an unfairly maligned genre, dismissed as pandering to the sentimental or engaging in frivolous emotion but to do so misses the undercurrent of social questioning that such films often entail. Korea has made the melodrama its own – indeed, though genre is often a more fluid matter in Korea than it is elsewhere it’s difficult to find films of any kind which are completely devoid of melodramatic themes. It’s less of a surprise therefore to find that Korean cinema turns to melodrama to examine one the nation’s most pressing concerns – the relationship between North and South. Kim Ki-duk’s North and South (南과北/남과북, Namgwa Buk) is the story of a woman caught between two men, two nations, and two eras but it’s mediated through the story of a noble North Korean who has battled all in the name of love, left his family, his home, his country only to find that he is too late and the world has already left him behind.

The film begins with capture of a North Korean soldier in November 1952, the middle of the Korean War. Following normal procedure, the soldier, Major Jang Il-gu (Shin Young-kyun) is taken in for questioning but the major matter on his mind is the lady in the photograph he keeps brandishing to everyone he meets. Rather than political disaffection, Il-gu has defected to the South in the name of love – he’s looking for a woman he regarded as his wife, the mother of the son he has never seen. The South Korean officers are less than sympathetic, they’ve been noticing increased activities on the frontiers and they want to know some concrete military details before they even agree to admit Major Jang, but Il-gu won’t talk until they promise to help him look for Eun-ga (Um Aing-ran) – the woman for whom he has betrayed his comrades.

Captain Lee Hae-ro (Choi Moo-ryong), otherwise sympathetic to Il-gu’s plight, runs into a problem when elements of Il-gu’s story start sounding all too familiar. In a coincidence too staggering to believe, Eun-ga is Hae-ro’s wife. Originally reluctant to marry him, Eun-ga had explained that she had a son already and was waiting for the child’s father (to whom she was not “legally” married) from whom she had been separated by the 38th parallel. Lee was patient and persistent, he told Eun-ga that she was free to leave him should her long lost love return (never believing it was possible) and that he was content to look after her until that day came or, should he be so fortunate, for the rest of his life. Now Il-gu has arrived as if to punish him for disrupting this fairytale of doomed romantic love.

Unlike many films of the time, Kim is not interested in demonising the North so much as emphasising the tragedy of Korea’s division. Eun-ga and Il-gu are divided by more than just politics. Eun-ga was the middle-class daughter of a wealthy doctor, Il-gu was the son of one of their servants. Their love was not possible even before the war, but still it blossomed. Growing up together, Il-gu and Eun-ga experienced the quintessentially innocent taste of first love, vowing to stay together even in the face of fierce parental opposition and social convention, but it is the war which eventually seals their fate. Il-gu, not wanting to be conscripted into the Japanese army hides out in a shack where Eun-ga, the only person to know his whereabouts, spends a fateful night with him during which time their child is conceived.

Dreaming only of being re-united with his “wife” and child, Il-gu has been carrying around a picture of Eun-ga and looking for an opportunity to defect ever since the erection of the 38th parallel. Abandoning everything in the name of love, he has left his mother alone in the North and risked his life in hope of seeing Eun-ga once more. Hae-ro, a romantic man himself, is intimidated by Il-gu’s passion. The great, fated love he’d imagined for himself in marrying the nurse who had saved him at his lowest ebb suddenly pales in comparison to Il-gu’s willingness to sacrifice his life in pursuit of a true love dream. Understating Il-gu’s feelings, Hae-ro finds himself in a terrible position, worried that his love will leave him, feeling guilty for pestering her into a marriage she may not have really wanted, and unsure whether he should even tell Il-gu and Eun-ga that he holds the key to their long delayed reunion. Il-gu remains resolute, demanding love or death, but Hae-ro vacillates, drinks himself into solipsistic misery, and indulges his own weaknesses which are only made worse by Il-gu’s continued heroism.

