Jagko (짝코, AKA Pursuit of Death, Im Kwon-taek, 1980)

Jagko posterDuring the dark days of the dictatorships, the “anti-communist film” was a mainstay of the Korean film industry. Though it wasn’t exactly possible to make a pro-communist film and that therefore any and all films were at least implicitly anti-communist, the authorities had been especially keen on films which took a hardline on anything remotely leftwing. By the late ‘70s however times were changing and a more nuanced view of recent history began to become possible. Im Kwon-taek is thought to be among the first directors whose work precipitated a shift from the “anti-communist” to the “division” film in which the tragedy of the division itself takes precedence over the demonisation of the North (though such views were perhaps not as uncommon as might be assumed in films from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s before the passing of the Motion Picture Law). Jagko’s (짝코) two haunted protagonists are both flawed men betrayed by their country and changing times realising they have wasted their youth on a cat and mouse game over an outdated ideological disagreement when the conflict that defined their lives was merely a proxy war fought by two super powers on Korean soil.

Song (Choi Yoon-seok), a former policeman, is picked up by a vagrancy patrol and taken to a “rehabilitation centre”. Despite the name the centre is more like a debtors’ prison and Song is now a prisoner of poverty who will not be allowed to leave unless redeemed by a family member (of which he has none or he might not be here). Nevertheless, the men are treated well, fed three meals a day, and only asked for a couple of hours of non-strenuous work with the rest of the time marked “free”. Once Song has begun to calm down, he makes a shocking discovery. He is convinced that a man lying ill a few beds over is none other than Jagko (Kim Hee-ra) – a former North Korean partisan and the man he holds responsible for ruining his life.

Im lets us in on the stories of both men via a series of flashbacks. Though he pretends not to know him, the other man, calling himself Kim, is indeed “Jagko” though his life has been just as miserable as Song’s. Back on Mount Jiri at the end of the Korean war, Song was a respected policeman – he left school at 12 and made a name for himself catching partisans. When he catches the legendary Jagko, wanted for a series of atrocities and terrorist acts, all Song can do is boast and talk of his imminent promotion after which he will enjoy a life of comfort. Unsurprisingly, Jagko is not exactly happy for him but allows his captor to prattle on in order to buy time for his escape. It is Song’s own arrogance which permits him to do so. Claiming to need the bathroom, Jagko offers Song a gold ring hidden in his shoe which Song scoffs at, but he does loosen his cuffs to facilitate Jagko’s relief at which point he manages to headbutt him and run away. Song is accused of taking bribes and dismissed. He is humiliated and loses his status, job, and family all in one go. Fixated on Jagko, Song gives up everything to chase him in order to turn him in to his former commander and have him clear his name by confirming that he was not bribed and did not sell out his country for gold.

Almost thirty years later both men are older than their years, broken and defeated. As one of the rehabilitation centre residents puts it, they’re all about to die – what does it matter now if someone was a communist or a partisan, what good could it possibly do to drag the past up all these years later? For Song it’s almost as if there is no “past”, the last few decades have been spent in a relentless pursuit of the man who holds the key to his good name. He wants to undo the folly of his hubris by overwriting it, but time has passed and what he’s lost cannot be reclaimed. Meanwhile, Jagko is not an ideologically crazed leftist, but a lonely old man who is now in poor health and has nothing but regrets. The two men bond in their mutual suffering and work together to escape, but the world they emerge into is not that of their youth. Song was disempowered when he entered the facility – they took his arrest rope away from him, but when he tackles the weakened Jagko to the ground and tries to call two policemen on patrol over to arrest him as an “escaped communist guerrilla” the young officers of the law have no idea what he’s talking about. Those words no longer mean anything. The bemused policemen conclude the old men must be escaped mental patients before spotting the rehabilitation centre uniform and jogging off to phone someone to come and take them back.

The old men’s quarrel is exposed as ridiculous. Jagko, less angry more soulful, remarks that men like he and Song are the most pitiful souls on Earth as he watches America sit down with Russia on the TV and realises he is merely a victim of ongoing global geopolitical manoeuvring. It’s no longer a question of left and right, both men are victims of their times, neither “good” nor “bad” but flawed and human. We do not know if Jagko did the things Song says he did but he has paid a heavy price all the same. Song, by contrast, has shifted all the blame for his fate onto Jagko, believing that if he can catch him he can somehow make it all right, but of course he can’t and is trapped in a spiral of denial in refusing to accept his own responsibility for the tragedies of his life. What is to blame is the folly of war and particularly of an internecine fraternal conflict which remains unresolved and may well be unresolvable unless an attempt is made to address the past with empathy and understanding in place of enmity and rancour.


