Underworld Beauty (暗黒街の美女, Seijun Suzuki, 1958)

“No one can be happy without money” the villain of Seijun Suzuki’s Underworld Beauty (暗黒街の美女, Ankokugai no Bijo) claims, vainly trying to justify his actions. He may indeed have a point, but you can’t buy happiness through selfish immorality. A noirish tale of changing times, Underworld Beauty pits a noble hearted gangster on the road towards reform against his amoral bosses as he tries to ensure a better future for the sister of a friend whose life was irreparably changed through proximity to crime. 

Miyamoto (Michitaro Mizushima) has just been released from three years in prison. His first stop is the sewers where he locates a loose brick he’d been using as a dead drop and retrieves a handgun and a small bag containing three diamonds stolen in the heist which got him sent away. Paying a visit to his old gang, Miyamoto makes it plain that he intends to keep the diamonds for himself so that he can sell them and give the money to Mihara (Toru Abe), the man who was crippled during the job and now lives an “honest” life running a small oden stall. To Miyamoto’s surprise, his boss, Oyane (Shinsuke Ashida), says OK and offers to set him up with a foreigner in Yokohama who is interested in buying blackmarket jewels. Unfortunately, the whole thing goes south in predictable fashion when a gang of masked heavies turns up to disrupt the deal. Mihara, who had come along with Miyamoto, swallows the diamonds and promptly falls off a nearby wall. He survives just long enough to tell the police that he “slipped” thanks to his unsteady legs, which makes his death “accidental” meaning he won’t have to undergo an autopsy. That’s both good and bad for the crooks. The cops won’t find the diamonds, but getting them back before the body is burned is going to be difficult. 

Arita (Hiroshi Kondo), a sculptor of mannequins, finds himself perfectly primed to find a solution because he’s been dating Mihara’s little sister, Akiko (Mari Shiraki), who’d been working as a nude model. Mihara had talked to Miyamoto about his sister and his fears for her in the big city. Feeling his debt even more since his friend’s death, Miyamoto decides to save Akiko from the evils of city life, but finds himself fighting an uphill battle. Meanwhile, Akiko is smitten with the intellectual yet cold Arita, who may perhaps be more interested in her for access to her brother’s body than to her own. 

The diamonds themselves become a kind of MacGuffin and symbol of amoral post-war greed. Having been away for three years, Miyamoto is the classically conflicted film noir hero, a noble yet compromised figure forced to operate in a murky moral universe that is at odds with his own sense of justice. That is perhaps why he tries so hard to “save” Akiko even if she resents his sometimes patronising paternalism that, well-meaning as it is, denies her the agency that is a mark of the age. Mihara warned his sister about hanging out with Arita, suspecting he was a no good guy likely to drag her further into the underworld which he had now escaped, but she sees him as “different” from the men around her, mistaking his coolness for sophistication rather than a possibly sociopathic superiority complex. 

Yet it’s perhaps a sense of inferiority which sends him so crazy about the diamonds. A tortured artist slumming it in a mannequin factory, he resents the way he’s chosen to “sell” his art while superficially laughing at those who buy it. There is something quite perverse in the various ways he is “using” Akiko, literally commodifying her body and turning it into a lifeless object, a simulacrum of “real” womanhood sans voice or agency, all the while planning to use her in order to get his hands on the diamonds. Figuring out Arita may have mutilated her brother’s body in order to dig them out, she wonders if he ever really loved her at all. His sudden declarations of affection and an impromptu proposal only further convince her that what he wants is money. She hides the diamonds inside the breast of a half-baked mannequin, just about where the heart ought to be. Later we spot the poor thing dismembered and abandoned, a gaping hole in its chest as it floats ominously in the sewer, discarded in just the way a woman like Akiko might be if she’d let a man like Arita get his hands on the loot. 

Kidnapped as leverage to force Miyamoto to hand the diamonds over, Akiko loses her fascination with underworld darkness in learning what the “yakuza code” really means. “What do you mean, the yakuza way?” She barks at Oyane, “it’s wrong to kill, you idiot!”. Literally steamed clean and making an ironic escape up a coal shoot, she edges towards a new dawn. “What a beautiful day!” She exclaims, declaring herself not bored in the least, freed from the false promises of the underworld and released from the diamonds’ corruption into the bright sunshine of a wide open future.


