Tokyo Knights (東京騎士隊, Seijun Suzuki, 1961)

Tokyo Knights posterUnlike those from elsewhere, Japanese teen movies can often exist inside their very own bubbles in which the central characters refuse their coming of age stories and either die senselessly or simply carry on from their zany adventures as if nothing had really happened. Tokyo Knights (東京騎士隊, Tokyo Knight) definitely falls into the comedy category as its teen heartthrob hero, played by the then up and coming matinee idol Koji Wada, pulls a Hamlet in being called back from overseas studies to become CEO in waiting to his late father’s company only to suspect there’s something rotten in the state of Matsubara Construction. Quirky high school antics quickly give way to conspiracy thriller, but Koji (Koji Wada) remains steadfast and unwavering in the face of adversity as he faces off against the forces of darkness with little more than Nikkatsu spirit.

The film opens with a rather strange ceremony in which high school student Koji is instated as the new CEO of his father’s company. Koji’s dad apparently died suddenly in a freak accident meaning Koji has had to come home early from studying abroad in the US. Despite apparently being an amazing student who is good at absolutely everything and has joined all the after school clubs on offer, Koji has chosen the Catholic Elizabeth Academy because it’s well known as a coasting school where you can graduate with average grades. Fairly low attainment goals might be just as well because Koji is about to have his hands full with another mission. He’s convinced his dad’s death wasn’t an “accident” and he suspects his deputy, Mishima (Nobuo Kaneko), who is also getting close to his mum, might know more about it than he’s letting on.

In the grand tradition of heroes in Japanese teen drama, Koji has just found himself at the centre of a huge and dark conspiracy involving dodgy yakuza construction deals, blackmail, and murder. He does not lose heart or look to the grown ups for help but decides to handle the problem himself, settling back into the Hamlet-esque role he’s been assigned in neatly setting traps for the treacherous Mishima only doing it with a little more cosmopolitan flair carried back from abroad. Swapping roles like one of his much loved Noh costumes, he then becomes a kind of Romeo to the high school darling Yuriko (Mayumi Shimizu) whose dad, unbeknownst to her, turns out to be a horrible gangster who might be involved in the nefarious plan to take over the family firm. Enjoying a minor romance with the melancholy Yuriko, Koji considers the best way to get revenge and expose evil while protecting his mother, surrogate little sister figure, and his newfound love (?) Yuriko who will undoubtedly suffer now that she knows what kind of man her father really is.

Suzuki apparently incited the wrath of studio bosses when he took a serious crime script and turned it into an anarchic teen comedy but then you have to wonder what they thought it was he would do with it. The impossibly cool Koji is certainly an unrealistic hero, presented unironically he’d be sure to irritate – guys like Koji are, after all, more usually the antagonist set up to make our imperfect everyman feel inferior while he progresses towards some kind of self actualisation as a result of the standard narrative. Koji is, however, heroic and easily likeable as he assumes complete control, handling every situation with practiced ease and remembering to remain kind and just while he does so. He even stops to listen to his mother’s problems, sympathising with her when she reveals her unhappiness with his father, and urging her to grasp happiness wherever she sees it without worrying whatever he or anyone else might think.

Perhaps because of the relative simplicity of the plot, and the opportunity to shoot in colour, Suzuki flexes his muscles a little more than usual in adding in a fair few post-modern techniques including on screen graphics such as a series of large question marks zooming out of the major players Koji suspects may be involved in his father’s death and making a joke out of the need to include the songs of the day with frequent cuts to a teen cabaret club. For all of the tale’s darkness and almost Shakespearean overtones, Suzuki keeps his tongue firmly in cheek with a cartoonish sense of fun and lightness, allowing our heroes to emerge from their ordeal fairly unscathed while honour and justice are preserved. Who knew Catholic school could be so much fun?