Jagko is available on blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. The set includes subtitles in English, Japanese, and Korean with the audio commentary by Kim Dae-seung and editor of Cine21 Ju Sung-chul also subtitled in English. The audio commentaries from the DVD edition included with the Im Kwon-taek boxset, one by director Im Kwon-taek and film critic Huh Moon-yung, and the other by screenwriter Song Gil-han and film critic and director Kim Hong-joon, unfortunately do not carry over the English subtitles. The set also comes with a bi-lingual Korean/English booklet featuring an essay by film critic and professor Park Yuhee. Not currently available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.

The Love Marriage (自由結婚 / 자유결혼, Lee Byung-il, 1958)

The love marriage posteA hot button issue at the centre of the tradition vs modernity debate – who knows best when it comes to love, a bevvy of relatives with lifetimes of experience behind them or the youngsters themselves still filled with youthful idealism? Then again, as the wise father of Lee Byung-il’s The Love Marriage (自由結婚 / 자유결혼, Ja-yugyeolhon) points out, perhaps both options are bad. An arranged marriage may not work out for a variety of reasons, and a love match may only result in heartbreak, but perhaps there is a third way after all – something which he intends to figure out through gentle manipulations of his lovelorn daughters and feisty conservative wife.

Inverting the normal pattern, Lee opens with the wedding. Dr. Ko’s (Choi Nam-Hyun) eldest daughter, Suk-hee (Choi Eun-hee), has scandalised her family by marrying for love, making a modern future in a modernising world. However, her new husband, Seung-il (Seong So-min), is pensive. He has something he feels he needs to get off his chest to start married life on the right foot. Seung-il confesses that he was once in love before, somehow believing this is a terrible secret which his new wife needs to know. Suk-hee is of course sympathetic and understanding, she never assumed herself to be marrying someone without a past. In an effort to console him she makes a confession of her own. She too was once in love with someone else – the older brother of a school friend who died tragically years ago never knowing of her deeply held affection. Despite his earlier plea, Seung-il is horrified, abruptly walks out on his new wife on their wedding night, and sails to America to make a new life for himself alone.

Flashforward four years and Suk-hee, humiliated, has retreated to her bedroom, seldom leaving the house and only then to walk along the paths she used to take with Seung-il when she does. Dr. Ko has two more daughters – Moon-hee (Lee Min-ja) and college student Myeong-hee (Jo Mi-ryeong), as well as a young son, Gwang-sik (Park Gwang-su), still in school. Ko’s wife, Mrs. Ahn (Seok Geum-seong), is convinced all Suk-hee’s problems are down to getting married for love – after all, Mrs. Ahn was always against it. To prevent the same thing happening again she plans to find good matches for her other two daughters, hoping to set Moon-hee up with the son of one of her best friends, Wan-seop (Lee Ryong), who has recently returned from studying abroad. Moon-hee, however, has taken a liking to the timid college student who has been tutoring Gwang-sik, Jun-cheol (Choe Hyeon). Meanwhile, Myeong-hee has also developed a fondness for Ko’s assistant, Yeong-su (Park Am).

The times are changing, but only to an extent. Mrs. Ahn doesn’t like it that they’re changing at all. The romantic destiny of her daughters was, perhaps, one of the few things over which she exercised complete control and control seems to be something she is reluctant to give up. Suk-hee’s decision to get married for love is a new one – a rejection of the oppressive pre-war system of total deference to one’s elders in favour of exercising her individual right to choice. Her choice, however, did not work out, in part at least because of some very old fashioned ideas embedded in the head of Seung-il who is unable to cope with the idea of his wife as a real flesh and blood woman rather than the idealised picture of passive femininity he had conjured for himself.