Mysteries of Edo (ふり袖捕物帖 若衆変化, Shoji Matsumura, 1956)

The voice of the post-war era, Hibari Misora was a major marquee star but in contrast to expectation, appears to have been fully in command of her contradictory brand, selling an image of herself not as docile and innocent in the manner of many a manufactured idol but feisty and true, refusing to backdown in the face of injustice. In her contemporary movies, she stood up to gangsters and corrupt corporations alike with salt of the earth charm, while her period roles saw her do much the same only against the inherently corrupt samurai order. An early outing for Toei, Mysteries of Edo (ふり袖捕物帖 若衆変化, Furisode Torimonocho: Wakashu Henge) sees her star in the first of a series of films as a princess in hiding turned feminist detective, investigating series of abductions in the rapidly changing bakumatsu society. 

A “newspaper” seller in the street informs us that 14 girls have recently gone missing in this area of town, and no one’s doing much about it. A dance teacher escorts her pupils home to be on the safe side while her apprentice, Oshichi (Hibari Misori), stays behind to teach cowardly samurai Kawashima (Hashizo Okawa) some moves. Local bobby Gorohachi (Shunji Sakai), himself a dance enthusiast, arrives to get some guidance from Oshichi but their lesson is interrupted by the news that the dance mistress and her daughter have become the latest two abduction victims. Oshichi springs into action but quickly falls under suspicion from a rival policeman, Gonroku (Haruhisa Kawada), who questions her background. All too soon, the body of a young woman is discovered at the local shrine and believed to be connected to the abduction cases. Gonroku accepts a bribe from a samurai to get rid of the body as quickly as possible, but Oshichi immediately notices the bruises on the woman’s neck and concludes it’s a murder. She and Gorohachi trace the samurai back to the red light district and discover some shady goings on in a “back house” behind a brothel belonging to a prominent merchant. 

During this era, Japan was still in its isolationist period during which consorting with foreigners was forbidden outside of a few explicitly designated trading spots. Oshichi figures out that the merchant, Nagasaki (Ryosuke Kagawa), is involved with smuggling and uses his second house as a place to entertain foreigners in collusion with local politicians. When he ran out of courtesans from the brothel next door, he started simply abducting random women off the street to entertain his guests with more authentic charms. Those who don’t comply are threatened with being sold off on slave ships, itself another evil of the age. 

Of course, a lowly dance teacher and a bumbling policeman aren’t much of a match for entrenched samurai corruption, but Oshichi has a trump card – she’s secretly a princess in hiding. Bored with the life of an upperclass noblewoman, she ran away from her brother’s home to live an independent life in Edo but can still rely on her class background when necessary. Stealing a pistol and a letter box, she rebrands herself as a man and gets a job in the ministry to try and spy on the corrupt lords while hoping to save her boss, keeping up the ruse well enough but eventually unmasked as a girl. 

As in many of her films, Misora plays on gender ambiguity. Rejecting the cosseted life of a lady, she takes to the streets and then takes charge. She’s technically Gorohachi’s subordinate, but in reality he follows her lead, and she gives as good as she gets in the frequent fight sequences. In the end, however, she’s “rescued” by a masked samurai dressed in white with whom she becomes instantly smitten. She dreams of meeting him in a deserted field where he mildly berates her for her lack of femininity, insisting that he liked “the Oshichi from before”, meanwhile she conjures up the figure of Kawashima who manfully wades in to save her. Previously, in refusing to help, Kawashima had told her that “a woman should know her place and act like a woman”. Oshichi tells him perhaps he should act like a man, practice kendo or something else more manly rather than prancing about learning to dance. His words have perhaps cut her because he tells her the same thing in her dream, insisting that he “could fall for the womanly Oshichi”.

Oshichi tries on womanliness for size, but it only seems to confuse the “real” Kawashima who describes her attempt at genial femininity as “creepy”. She quickly goes back to holding her own, pushing forward where the men hold back perhaps bashful in love but never in justice. Even if it’s true that the dashing samurai arrives to save the day, Oshichi is no damsel in distress watching passively from the sidelines but an active participant threatening bad guys with a gun cunningly smuggled in while she distracted them with a song, and grabbing a sword off the wall to wade into the fray. Rewarded for her good work and asked what she’d like in return, Oshichi chooses her freedom, intending to stay in the town a little longer, solving crimes in old Edo and ensuring that no one, even those who think they have a right to be, is truly above the law.


A Sister’s Garden (姉妹의 花園 / 자매의 화원, Shin Sang-ok, 1959)

In melodramas of the post-war era, the good suffer nobly but often find their goodness ill rewarded by an increasingly amoral society. Shin Sang-ok’s A Sister’s Garden (姉妹의 花園 / 자매의 화원, Jamaeui Hwawon) is, perhaps, a little different despite its rather mild critique of a society preparing to head into rampant capitalism, allowing a magnanimous entrepreneur to become the pure hearted saviour of an equally pure woman while her weak willed lover remains petulantly on the sidelines unable to defy outdated social codes to claim his right to happiness. 