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Smashing the 0-Line (密航0ライン, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

(C) Nikkatsu 1960

(C) Nikkatsu 1960Looking from the outside in, the Tokyo of 1960 seems to have been one of rising economic prosperity in which post-war anxiety was beginning to transition into a relentless surge towards modernity, but there also seems to have been a mild preoccupation with the various dangers that same modernity might present. Like The Sleeping Beast Within released just two months previously, Smashing the 0-Line (密航0ライン, Mikko Zero Line) centres on a mystery which leads straight back to Hong Kong and a dangerous, international smuggling ring – this time involving both drugs and people. Our heroes are both reporters, but at odds with each other despite being old friends in having diametrically opposed notions of professional ethics.

Katori (Hiroyuki Nagato), our anti-hero, is a man so desperate to get a scoop that he thinks little of engineering one. Thus we witness him making passionate love to a woman one minute before turning her into the police the next. The woman, Reiko (Sanae Nakahara), is also the little sister of one of his oldest friends, Saiko (Ryohei Uchida), whom he also decides to turn into the police in service of his story. Another old friend, Nishina (Yuji Kodaka), has also become a reporter but for a more respectable paper and is dating Katori’s little sister, Sumiko (Mayumi Shimizu), who is now the announcer at the local baseball stadium. Katori’s decision to turn on Reiko will have profoundly negative consequences for her former lover who is prepared to sacrifice all in pursuit of his goal.

Three men, once college friends, have chosen three radically different paths in the post-war world. Saiko has become a gangster while Katori has become an unscrupulous yet apparently publicly minded newshound and Nishina a pure hearted journalist who insists on doing everything by the book and abiding by conventional journalistic ethics. Yet despite himself, or possibly because of his love for Sumiko, Nishina tries to help Katori see the dangers of his extremely dangerous pattern of behaviour in which he has been content to use people like things to get what he wants.

Katori claims to be on the same side as Nishina – he thinks something is going sour in the city and that only he can stop it by exposing the various conspiracies in play. Katori’s chief fear is that Tokyo will become “another Hong Kong” – a crime ridden state of drug addled lawlessness (an extremely biased and seemingly inaccurate view of ‘60s Hong Kong but one that speaks of a certain fear of Japan’s new spot on the global scene). This particular conspiracy does indeed ping back to Hong Kong and the illegal traffic of drugs but also people heading in both directions. In the Japan of 1960, it was near impossible to get a passport and so smuggling yourself out might be the only way if you really need to get to Hong Kong which means you’ll need to pay a people trafficker to do it.

Katori, broadly, seems to think people trafficking is a bad thing he doesn’t want in Japan but is entirely blind to the same ways he himself uses people in pursuit of his goals. Not only does he bed Reiko (his friend’s little sister) only to make a speedy exit minutes before the police arrive, but he also palms off another mark on his informant only to turn them both in in hope of greater gain. He even manages to find time to seduce a doctor at the centre of the scandal who tries to pull a gun on him but later surrenders completely, only to fall victim to some proactive tidying up from the bad guys. Not content with sacrificing former lovers, Katori will not give in even for his sister, refusing to give up on his lead even when Sumiko is threatened with gang rape. When Nishina turns up and saves the day, Katori doesn’t even stop to ask how Sumiko is but walks off in the direction of the story with nary a second glance to his unconscious sister.

Yet Katori’s particular brand of nihilistic heroism consistently fails. His scoops are uninteresting and he only gets them by inserting himself into the story. Nishina, steadfast and honest – he even goes to the trouble of getting a proper passport to hide on his person in case he’s caught pretending to be a stowaway, is the one who gets there in the end, breaking the smuggling ring, rescuing Katori after he gets himself in trouble, and generally always being around to save the day. Mildly ironic themes of xenophobia aside, Smashing the 0-Line is a typically frenetic piece from Suzuki which offers only a few instances of unusual experimentation in his use of freeze frames and onscreen text but packs in plenty of punch in its amoral anti-hero and the dogged investigative reporter trailing along behind.