Immediately before the final sequence in which the trio are forced to confront their emotionally difficult situation, Il-gu is threatened with a gun but refuses to give up any information without proof he can meet Eun-ga. Believing all hope to be lost, he asks only to be allowed to go up a mountain to die but is moved by the compassion of intelligence officer Kwon (Namkoong Won) who alone is committed to delivering Eun-ga and eventually gives up his information even though it pains him to betray his own comrades. In an impassioned debate with Kwon, Il-gu gives voice to the film’s overarching message in reminding him “Are we not all brothers”. Kwon, counters that the reason they fight is in service of Il-gu’s quest – it’s precisely so that he can come here, speak freely, and pursue his love unhindered. The “South” is winning, in a sense, but the message of brotherhood and understanding between men is the one which is delivered with the most clarity.

Understanding between men is indeed the theme of Hae-ro and Il-gu’s eventual meeting. Eun-ga’s torment is relegated to background detail as she sobs her heart out in the corner in the unfairness of her impossible situation. Her heart has always belonged to Il-gu and she feels herself to have betrayed him, betrayed love, in marrying an admittedly good and kind man out of reasons of practicality rather than passion. Coming to understand the situation, Il-gu responds with compassion and understanding even in the middle of his own heartbreak. He bitterly regrets his journey and wishes Hae-ro had told him Eun-ga was now his wife rather than allow him to hurt her by suddenly reappearing and breaking her heart all over again. Witnessing Il-gu’s magnanimity, Hae-ro is also moved, offering to step back and allow Il-gu to return to the family he may have lost. Both men recognise the goodness of the other, want nothing more than the best outcome of the situation for Eun-ga and her son, and are committed to moving forward with sensitivity in trying to minimise the emotional pain inflicted on the innocent Eun-ga who continues to suffer through no fault of her own.

The “fault” falls on the 38th parallel which, as Il-gu explains during a painful first meeting with his unknowing son, is “the worst thing ever made by stupid men”. The situation is indeed impossible, there is no easy answer for Eun-ga who will have to choose between past love and a present commitment (or, uncomfortably, have that decision made for her by her respective lovers). Kim dramatises their anguish perfectly through the extraordinary performances of his cast during the drawn out, painful encounter in which they attempt to forge a way forward, but Eun-ga, who stands in for her nation, stands to lose all when this same fierce love and understanding between men may cost her everything in tragic gestures of love and sacrifice.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Ki-duk box set. Not currently available to stream online.

Five Marines (五人의 海兵 / 5인의 해병, Kim Ki-duk, 1961)

Five Marines posterKorean War films have a very particular tone and flavour often absent from those from elsewhere. As sad and despairing as they can be across the world, war films are generally the realm of macho heroism, men bravely holding back tears and charging forth with unrestrained rage in a quest to avenge their fallen comrades. Korean War films, however, like the majority of the nation’s cinematic output, are tinged with melodrama. These men wail, talk about their mothers, and worry for the future while forging intense bonds of homosocial brotherhood and becoming a battlefield family. The debut feature from Kim Ki-duk, Five Marines (五人의 海兵 / 5인의 해병, O in-ui haebyeong) is a prime example of this approach, eschewing combat scenes for behind the lines ensemble drama as ordinary men attempt to come to terms with the extraordinary situation of war.

Stock footage of the battlefield eventually gives way to a small squadron of marines digging trenches and at constant risk of ambush by Chinese forces. The main drama revolves around lieutenant Deok-su (Shin Young-kyun) who is the son of the company commander but there has long been bad feeling between the two men as Deok-su has always felt that his father favoured his brother, Deok-han (Choe Bong), and never really loved him. Meanwhile we’re introduced to another four marines – intellectual Jeong-guk (Choi Moo-ryong), Ju-han (Flyboy / Gwak Gyu-seok) – a father of five from Seoul, farm boy Yeong-seon (Park Nou-sik), and mother’s boy with anger issues Hun-gu (Hwang Hae). Following the death of two comrades, the squad of five is sent on a daring missing into enemy territory to blow up an arms depot through which they aim to make the sacrifice their friends have made in some way meaningful.

Made just eight years after the end of the Korean War and apparently commissioned by the Marine Corps in the wake of the May 16 military coup which initiated the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, Five Marines takes a very different approach to that seen in other contemporary war films such as Lee Man-hee’s The Marines Who Never Returned. Though in no way particularly jingoistic or warmongering, it would be difficult to describe Five Marines as an “anti-war” movie, not least because it avoids depicting scenes of combat until the final mission in which, as expected, some or all of the heroes will fall valiantly defending their fellow Koreans as well as their friends.