In fact, this is in many ways Mr. Bang’s (Kim Seung-ho) story. It’s him we first meet getting off a swanky Korean Air plane signalling his position as a member of a new class of jet-setting elitists. He is, however, kindhearted which is why his first thought is to pay a visit to Dr. Nam (You Chun) who cured him of a serious illness. Unfortunately, Dr. Nam has now been laid low by the same illness himself. His business has suffered, he’s sold his clinic, taken a job at the hospital, and even mortgaged his house to a persistent loanshark. Unfortunately, all the stress has got to him and soon after Bang is able to meet with Dr. Nam he collapses and dies, breathing his last words to his assistant, Sun-cheol (Kim Seok-hun) who had been like a son to him, to the the effect that he has already arranged a marriage for eldest daughter Jeong-hui (Choi Eun-hee) to an artist named Dong-su (Nam Gung-won) and hopes that Sun-cheol will watch over his younger daughter Myeong-hui (Choe Ji-hui) and much younger son Chang-sik (Ahn Sung-ki). 

This last request will cause a series of problems among the young, the first of them being that it’s extraordinarily insensitive because Sun-cheol is himself in love with Jeong-hui who is also in love with him. Both of them are, however, good people which is why Sun-cheol wastes no time telling Jeong-hui about her father’s last words while she is minded to obey them even if her primary concern is the family finances seeing as she is now the sole provider for her siblings and there will be no more money coming in. With the loanshark still breathing down their necks, Jeong-hui is in danger of losing the family home. 

The other major problem is Myeong-hui who unlike her sister is a thoroughly modern woman, thoughtless and selfish in a childish sort of way. Unaware of the family’s financial situation, she hoped to use some of the money from selling the clinic to open a dress shop and is put out to realise there isn’t any because the clinic was only sold to pay off debts. Meanwhile, it’s also quite obvious that Dong-su, an equally naive son of a wealthy family, prefers Myeong-hui and almost certainly intends to marry her not her sister. Dong-su thinks he’s hot stuff in the art world and is going to make a lot of money selling paintings, which is optimistic whichever way you look at it. 

This awkward love square creates a series of problems of its own as Myeong-hui convinces herself that her sister is jealous of her relationship with Dong-su while also knowing that she has been silently in love with Sun-cheol for many years. Sun-cheol, for his part, feels himself indebted to the Nams and allows the debt to come between himself and true entrance to the family through marrying Jeong-hui. He saves their house through selling his own, but times being as they are Jeong-hui still needs to find a job which is another problem because she is an upper middle-class woman raised for marriage. She gave up school to keep house after her mother died and has no qualifications, even if qualifications could help a woman in need find a good job in 1950s Seoul. She asks Bang for help, and he offers her a frankly insulting opportunity as the head hostess at a sleazy bar he owns where businessmen go to have discreet fun without their wives. 

Jeong-hui wasn’t going to take it, but in the end she has little choice, allowing the married Myeong-hui and Dong-su to move into the house to look after Chang-sik while she lives at the bar. Sun-cheol, still afraid to speak his heart, is judgemental and filled with resentment, entirely unsupportive of Jeong-hui’s position or her proactive decision to try and change it even if changing it means hovering on the fringes of the sex trade. Myeong-hui also, perhaps because of her selfishness and naivety, fails to understand the sacrifices her sister has made on her behalf. Worried that Myeong-hui and Dong-su may have re-mortgaged the family home that she is actively debasing herself to save, Jeong-hui asks her sister to reassure her that the deed to the house is safe. Myeong-hui had been thinking of doing just that so she fires back cruelly that Jeong-hui has everything “easy” and can’t understand how hard it is for her, which is a strange thing to say given that Jeong-hui has become a bar girl solely to keep a roof over her sister’s head. 

Myeong-hui and Dong-su continue to make mistakes, Dong-su convincing his friend to embezzle money from his company to plough into the dress shop even though it’s a loan they can’t repay and threatens to get them all in hot water. Jeong-hui has to sort everything out again, but that puts her in further debt to Bang to whom she is already substantially indebted because he convinced her to take a loan to pay back Sun-cheol who didn’t even really want paying back. Uncharitably, Bang’s behaviour looks suspect. He makes a prim upperclass woman degrade herself by plunging her into the sleazy underbelly of a burgeoning economy and then burdens her with debt to be able to manipulate her better. Perhaps he gets a kick out of that, but soon feels guilty seeing someone who so obviously does not belong in one of his bars forced to drink with clients and play nice with the customers. On the other hand, perhaps there really were no better jobs available for a woman without qualifications and he only wanted to help. 