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set (also features incisive audio commentary from Jasper Sharp providing a wealth of background information not just about Suzuki’s career but the state of the Japanese film industry at the time)

The Sleeping Beast Within (けものの眠り, Seijun Suzuki, 1960)

Sleeping Beast Within posterTo those of a “traditional” mindset, a woman’s career is her home and she never gets to retire. Men, by this same logic, are killed off at 60 and reborn into a second childhood where they get to indulge their love of fly fishing or suddenly discover an untapped talent for haiku. Seeing as a man often lives at the office, being excommunicated from his corporate family can seem like a heavy penalty for those who’ve devoted their entire existence to the salaryman ideal. So it is for the old timer at the centre of Seijun Suzuki’s 1960 mystery thriller, The Sleeping Beast Within (けものの眠り, Kemono no Nemuri) in which the sudden disappearance of a model employee sparks his daughter and her dogged reporter boyfriend to investigate, unwittingly discovering a vast drug smuggling conspiracy headed by a dodgy cult leader.

Veteran salaryman Junpei Ueki (Shinsuke Ashida) has been working in Hong Kong for two years and is finally coming home, to retire. His family have come to meet him but, as his daughter’s reporter boyfriend Kasai (Hiroyuki Nagato) points out, no one much else has turned up – so it is for those who don’t play office politics, claims one of the few colleagues who has arrived to greet the recently returned businessman. Ueki isn’t very happy about his retirement and believes he’ll be getting a part-time job at the same company only to be informed position has been “withdrawn”. When he doesn’t come home after his retirement party, something surely out of character for such a straight shooting family man, his wife and daughter become worried. Keiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) enlists Kasai to help figure out what’s happened to her dad only for him to suddenly turn up with a bad excuse and an almost total personality transplant. Kasai keeps digging, and the reporter in him loves what he finds even if the nice boyfriend wishes he didn’t.

Suzuki sets up what a good guy Ueki is when he brings back a modest ring for Keiko only for her to mockingly ask if her dad couldn’t have brought something a bit flashier. Ueki points out that the customs people might not have liked that so she jokes that he should have just smuggled it in like everyone else. Kasai reminds her that her dad’s not that kind of man, but two years in Hong Kong have apparently changed him. Having spent two years away from his family and 30 years slaving away at a boring desk job, Ueki feels he’s owed something more than an unceremonious kiss off and a little more time for gardening. The reason he ended up entering the world of crime wasn’t the money, or that he was blackmailed – it started because of his sense of integrity. He felt he owed someone and he did them a favour. It went wrong and he ended up here. His decision to join the gang came after he tried to “pay back” the money for some missing drugs only to realise that his entire retirement plan was worth only a tiny fraction of his new debt. Ueki felt small and stupid, like a man who’d wasted his life playing the mugs game. He wanted some payback, but his life as criminal mastermind turned out not to be much of a success either.

Trying to explain her father’s actions to the wounded Keiko, Kasai explains that everyone has a sleeping beast in their heart which is capable doing terrible things when it awakens. Ueki’s sleeping beast was woken by his resentment and sense of betrayal in being so cruelly cast aside by the system to which he’d devoted his life while the guys who broke all the rules – drug dealers, gangsters, and corrupt businessmen, lived the high life. One could almost argue that a sleeping beast is stirring in Kasai’s heart as he pushes his investigation to the limit, occasionally forgetting about the harm it will do to Keiko even whilst acknowledging the greater good of breaking the smuggling ring once and for all. Keiko too finds herself torn, confused and heartbroken by the change in her father’s personality though her mother feels quite differently.  Claiming that “a woman has no say in her husband’s work”, Keiko’s mum tells her daughter that a wife’s duty is to do as her husband says and avoid asking questions. Keiko has asked a lot of questions already and shows no signs of stopping now, even once she realises she won’t like the answers.

Despite the grimness of the underlying tenet that it doesn’t take much for honest men to abandon their sense of morality, Suzuki maintains his trademark wryness as Kasai and Keiko go about their investigation like a pair of pesky kids chasing a cartoon villain. Though the tale is straightforward enough, he does throw in a decent amount of experimentation with two innovative flashback sequences in which the flashback itself is presented as a superimposition with the person narrating it hovering at edges as if referring to a slide. The beast is quelled with a shot to the heart, but not before it wreaks havoc on the lives of ordinary people – not least Ueki himself who is forced to confront what it is he’s become and who he was prepared to sacrifice to feed the hungry demon inside him.