Love and marriage enter a conflict with each other. Ko and Mrs. Ahn have extremely different temperaments but seem to have built a happy and harmonious home for their four children, raising love between them as they go. Yet not all arranged marriages work out, especially when relatives might not have their children’s future happiness as a priority. Meanwhile, young people in love might not be best placed to make serious decisions about a long term future whilst caught in the throws of passion. Ko, otherwise sympathetic, has his doubts about Moon-hee and Jun-cheol, not because of Jun-cheol’s “weak” character which is his wife’s chief complaint, but because he worries that though they are in “love” they have not yet reached an understanding of each other. Rejecting both ideas – the hyperrationality of the “arranged” marriage, and the emotional volatility of the “love” match, Ko wonders if there isn’t a way to meet in the middle, that if the older generation could perhaps guide the youngsters towards a series of likely candidates they believe to be well suited, love might blossom in a place it can take root.

Ko, quiet yet wise and permanently amused, tries out his idea on his youngest daughter, Myeong-hee, who might be the most like him and also the most modern among her sisters. Spotting the obvious attraction between Myeong-hee and his assitant Yeong-su, Ko tries to set them up and then puts a wedge between them through using Wan-Seop who is at a loose end while Moon-hee pines after Jun-cheol and refuses to meet any other suitor. Wan-seop, despite Mrs. Ahn’s obvious esteem for him, is the very example of the new Korean man who tries to make a virtue of his modernity but only exposes his old fashioned conservatism. Caught in a small debate with Yeong-su and Myeong-hee, Wan-seop who has recently returned from study in America sings the praises of life overseas and declares himself a feminist – he hates the way women are treated in Korea which is why, when he’s married, he plans to 100% obey the housekeeper and not make waves in the domestic domain. Yeong-su, quite fairly, finds this ridiculous and even if his ideas are perhaps no more “progressive” he is at least transparent in his constant verbal sparring with the confident Myeong-hee.

For all its inherent comedy, love is still a painful business and parental rigidity has a potential dark side as we see in an attempted suicide brought about by heartbreak and frustration at not being listened to by parents who insist they know best. Yet in the end love conquers all. Ko’s gentle manipulations eventually work their magic, guiding each of his daughters towards their most hopeful path but leaving the decision to take it entirely up to them. Even Mrs. Ahn begins to see the beauty of young love rather than its destabilising qualities and cannot help being touched by the happiness each of the sisters seems to have found in their chosen men even if they’ve suffered quite a lot along the way. Love is never easy, but it doesn’t need to be so hard and it only takes a little bit of understanding to set it on its way.


The Love Marriage is the second of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Romantic Comedy Collection of the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream online from the Korean Film Archive‘s YouTube Channel.

Holiday in Seoul (서울의 休日 / 서울의 휴일, Lee Yong-min, 1956)

Holiday in Seoul title cardUnlike many “golden age” directors, Lee Yong-min was not especially prolific and left behind him only 23 films when he abruptly disappeared without trace. Perhaps a fitting legacy for a director so strongly associated with the horror genre, but Lee had begun his career as a documentarian working for a Japanese company during the Colonial era. It’s Lee’s documentary background rather than his taste for genre which is most strongly in evidence in his second film, Holiday in Seoul (서울의 休日 / 서울의 휴일, Seoul-ui Hyuil), which, while containing a fair few genre elements, is an anarchic romantic comedy set entirely in a small residential area of the capital over the course one day – a public holiday, in which a series of couples are separated by accident or design on this very day which has been specifically set aside for them to spend together.

Lee opens with a series of location shots of various Seoul landmarks, elegantly composed and somewhat romanticised as if to recast the burgeoning city as a capital of love with all the promise and mystery of Roman Holiday’s Italy which even gets a brief namecheck later on. Again unconventionally, he then breaks into a lengthy POV shot with additional voice over from a narrator who locates a drunk snoozing on a bench and follows him home hoping something more interesting is happening over in the residential quarter. The narrator settles on the house opposite which belongs to a young couple recently married – she an obstetrician running a clinic out of the house, and he a hotshot reporter who’s just made a big splash with a story about a violent murder.