Ultimately, Bang turns out to be the good guy, falling in altruistic, selfless love with the innocent Jeong-hui who always does the right thing and acts with absolute integrity. Debt, once again messes everything up. Bang decides to propose to Jeong-hui, which practically speaking is a good option in the situation, but makes it clear that he is not forcing her and will continue to help and support her whatever she decides. But how is Jeong-hui to refuse someone who has been so “kind” to her without a sense of betrayal? Sun-cheol, meanwhile, is prevented from declaring his feelings because of the “debt” he feels he owes to the Nam family, not quite good enough for Jeong-hui but also the custodian of her father’s last words which were that she should marry Dong-su. Myeong-hui and Dong-su meanwhile think only of themselves, acting with selfish recklessness. Only when Jeong-hui comes through for Myeong-hui and tells her of Bang’s proposal does she begin to grow up and realise that her sister may throw away her own happiness for the sake of her family’s in marrying a rich old man out of a sense of hopelessness and obligation. 

Contrary to other melodramas, the solution is Bang’s and Bang’s alone. He makes the decision to release the youngsters from patriarchal control by essentially canceling out Dr. Nam’s last wishes by telling Jeong-hui that she should try to be happy with Sun-cheol while giving her the financial means to do so by gifting her the bar to run as her own, making her both business owner and career woman as well as wife. He absents himself in recognition that age has to give way to youth, pushing the youngsters to pursue personal happiness rather than serve outdated ideas of duty or filial obligation. Jeong-hui’s goodness wins out, but only because it was recognised by Bang who decides to set her free by cancelling not only her literal debt, but the entire idea of indebtedness in giving her permission to seek her own happiness rather than feeling obliged to prioritise that of others. 


A Sister’s Garden is the third of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Dongsimcho (동심초, Shin Sang-ok, 1959)

The Korea of 1959 was one of change, but the hardest thing to change is oneself and oftentimes the biggest obstacle to personal happiness is the fear of pursuing it. The pure hearted heroine of Shin Sang-ok’s Dongsimcho (동심초) describes herself as “a woman who thirsts for love, yet foolishly gives in to fear first”. A war widow, she’s fed up with society’s constant prejudice but too afraid of what they might think if she chose to choose love, embrace her desire, and marry again for no other reason than personal happiness. Yet for all that she’s a mother with a grown up daughter, she’s a woman too, and young, only 38, but nevertheless consigned to a life of loneliness because of a series of outdated social codes. 

When we first meet Suk-hee (Choi Eun-hee) she’s rushing to the station but arrives too late and can only watch the man she loves board a train through an iron gate that perpetually divides them. Her husband having died in the Korean War, Suk-hee once had a dress shop but was conned out of all her money and the business failed. The kind hearted brother of a friend, Sang-gyu (Kim Jin-gyu), helped her out. Through the course of his managing her affairs, they became close and fell in love, but Sang-gyu is now engaged to the boss’ daughter, Ok-ju (Do Keum-bong), and their romance seems more impossible than ever. 

Suk-hee never quite dares to hope that Sang-gyu might break off his engagement, decide against a bright middle-class future, and start again with her. She’s an old fashioned kind of woman. Despite the fact she once owned a dress shop, she only ever wears hanbok and lives in an improbably spacious Korean-style house alone with her college student daughter, Kyeong-hee (Um Aing-ran), and a maid. The debt that exists between herself and Sang-gyu is the force that both binds them and keeps them apart. The money rots their relationship, but neither of them want it to be repaid because then they’d have no more excuse to continue meeting. They are both perfectly aware of each other’s feelings but entirely unable to acknowledge them because in some sense they already know that their future is impossible. 

On discovering her mother’s “secret”, Kyeong-hee is mildly scandalised, confronted by the realisation that a mother is also a woman just as she is now. She worries about the moral ambiguities of her mother’s position and of what people might say, but quickly reconsiders, deciding to be happy for her and actively support her chances of a happier future. As a younger woman coming of age in the post-war era, Kyeong-hee feels freer to shake off social convention and strike out for personal happiness rather than being content to be miserable while upholding a series of social codes which lead only to additional suffering. 