Available as part of Arrow’s Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years Vol. 2 Border Crossings box set.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A Thousand & One Nights (千夜一夜物語, Eiichi Yamamoto, 1969)

one thousand and one nights poster 2The “Godfather of Manga” Osamu Tezuka had been a pioneer of what later became the mainstream of a burgeoning industry, kickstarting TV anime in the process with the long running Astro Boy. His ambitions, however, increasingly ran towards the avant-garde and he feared that the heavy association between his production company, Mushi Pro, and genial kids’ cartoons would only lead to diminishing artistic returns even if the increasing merchandising opportunities would perhaps allow the studio to engage in other less profitable areas such the adult-orientated anime he longed to produce. By the late ‘60s, Tezuka’s polite, inoffensive brand of child-friendly adventure stories were becoming distinctly old hat while the “gekiga” movement, acting more or less in direct opposition, continued to gain ground with older readers keen to move on to more adult fare. The Animerama series was intended to prove that Tezuka still had something new and dynamic to bring to the table and that there was a market for “racy” animation which embraced mature themes and experimental artwork.

The first of the Animerama films, A Thousand & One Nights (千夜一夜物語, Senya Ichiya Monogatari), is, as the title implies, loosely inspired by classic Arabian folktales as its hero “Aldin” (Yukio Aoshima) finds and then loses true love, overcomes the urge for vengeance, is himself corrupted by wealth and power, and then is returned to the very same state in which we first encountered him walking off into the sunset in preparation for the next adventure.

The tale begins with a slave auction at which the lowly water seller Aldin first catches sight of the beautiful Milliam (Kyoko Kishida). He tries to buy her but is too poor while the son of the local police chief (Asao Koike) outbids all to win the prize. However, in the first of many strokes of luck that will befall Aldin, a sandstorm allows him steal away with Milliam who falls in love with him too and gives herself willingly to a man she sees as an equal rather than a master. Sadly, their true love story is short lived and they are soon separated sending Aldin off on a quest to return to his beloved that will only end in tragedy.

Despite the later protestations that the love of Aldin and Milliam is one of equals in which there are no masters or slaves, only a man and a woman, it remains true that Aldin watched the slave auction with a degree of titillation and would have bought Milliam had he only been able to afford her. Surviving on his wits, Aldin is a cheeky chancer waiting for that big lucky break he is sure is waiting somewhere round the corner but he is not, perhaps, above becoming that which oppresses him. Later, having become a wealthy and powerful man, he uses his wealth and his power in the same way that others use theirs against him in pressuring a vulnerable young girl to become his mistress against her will, ripping her away from her own true love in the same way he was once ripped away from Milliam by another man wearing a crown. As a “king” he wonders what “power” is, pushing his as far as it will go in order to find out and risking “losing himself” in a way he’d once thought he’d overcome in rejecting a pointless act of vengeance that would forever have changed him.

Milliam, and later Jallis – the daughter of Aldin and Milliam raised by their worst enemy, Badli (Hiroshi Akutagawa), fight for the right to decide their own romantic destiny. Like Madlia (Sachiko Ito), the feisty bandit’s daughter, they resist the social codes of their era in which women are merely prizes divided among men and actively attempt to free themselves through love only to find defeat and despair. Yet love, or more precisely lust, can also be a force of constraint and or ruin as Aldin discovers on a paradise island when he unwisely decides to abandon Madlia, who has also fallen in love with him, for the empty pleasures of orgiastic sex with the voracious islanders whose unrestrained desire soon threatens to consume him whole.

A picaresque adventure, A Thousand & One Nights is a bawdy, flippant retelling of the Aladdin myth in which the hero begins as a poor yet free and cheerful young man before experiencing what it is to be wealthy and all powerful and discovering that it only makes him mean and miserable. Shifting from model shots to live photography and abstract to cartoonish animation, Yamamoto’s direction may appear restrained in comparison to the more outlandish and surreal Belladonna of Sadness but is a masterclass in finding artistry through budgetary limitations. A psychedelic odyssey through freedom and constraint, desire and obsession, A Thousand & One Nights is a forgotten landmark of experimental animation as relentlessly strange as it is endearing.


Available on blu-ray from Third Window Films as a part of double release with Eiichi Yamamoto & Osamu Tezuka’s Cleopatra.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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