This is, however, a public holiday so work should be strictly off limits. Hee-won (Yang Mi-hee) has designed a packed itinerary, while her husband Jae-kwan (No Neung-geol) would rather have just lazed around at home, but as it turns out neither of them is going to get what they wanted. Minor disagreements about how to spend a rare day off aside, Hee-won and Jae-kwan are a happy young couple who have apparently married for love, are each professionally successful, and are living a comfortable middle-class life in a period of increasing economic prosperity. Their marriage is directly contrasted with the families around them which include that of the drunk we first met on the bench whose daughter Ok-i eventually descends on Hee-won for help in fear she may have fallen pregnant out of wedlock to a man who won’t take responsibility, and a middle-aged couple who have the opposite problem to that of Hee-won and Jae-kwan. Mr. Ju, a regular salaryman, is excited about spending the day with his wife but she skips out on him to go to the beauty parlour and spends most of the day with a wealthy friend and her opera loving toyboys on a well appointed yacht.

Nevertheless, marital bliss is indeed tested by the demands of the day. Though Jae-kwan had promised to go along with Hee-won’s carefully crafted plan, he gets a phone call he thinks is an important tip off about the murder case but is actually a trick set up by his colleagues who were hoping to get him to buy them a few drinks. Unfortunately, due to an odd coincidence, Jae-kwan thinks he witnesses a kidnapping that might be related to the killings and takes off in hot pursuit only to find himself dealing with another sad case of a woman brought low by love. While Hee-won is busy trying to help Ok-i sort out her predicament with both her sad/angry father and the boyfriend that’s thrown her over, Jae-kwan finds himself locked in a room with a poor young girl (Moon Jeong-suk) who is apparently also pregnant by a man who’s disappeared and has gone out of her mind with heartbreak, actively adopting the role of Ophelia and reciting potent lines from Hamlet while absolutely convinced that Jae-kwan is her long absent lover.

While the new freedoms of the post-Colonial era have enabled Hee-won not only to find love and an elected marriage but also a successful professional career as the head of her own clinic, other women have not been so lucky and have suffered doubly at the hands of men who feel bolder in their casual pursuits but also know they cannot be held to account for their actions in the same way they might have been before. Ok-i’s story does at least have a happy ending but is symptomatic of the times in which she lives as she recounts going for a job at a factory only to be molested by the foreman who thought she was a “prostitute” because he found out she had a boyfriend, while the boyfriend sort of thought the same in assuming she had been taken advantage of by the foreman. At least Ok-i has her father who might be have been enraged to begin with but later comes to her defence as does the warmhearted Hee-won, while Jae-kwan’s young woman is all alone save for her mother who is worried sick over her daughter’s mental health and has no real way to help her.

Hee-won is indeed a force for good. Despite her worry about her husband’s whereabouts (she ends up going drinking with his work buddies who, along with her other married female friends, have half convinced her he’s gone off with another woman), Hee-won comes to the aid of a crying little girl who’s desperately looking for help because her heavily pregnant mother is in a very bad way at home while dad went out a few days ago and hasn’t come back. Needless to say, Hee-won’s emergency dovetails into Jae-kwan’s dogged pursuit of crime which eventually sees him arrest a murderer after accidentally getting into a cab with him. The killer, perhaps annoyed about the previous article, makes a point of explaining to Jae-kwan that his job isn’t quite as morally upright as he’d like to believe. You can’t just go printing things in papers, he tells him, it ruins people’s lives. Jae-kwan thinks it’s murdering people that ruins lives so anything after that is fair game but his heartless rationality brings him into conflict with Hee-won when he wants to photograph and interview one of her patients who is seriously ill and might not survive if she finds out the unpleasant truth Jae-kwan wants to get her reaction to on camera. To Jae-kwan, people are just his “subjects”, mere materials for his essays, but to Hee-won they are literally flesh and blood – less fortunate than herself, they are her responsibility and she will do all she can to help them even at great personal cost.

Yet in the end the conflicts resolve themselves satisfactorily and the couples are each reunited in time to spend the last of the holiday gazing up at the moon glowing above the twinkling lights of Seoul. Having spent the day apart, each spouse emerges with a greater understanding of their partner (or in Mr. Ju’s case perhaps just a greater talent for (self)deception) and remains committed to working on their relationship. Mostly shooting on location, Lee’s camera is as sophisticated as they come shifting effortlessly from documentary-style naturalism to a silent movie aesthetic while maintaining a high level of cinematic wit throughout. Cheerfully romantic and carefree even considering its darker themes, Holiday in Seoul is an oddly anarchic romantic comedy though one with total faith in true connection and emotional honesty.