Only slightly younger than Suk-hee, Sang-gyu is beginning to feel the same. His widowed older sister, Suk-hee’s friend, has turned to religion to escape her loneliness while staking all of her hopes on Sang-gyu’s economic success. It’s she who’s set him up with the marriage to Ok-ju and is pressuring him to accept it because it will assure her own future seeing as she is obviously not planning to defy convention and remarry. Sang-gyu, however, is filled with doubts. Eventually he tells his associate, Gi-cheol (Kim Seok-hoon), that he cannot go through with the marriage, adding that he doesn’t want advice or a warning he merely needed to tell someone. In a strange coincidence, Gi-cheol was once Kyeong-hee’s tutor, and has a surprisingly conservative attitude. Questioned by Ok-ju, he tells her to “act more lovingly” to cure Sang-gyu’s obvious lack of enthusiasm for their relationship, explaining that love doesn’t just happen but is a result of concerted effort. He tells Sang-gyu that he’s being childish and irresponsible and should think about “social ethics and morality”. In short, he should forget about the past and marry Ok-ju like a good boy. But Sang-gyu quite reasonably asks him who’s going to be responsible for what happens after that. If he marries Ok-ju now, he will merely be condemning her to a cold and loveless marriage filled with intense resentment in which the spectre of the woman he loved and lost will always stand between them. 

Kyeong-hee unexpectedly arrives part way through the conversation having followed Gi-cheol with whom she has perhaps also begun to fall in love despite the difference in their attitudes. She jumps in to defend Suk-hee, taking Sang-gyu’s side in berating Gi-cheol for insulting her mother, asking if he thinks a woman like her has no worth. Her mother is a woman too, and though she was originally confused and scandalised, after getting to know Sang-gyu and giving it some thought she’d like to give them her blessing though of course they don’t need it. Kyeong-hee is still young enough to fight for love, and the world in which she lives gives her the courage to believe it might be possible. 

The generation gap between herself and her mother, who it has to be remembered is only 38, cold not be more obvious. Suk-hee struggles against herself. She loves Sang-gyu, but the world tells her that it’s wrong and she must deny her feelings for the sake of social propriety. She can’t stand the way people look down on war widows, and she’s too afraid to give them any more ammunition. Given the relative mildness of the sanction on their relationship, in moral terms at least, it would be easy enough to read it as a metaphor for something else, especially with the repeatedly pregnant dialogue about the pain of not being permitted to marry the person that you love, that no one has the right to judge others for their personal lives, Sangyu’s sister’s aside about being “one of those people”, and finally Sang-gyu’s rather strange confession to Ok-ju that he “may have a personality disorder” in being unable to give up on his love for Suk-hee. It is definitely the case, however, that the gate that stands between them is a rigid an unforgiving society which denies love in fear of disrupting the social order.  

Suk-hee feels guilty not only for her feelings, but feeling as if she’s getting in the way of Sang-gyu’s bright and rightful future. Meanwhile, no one seems to give much thought to poor Ok-ju, used as a pawn by all while pinning for Sang-gyu despite her conviction that he’s in love with someone else and will never truly be with her. Even Gi-cheol implies it’s her own fault not being “loving” enough, while she is left with nothing but sympathy for Suk-hee as another woman forever separated from Sang-gyu because of what other people think. This world is not, it seems, entirely ready for love. Suk-hee makes the “right” choice by many people’s reckoning, one filled with nobility and self sacrifice, yet it’s a choice that becomes increasingly impossible to accept and stands only in stark condemnation of the society which convinced her that misery was virtue. 


Dongsimcho is the second of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

A College Woman’s Confession (어느 女大生의 告白 / 어느 여대생의 고백, Shin Sang-ok, 1958)

Five years after the end of the Korean War, South Korean society was both economically unstable and battling the increasingly authoritarian government of Rhee Syngman. Nevertheless, there was perhaps an aspiration for a brighter democratic future which many hoped would materialise after the protests which eventually brought down Rhee’s regime in 1960 but unfortunately led only to the even more repressive Park Chung-hee era. Released in the same year as Flower in Hell, Shin Sang-ok’s A College Woman’s Confession (어느 女大生의 告白 / 어느 여대생의 고백, Eoneu Yeodaesaengui Gobaek) is perhaps a reflection of that aspiration in its broadly humanist condemnation of an inherently unfair, rigidly patriarchal society which forces good people to act in ways which offend their sense of justice solely in order to survive. 

From a poor family, law student So-young (Choi Eun-hee) finds herself in dire straits after her grandmother who’d been supporting her and paying her tuition fees suddenly dies. She tries to find a part-time job that will let her carry on with her studies, but is either turned away or placed in difficult situations with men who abuse her trust. A sleazy boss interviewing her for a secretarial position pauses after hearing she’s a student after part-time work to suggest a “night job”, crudely leaning over as he offers her money to become his mistress. So-young slaps him across the face and leaves, but faces something much the same from the husband of her landlady who promises to stop pressuring her for the back rent in return for sexual favours. She turns him down too, but even though he backs off in fear she’ll tell his wife that he tried it on, his suddenly relaxed attitude only makes her landlady suspicious. 