Jeong-guk, the college educated enlisted man, originally considers himself to be taking part in the pantomime of war, going along with the ridiculous sham of soldiering, but when a fellow soldier – a young boy who spends his time rewriting a poetic confession of love he doesn’t quite have the nerve to send to the girl he left behind, falls in front of him, Jeong-guk suddenly wants to join the fight for real. The idea of militaristic patriotism is then subtly reinforced if not quite sold with patriotic fervour. The necessity of the sacrifice is never questioned and the idea of doing one’s duty remains paramount even if it is also clear that the war has taken these men out of their familial environments leaving their women at home alone and, perhaps, defenceless.

Kim explores the peacetime lives of each of the men through flashback with the consequence that we get to know and care for them as people rather than as combatants. We rejoice with Jeong-guk when he hears he’s going to be a father, share Ju-han’s amused frustration when his wife includes all their bills in his mail, and worry with Hun-gu when his usual letters have not arrived. During their down time, the men discuss women but with more tenderness than expected – save for Yeong-seon’s rather lewd (and apparently fabricated) story of his wedding night for which he is rightly taken to task by his stern company Sergeant. Rather than focussing on the negatives of military service, Kim emphases the warmth and friendship among the men who forge deeper and stronger connections precisely because of the ever present threat of death.

When the final mission rolls around, Kim allows the action to take centre stage as the five man squad plots and executes a daring raid which does not quite go to plan and eventually erupts into a more conventional fire fight. Marrying the demands for macho battle scenes with the emotional quality of melodrama, Kim allows the men to sort out their emotional difficulties, shedding both blood and tears in equal measure. More emotional drama than action packed celebration of the glory of war, Five Marines may not quite be what the Marine Corps had in mind but perhaps serves their purpose anyway in reinforcing the positive ideas of camaraderie and patriotism whilst telling the stories of ordinary men and extraordinary heroism.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Ki-duk box set. Also available to stream online for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Love Me Once Again (미워도 다시 한번, Jung So-young, 1968)

love me once again posterBy the late 1960s, Korean society was caught in a moment of intense social change. Though under the oppressive authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee, the strict censorship regulations of the early 1970s had not yet taken effect and the 1962 Motion Picture Law which encouraged a shift towards commercial cinema intended for mass entertainment created a fertile ground for melodrama which itself enabled subtle commentary on modern society. The first in what would become a long running series with two sequels and a number of remakes stretching into the 1980s, Love Me Once Again (미워도 다시 한번, Miweodo Dasi Han Beon) is a prime example. A box office hit and pop culture phenomenon, Love Me Once Again is a somewhat unusual entry the melodrama canon in its broadly sympathetic treatment of adultery and attitude towards children born out of wedlock.

The film begins in the present as family patriarch Shin-ho (Shin Young-kyun) enjoys a pleasant family Sunday fishing with his son and picnicking with his wife (Jeon Gye-hyeon) and daughter but the scene is quickly interrupted by a servant who comes to fetch Shin-ho to greet an urgent visitor to the house. The visitor turns out to be an old friend of Shin-ho’s who has a distressing message for him – Hye-young (Moon Hee), a young woman with whom he had an affair eight years previously, is back in town and would like to meet.

Flashing back eight years, Hye-young is a young kindergarten teacher living in the lodging house where Shin-ho is staying while working away from home. The pair become friends and everyone seems to assume they are a couple, though Shin-ho insists Hye-young is just a friend. Nevertheless, he eventually begins an affair with her leading Hye-young to turn down a marriage arranged by her parents. Though Shin-ho discourages her to do this, Hye-young has no idea he is already married with two children and believes he will marry her at some point in the future. Shin-ho plans to tell Hye-young about his wife but can’t bring himself to do it, allowing her to find out in the worst possible way when his wife arrives with both kids in tow. Realising she’s been duped and feeling in the way, Hye-young takes off without warning leaving only a letter wishing Shin-ho well and letting him know that she is pregnant with his child and intends to raise it alone.