Holiday in Seoul is the first of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Romantic Comedy Collection of the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream online from the Korean Film Archive‘s YouTube Channel.

Break up the Chain (쇠사슬을 끊어라, Lee Man-hee, 1971)

Break Up the Chain poster1970 had been a difficult year for Lee Man-hee. A conflict on the set of The Goboi Bridge in which Lee intended to star against the advice of his regular team resulted in the end of his creative relationship with screenwriter Baek Gyeol and cinematographer Lee Suck-ki. Meanwhile, he’d also suffered a crisis in his personal life after parting ways with actress Moon Jeong-suk who had been both a lover and a muse. To top it all off he also had some financial problems and didn’t work at all for the year following Goboi Bridge’s release – a significant period of time in the high-speed world of early ‘70s Korean cinema in which it was not unheard of for a director to make as many as 10 films in one year. Break Up the Chain (쇠사슬을 끊어라, Shwisaseuleul Geunheola) was intended to be something of a “come back” but it finds Lee defeated, doing what he does best but also playing the game he never really wanted to play in succumbing to the patriotism epic (albeit a little tongue in cheek).

Riffing off Sergio Leone, Lee frames his resistance romp as a Manchurian western. A mysterious golden Buddhist statue has more than just monetary value as it also contains a list of the names of resistance operatives which can be revealed with the use of a special chemical formula. Three men are after it – Cheol-su (Namkoong Won), an adventurer for hire who might or might not be working for the resistance; Tae-ho (Jang Dong-hwi), a petty gangster; and Dal-geon (Heo Jang-kang), a collaborator working with the Japanese. The men are each interested in the statue for selfish reasons – Cheol-su for his reputation, Tae-ho for the money, and Dal-geon for the prestige. None of them is interested in the resistance movement itself, the statue’s importance in relation to it, or anything really beyond themselves and their day-to-day lives.

Of course, as this is a patriotism epic, the men eventually come round to the greatness of Korea as their individual quests converge and they find themselves alongside the resistance surrounded by the Japanese. The Japanese are largely a bumbling bunch who remain unaware of the statue’s “real” power even whilst holding it, thinking only of its monetary value as a lump of gold or work of art they could export abroad for financial gain. Confronted and faced with failure, the leader of the Japanese is firstly humiliated by his defeat at the hands of the resistance but then decides to show them the greatness of the Japanese army by committing Harakiri right there on the spot. Stripping off the captain begins to get cold feet, suddenly struck by the enormity of the moment when one of his lieutenants draws his sword ready for the beheading. The Japanese captain then seems to come down with “a cold” and resolves to visit the medical tent instead.

The early drama revolves around the interplay of the three self-interested outsiders as they scheme and plot to make use of each other and get the statue for themselves. Of the three, Cheol-su emerges as the most “noble” even though his quest is mercenary enough – his name is his business and thus he wants the statue to fulfil his contract and maintain his sense of integrity as a gun for hire. Tae-ho is merely interested in financial gain with a mild desire for social revenge and the thrill of outsmarting a rival, but both men are filled with an intense distaste for men like Dal-geon who have “betrayed” the countrymen they too have refused to serve. That aside, Tae-ho and Dal-geon begin to form a weak alliance of the opportunistic as they bond in their mercenary intentions, while Cheol-su lingers on the outside as his quest ties him more closely with the independence movement. Eventually the trio realise they have to work together to get the statue, even if their ultimate intention is to double cross the others and keep it for themselves. They do however suddenly rediscover their patriotic spirit, resolving to give the statue to the people who need to most while they ride off into the sunset in search of other ways to serve their country.

Set in dusty Manchuria (where the resistance movement operated in exile), Break Up the Chain is part of the short-lived boom of Korean “westerns” which were popular in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Lee abandons his experimental ambitions and aims squarely for the populist, reaching only for post-modern irony in his boys own adventure story filled with feats of daring do and flight on horseback. Yet he comforts himself with that sense of irony, pulling away from the absurd adventures of our heroes to show the faces of men dying in snow reminding us that their flight from the horror of war was perhaps a rational one rather than an act of cowardice or a failure of patriotism. Nevertheless, Lee seems to be at odds with himself as he gives in (to a point) and presents a silly story of amoral chancers suddenly rediscovering their “Koreanness” in the barren wastelands of Manchuria but does so with a sense of bitterness which conspires to rob the tale of its childish sense of fun.