At her wits end and about to quit school, So-young turns to her comparatively better off friend Hee-sook (Kim Sook-il) who dreams of becoming a novelist. Hee-sook brings up a diary she’s been reading that was found in some old furniture sold to her family’s store which recounts the sad life story of a girl who was seduced and betrayed by a man who left her to marry a wealthy woman. With too much time on her hands, Hee-sook has identified the man in the diary as prominent politician Choi Rim (Kim Seung-ho) and taken it upon herself to send him a letter telling him that he has a daughter named So-young from the love of his youth. Despite the fact that the diary says the woman’s baby died, Hee-sook suggests So-young pose as Choi’s long lost daughter so he’ll support her through the rest of uni. So-young is not convinced, but finds herself heading over to visit Choi after exhausting all her other options and being reluctant to go back to the boarding house without money. Choi absentmindedly turns her away, only to think better of it and send his secretary after her, but she ends up getting hit by a car trying to avoid yet another creepy old man who sees her in distress in the street and offers her money for sex. 

Creepy men are indeed everywhere. Even the wily Hee-sook finds herself bothered by an unpleasant man in a cafe who repeatedly pesters her even after she makes a point of ignoring him and pointedly switches seats. He doesn’t give up even after So-young arrives, abruptly offering to buy both women dinner, after which Hee-sook ushers So-young out declaring that this cafe is too “weird” to stay in any longer. Men are, it seems, content to exploit the desperation of vulnerable women for their own satisfaction. As So-young puts it in trying to defend another woman after she’s successfully become a lawyer, “vulgar men see women only as objects to satisfy their sexual desires”. 

This feeds back in to the sin the otherwise kindhearted Choi is trying to expiate. He made a choice in his youth, sometime in the colonial era, to abandon a woman he claimed to love to make a dynastic match. Though it’s not clear whether or not he knew there was a child, he seems to harbour a deep sense of guilt over his decision to essentially use two women in different ways. Faced with the “resurfacing” of So-young, he immediately explains everything to his wife (Yoo Gye-seon) but tries to pass it off as “all in the past” while earnestly asking her to help him make amends by accepting So-young into their home in place of the daughter they apparently lost. She fires back at him that it must be very convenient for men who can forget about things that are “all in the past” while women have to live the rest of their lives with the harm that they cause. Choi doesn’t argue with her, but nor does he ask for forgiveness, only understanding. Mrs. Choi answers that she ought to tell him no in revenge for the all the wrongs he’s done her (this appears not to be a terribly happy marriage), but agrees that it’s not So-young’s fault and so of course she can come because “it’s the right thing to do as a human being”. 

Mrs. Choi, however, remains suspicious, unconvinced by So-young’s story but also by her distance from her. That could of course be explained by embarrassment in being the child of the “other woman”, but Mrs. Choi is right to sense guilt in her reserve as she becomes ever more conflicted about the necessity of deceiving people who have been nothing but kind to her. It’s this sense of guilt which is intensified after she becomes a lawyer and achieves her dream of helping other disadvantaged women by defending a single-mother, much like the woman from the diary, who was seduced and betrayed by a man whom she later killed in a crime of passion. In her passionate defence of the extremely repentant Soon-hee (Hwang Jung-seun) is who is around the same age as she is, So-young reflects on the relative similarities between them and that the only reason they are standing in their respective positions is circumstance. 

“The purpose of the law is not only punishment but to awaken goodness in all our hearts” So-young reminds the judges, determined to offer “an earnest plea on behalf of desperate women”. Soon-hee admits her guilt and asks for no leniency, but is brought to tears as So-young outlines the social factors which explain why she found herself stabbing the man who had caused her so much suffering and then got on with his life without giving her a second thought. Her only transgression being sex before marriage, Soon-hee did everything else right but was condemned to a life of poverty and forced to consider sex work in order to buy medicine for her sickly baby. As a pure hearted woman, she can’t go through with it and considers robbery instead (apparently a “lesser” crime) only to bump into an old friend but be too ashamed to ask her for help. 

Earlier on, after her graduation ceremony, So-young had explained her ambitions to help women and children in poverty to Choi’s kindly secretary Sang-ho (Choi Hyeon) who has obviously taken a liking to her. He’s broadly supportive, but reminds her that if she wants to improve society perhaps she should think about fostering greater social change through political action (as he is perhaps doing), but she shakes her head and points out that he’s never known what it is to be hungry or desperate and that there are people who need the kind of help that only she can give them, such as women like Soon-hee. Yet in defending another woman she’s reminded only of her own “sin” in having wilfully deceived Choi and his wife, burdened by the need to keep her secret and convinced the only thing she can do is to confess all. 