Hye-young is certainly a very “modern” forward thinking woman though she is also morally upright, only embarking on a relationship with Shin-ho because she believes he is the man she will spend her life with. Her family had arranged a marriage for her and express their frustration with Hye-young for not returning home immediately in a letter which also makes plain that they will suffer embarrassment if she refuses the marriage altogether – which she does. When she returns home pregnant with Shin-ho’s child, her brother (who seems to be the head of the family), throws her out. Hye-young’s mother seems more sympathetic, but is powerless to help. Hye-young will have to manage on her own without the assistance of friends or family.

Eight years on she has a lovely little boy, Young-shin (Kim Jung-hoon), whom she has raised alone in hardship but not unhappiness. Encouraged by her brother and seeing how Young-shin looks on enviously at other little boys playing with their fathers on the beach, Hye-young begins to wonder if it might not be better to have Shin-ho raise Young-shin alongside his other two children in a middle-class family home. As Shin-ho’s son he would have a life of material comfort, a paternal input, and be free of the stigma of being the illegitimate child of an unmarried single mother.

Though the situation is difficult, it is handled with calm and maturity on all sides, not least from Shin-ho’s wife who takes a while to think hard on the situation and then agrees to look after Young-shin but only as a full adoption. She asks that Hye-young refrain from writing to or seeing her son, leaving him entirely in the family’s care. Hye-young has made her decision and agrees that may be for the best, even declining the offer of written updates from Shin-ho’s best friend. Once Young-shin has become a part of Shin-ho’s family, his wife truly does her best to make him feel at home as the third of her children, treating him kindly and taking the older two to task for teasing their “baby brother”. The children however are not quite so accepting with Shin-ho’s eldest son particularly hostile, bullying little Young-shin mercilessly even though he has done nothing to provoke his anger other than try to be friends with him. Getting a new little brother is perhaps particularly hard for the children who now have to share everything with a virtual stranger, but despite the efforts of Shin-ho’s wife, she just can’t seem to make them accept him.

Shin-ho, feeling awkward and guilty, is not quite as committed as his wife is to making the new family work. He tries to treat Young-shin as his son, but never quite connects with or makes him feel at home. The major problem is that the family all insist Young-shin must forget about Hye-young and commit fully to his new family as they are committing to him but that’s a lot to ask for an eight year old boy who quite fairly misses his mother and does not understand why he is not allowed to see her. A crisis occurs when Shin-ho angrily confiscates a locket Hye-young had given Young-shin containing her photo as a memento, sending him off on a long journey trying to find a way back to his mother. Being only eight, Young-shin has no idea how to go about finding her bar knowing the name of the town where he used to live. Roaming around the city all alone calling his mother’s name, Young-shin stays out all night. Shin-ho and his wife are sick with worry, searching for him in the pouring rain, but when he finally returns drenched and miserable, Shin-ho treats him only with anger and not with tenderness.

Meanwhile, Hye-young is struggling to come to terms with her decision to “abandon” her son, having bad dreams that Young-shin is being mistreated or is miserable, missing her as much as she misses him. Obeying the family’s request to stay away, Hye-young cannot resist coming to visit and observing from far away, hoping to catch a glimpse of her son and find out if he is well and happy. Unfortunately she turns up just as he’s gone out looking for her and spots him cowering outside Shin-ho’s house, drenched in the rain. Afraid to go near him she urges him to go inside, calling out from the shadows only to be spotted by Shin-ho as she makes her escape.

Rather than wallow in misery, Jung does not refuse the inherent melodrama of the situation but addresses it realistically and with a degree of maturity and patience most real life situations can only aspire to. Hye-young believes that Shin-ho hates herself and her son and will never be able to accept them as members of his family, but even so he does appear to have developed at attachment to Young-shin and hopes that he can maintain contact with him even if it remains clear Young-shin cannot remain in their home. Shin-ho’s wife too makes a point of not blaming Young-shin for her husband’s mistake and displays compassion for Hye-young who meant her no harm and has incurred only suffering as a result of her involvement with Shin-ho. Where most melodramas would punish Hye-young for her transgressions, Jung is kinder to her, never condemning her for her “immoral” behaviour in sleeping with Shin-ho before marriage and making it clear that her decision to live independently as a single woman and raise Young-shin alone is not only valid but correct and to be supported. A controversial attitude for the Korea of 1968 but one which declares itself on the side of modernity rather than adherence to traditions which more often than not create more problems than they solve.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Original trailer (Restored, English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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