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

Black Republic (그들도 우리처럼, Park Kwang-su, 1990)

Black Republic still 1In the Korea of 1990, a revolution had been fought, won, and then betrayed by its people. Successfully petitioning for democracy, the newly minted Korean electorate went ahead and voted for the chosen successor of the dictator they’d just spent so long trying to oust. Change comes slow, but it comes even if not quite the way you wanted it. Park Kwang-su’s first film Chilsu and Mansu, released in 1988 and set in the contemporary Seoul running to catch up to its Olympic aspirations, had made its own quiet protest about a hypocritical society’s rising social inequality. His follow up, Black Republic (그들도 우리처럼, Keduldo Urichurum), takes a journey back in time while keeping one foot in the present to show us a nation engulfed by a darkness that crushes love, dreams, and possibility all while dangling the shining hope of a better future that seems impossibly far away.

Tae-hun (Moon Sung-keun), a student protestor wanted by the police, heads into the mountains under an assumed name hoping to get a job in a mine. However, this is a period of intense economic volatility and the mining industry is collapsing. When his attempts to find work as a miner fail, Tae-hun (going under the name Gi-yeong) overhears a conversation in a cafe and manages to get a job in a local briquette factory.

Park opens in darkness as Tae-hun makes a phone call to his mother in which he never speaks and she reassures him that everything will be OK while the sound of a train gradually gathers in the background. When Tae-hun arrives at his destination, he finds himself in a barren, blackened land where everything is quite literally falling apart. The mines are closing and the landscape, desolate as it is, is peppered with derelict buildings and the modest, makeshift homes of the rural poor at the constant mercy of their greedy masters. As a newcomer, Tae-hun is not privy to the town’s secrets, but quickly comes to understand that though he may have escaped Seoul, the struggle is inescapable, because the struggle is Korea. The owner of the briquette factory is also some kind of loanshark involved in a suspiciously close arrangement with the local mine owner who is in the middle of a labour dispute with the miners who are petitioning for fair pay and better conditions. Haunted by the memories of his protest days, Tae-hun finds himself looking on at another candlelight procession calling for workers rights but rendered impotent, forced to remain silent or risk attracting the attention of the police.

Meanwhile, Tae-hun’s silence sees him unwittingly pulled into the orbit of those he would usually oppose. Seong-cheol (Park Joong-hoon), the illegitimate son of the factory boss, takes his own sense of crushing impossibility out on the entire town. Technically the “vice-president” of the factory, Seong-cheol is a sometime enforcer for his father’s greedy loan sharking business and thinks nothing of striding in and helping himself to the petty cash to spend on women and booze while gazing at the photo of his long absent mother. An invitation to dine with Seong-cheol and pals brings Tae-hun into contact with melancholy sex worker Yeong-sook (Shim Hye-Jin) who begins to fall for him when he skips out on her after Seong-cheol has pulled one of his usual tricks in giving her away in an attempt to buy friendship through influence.

Like Tae-hun, Yeong-sook is also trapped, running, and living under an assumed identity. Through her exposure to Tae-hun who is, after all, so different from the other men in the mountains, she begins to rediscover a sense of hope and possibility. Yeong-sook quits the illegal part of her job as a “coffee girl” and deepens her bond with Tae-hun through nursing him after he is arrested and beaten by the police who seem to harbour an innate suspicion towards him despite little evidence, but their love will require another act of faith and flight and the world in which they live may not let them to escape.

Everyone here is trapped, lying to themselves or others, wishing things were different than they are but has long since given up the hope they ever could be. While Tae-hun attempts to ride out the storm by burying his head in the coal dust, feeling it fill his lungs, struggling to breathe, Seong-cheol opposes his order with chaos, laying waste to half the town in a self destructive venting of his rage and resentment towards his selfish, unfeeling father, and a society he feels has already rejected him. Impossibility and hopelessness are the defining qualities of this world of corruption and exploitation in which there can be no escape or salvation, only crushing futility. Park closes with an ironic coda of swapped fates and tragic promise which places Tae-hun right where he was when we first met him, defeated by hope but still in motion, if for an uncertain direction.


Black Republic was screened as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Korean Film Nights 2018: Rebels With a Cause screening series. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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