Yet Mrs. Choi proves unexpectedly supportive, explaining that she’s known all along that So-young lied and has come to love her as a daughter anyway. She can see how happy she makes Choi who is proud and excited to have such an amazing young woman in his life, and finding out the truth would only break his heart. So-young’s confession would be for herself alone, to ease her own conscience, while the burden of carrying this secret is perhaps the price of her happiness. In an odd way, So-young has repaired their marriage, and with her success in the courts has perhaps completed the integration of their family with the implication that Sang-ho may later join it too. Fiercely condemning the evils of a patriarchal society, A College Woman’s Confession suggests that the literal truth might not be as important as the emotional, and that a rigid morality serves no one, while offering the vision of a brighter, more equal society founded on compassion and understanding rather than cold authoritarian paternalism. 


A College Woman’s Confession is the first of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Hungry Soul / Hungry Soul, Part II (飢える魂 / 続・飢える魂, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956)

When you think of the family drama, you think of a young woman getting married and that her marriage is an unambiguously good and righteous thing despite the pain it may bring to her parents who will obviously miss her yet must comfort themselves that they’ve done everything right. In melodrama, however, we get quite a different picture of the “modern” marriage in which it is not quite so unambiguously good or righteous but a patriarchal trap enabled by a kind of gaslighting which tells women that suffering is the natural condition of life and that they should wear their unhappiness as a badge of honour.  

Nowhere does this seem truer than in the films of Yuzo Kawashima who in general takes quite a dim view of romance as a path to freedom and finds his heroines struggling to escape outdated social codes to seize their own freedom. Hungry Soul (飢える魂, Ueru Tamashii) finds one still comparatively young woman and another middle-aged discovering that they want more out of life than their society thinks a woman is supposed to have but continuing to wrestle with themselves over whether or not they have the right to pursue their personal happiness in a rigidly conservative society. 

Reiko (Yoko Minamida), a woman in her early 30s, married Shiba (Isamu Kosugi), 23 years her senior, 10 years previously apparently out of a mix of youthful naivety and post-war desperation. Shiba has supported her financially and apparently enabled her brother’s career, but it’s clear that he thinks of her as little more than a glorified housemaid, treating her with utter contempt even in public. He makes her carry her own bags at the station rather than wait for a porter and forces her to accompany him on business trips where he shows her off to colleagues and then retires her to the hotel with nothing to do all day. Tyrannised, Reiko has been been raised to be obedient and does her best to be a good wife, but Shiba repeatedly reminds her that he bought her while openly talking about his relationships with other women even at one point bringing a geisha home with him while Reiko cringes in the front seat next to the driver. 

Perhaps what she’s learning is that obedience is not an unambiguously good quality, but still she struggles to let go of the necessity of measuring up to the standards of social propriety. When Shiba unwittingly introduces her to handsome politician Tachibana (Tatsuya Mihashi), her accidental attraction to him awakens her to all the ways her married life is a hell of disappointment. Shiba reminds her that he keeps her in comfort, little understanding that she may hunger for something more than the material, while Reiko realises that she may starve to death for lack of love but has been conditioned to think that a woman’s emotional needs are not only unimportant but entirely taboo. 

Mayumi (Yukiko Todoroki), meanwhile, has known love but feels obliged to live on the memory of her late husband and fulfil herself only though caring for her two teenage children. To do that, paradoxically, she has seized her independence as a working woman with a job in real estate, later hoping to manage a ryokan traditional style hotel, only for her children to resent her perceived rejection of motherhood in favour of individual fulfilment. “School is for people who have two parents” her son tells her, threatening to move out into a dorm, while her daughter at one point considers suicide simply because she suspects her mother may be sleeping with her late father’s best friend. 

In Reiko’s case, her desire for liberation is kickstarted by a hunger for love, though as we later realise Tachibana is also perhaps looking to break with the past and with conventional male behaviour in that he has been a womanising playboy involved in relationships with women from the red light district which to him were always casual while they, like Reiko and Mayumi, longed for more. Mayumi’s relationship with Shimozuma (Shiro Osaka), by contrast, is complicated by the fact he is married to a woman with a long-term illness, though what he craves (besides Mayumi herself for whom he seems to have been carrying a torch for many years) is a conventional family home, jokingly chiding Mayumi that her interest in business may be making her less “womanly”.  

Both women try, and fail, to break free of patriarchal control to claim their own agency, discovering that romance is not the best way to find freedom. Despite her love for and possibly misplaced faith in Tachibana, Reiko is both too brutalised by her abusive husband and constrained by the taboo of being a woman ending a marriage for another man to definitively escape Shiba’s control. Mayumi, meanwhile, is shamed by the reflection of herself in her children’s eyes and motivated to reassume her maternity but does so also as a way of rejecting easy romantic fulfilment in the hope of discovering more of herself as a middle-aged woman embracing all the freedom that might offer while her children, though grateful to have her return to them, are also chastened and guilty in having realised that their mother is a woman too and ultimately they just want her to be happy. As often in Kawashima, no one quite gets what they wanted, but they do at least find a kind of resolution. Their souls may still be hungry, but their appetites have returned and there is the promise of future fulfilment if still tempered by the restrictions of a cruelly repressive society.


Hungry Soul opening (no subtitles)

Hungry Soul, Part II opening (no subtitles)

Our Town (わが町, Yuzo Kawashima, 1956)

“They tricked me and you and everyone! It’s so stupid” a stammering man tries to explain to his deluded friend, but some people just don’t want to hear the truth. Spanning 30 years of tumultuous 20th century history, Yuzo Kawashima’s Our Town (わが町, Waga Machi) charts a course of authoritarian fallacy as its puffed up hero refuses to give up on the imperialism of his youth and condemns all around him to lives of misery out of misguided faith in an outdated code of patriarchal and national pride. Too late he will perhaps begin to realise that his unforgiving rigidity has done nothing more than alienate the people that he loves, but his story is both a lament for past folly and a warning for the freer post-war future. 

Back in the 1900s, the tail end of the Meiji era, Taa (Ryutaro Tatsumi) was one of 1200 Japanese construction workers who travelled to the Philippines to help build a road intended to boost the economy of the recently independent nation. Now, around this time, Japan was also embarking on the the first of its 20th century wars fought against the Russians. While Taa was breaking his back on the Benguet road, other young men were busy painting themselves in glory as imperial soldiers contributing to the expansion of the burgeoning Japanese Empire. In his own way, and quite literally, Taa was also building the Japanese Empire and intensely resents that no one recognises his contribution as the self-styled “Taa of Benguet” who apparently kept his fellow Japanese going even when it became clear that they were just exploited workers, hung out to dry once the job was done and left to die of poverty or tropical disease. 

Taa’s life philosophy is that humans are born to work and that suffering in youth builds character. He wanted to show the world what Japanese people are made of and feels he made Japan proud building the Benguet roadway, but there are no flag waving parades for his return as there were for Hanai who went away to war, nor is there any real work. Embarrassed about his illiteracy, he didn’t even write any letters home which is one reason why he didn’t know that a casual girlfriend, Tsuru (Yoko Minamida), whom he’d perhaps long forgotten, had given birth to his child, Hatsue, who is now four. Despite his initial surprise, Taa submits himself to the role of husband and father, earning money as a rickshaw driver, but never forgets that he is “Taa of Benguet” or that the meaning of life is suffering through hard work. 

Old fashioned and patriarchal even for the times in which he lives, Taa’s attitudes continue to destroy the lives of those around him. He wasn’t there to support Tsuru and so she worked herself to death in his absence. Hatsue (Tomoko Ko) grows into a beautiful young woman and falls in love with Shintaro (Shiro Osaka) the son of a bucket maker who, though athletic, is not perhaps built for hard work in the same way as Taa had been. He tries to force his philosophies on the younger generation, pressuring Shintaro to go to the Philippines to make a man of himself, not quite understanding that much has changed in the previous 15 years, nor that Shintaro may not be able to endure the kind of hardship he regards as indicative of a productive life. 

Taa learns nothing from his mistakes, eventually pressuring his granddaughter Kimie (Yoko Minamida) in the same way he’d done his daughter, objecting to her desire to marry a man of her own choosing even though he embodies many of his oft spoken ideals including dedication to hard work. Jiro (Tatsuya Mihashi) is the son of his old rival Hanai and was himself in the war. Like Taa and the men of his generation, he too was “tricked” into working overseas for a mistaken ideal of Japanese imperialism but he’s also a man of the post-war generation and has no more illusions about things like glory or suffering.

Kimie too, as she later tells Taa, is a post-war woman. She feels no obligation towards her grandfather simply because he raised her, nor will she allow her life to be ruined in the same way her mother’s and grandmother’s were by Taa’s patriarchal authoritarianism. “You’ve got to start listening to the younger generation” Jiro tries to explain, but Taa is not someone used to listening. “Every single thing you’ve ever done has been pointless” Kimie tells him, “trapped in your own happy bubble, getting in the way of everyone else”. All Taa’s philosophy has ever caused is pain and suffering, trying to make the lives of all the men who died building a road in a foreign land mean something while ironically propping up the same ideology that robs men like him of their freedom and possibility. You could say something broke in 1905, but it also broke 40 years later, people are wiser now and they know there’s no glory in suffering. Taa sees the error of his ways, but also that there’s no place for him in the kinder post-war era where there’s no sin in working hard, but no life without freedom. 


Titles and opening (no subtitles)