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.

Black Sun (黒い太陽, Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1964)

black sun still 2The Warped Ones showed us a nihilistic world of aimless youth living not so much on their wits as by their pleasures, indulging their every animalistic whim while respectable society looked on in horror. By 1964 things have only got worse. Tokyo might have got the Olympics, Japan might be back on the international map, and economic prosperity might be on the rise but all around the city there’s an arid wasteland – a literal dumping ground in which the unburied past has been left to fester as a grim reminder of historical follies and the present’s reluctance to deal with them.

Akira (Tamio Kawaji), now calling himself “Mei” (perhaps a play on the reading of the character for his name 明), seems to have mellowed since the heady days of his youth. Living alone save for a dog named Thelonious Monk, Mei has co-opted a disused church and turned it into a shrine for jazz. The walls and ceilings are covered in photographs of famous jazz musicians and posters for club nights and solo shows. He has his own turntable and a well stocked selection of LPs, though he still seems to frequent the same kind of jazz clubs that so defined his earlier life.

Change arrives when Mei boosts a fancy car and is almost caught in a police net caused by the body of an American serviceman found floating in the harbour. Apparently the crime is the product of an internal GI squabble, but the offending soldier is on the run with a machine gun. As coincidence would have it, the wounded killer, Gil (Chico Lourant), fetches up at Mei’s church and, as Gil is a black man, Mei assumes that they will definitely be friends. It is, however, not quite that simple.

As in the earlier film, jazz is the force which keeps Mei’s mind from fracturing. His life still moves to improvisational rhythms even if apparently not quite so frenetically as it once did. Rather than the rampant animal of The Warped Ones, this Mei has embraced his outsider status through literally removing himself from the city in favour of self-exile and isolation as a squatter in the house of God – a place about to be torn down.

While Mei has been literally pushed out with only his beloved dog as evidence of his latent human feelings, his formerly delinquent friend, Yuki (Yuko Chishiro), has gone on to bigger and better things. No longer (it seems) a casual prostitute catering to foreigners, Yuki has repurposed the skills her former life gave her to shift into an aspirational middle-class world as a translator for those same American troops she once performed another service for. The American occupation is long over, but the US Army is everywhere.

Mei thinks of himself as one of Japan’s oppressed outsiders – an outcast in a land subjugated by a foreign power. He squats in a ruined church while the Americans “squat” in his ruined country. He likes jazz because it fits the rhythms of his mind but also because he believes it to be the music of the oppressed. In Gil he thinks he sees another like him, a man oppressed in his own homeland and ironically enough by the same forces that are (in part) oppressing him. Mei has a lot of strange, stereotypical ideas about black men – he’s excited to meet Gil because he thinks all black men must love jazz and that Gil must be some kind of jazz god, but Gil is a frightened rabbit on the run, terrified and bleeding. Thinking he’s in the middle of a visitation, Mei tries to make plain his enthusiasm despite the obvious language barrier, pointing wildly at his shrine to jazz, but all Gil wants is quiet and help with the bullet wound currently suppurating on his thigh.

The “relationship” deteriorates, but a strange kind of camaraderie is eventually born between the two men. Things take a turn for the surreal when Mei dons black face and paints Gil’s white, only to get stopped by GIs who want to see an ID from a “foreigner” driving a fancy car, and for Mei to introduce Gil at his favourite jazz bar as his new “slave”. In hindsight it’s all a little awkward as Kurahara throws in stock footage of the civil rights movement and tries to equate it both to the recent protest movements in Japan and to Mei’s self-identified status as one of Japan’s oppressed masses. Still, you can’t argue with the fact that the two men have found a bond in their shared alienation and desire to escape from the impotence of their current situations.

Ironically enough Kurahara does seem to believe in an escape, though it’s perhaps not so positive as it sounds. The tragic friendship of the two men in which one must save the other by releasing him towards the sea and the sun pushes Mei out of his self-exile and back into the “real” world even if he still considers himself to be an outsider within it. The sun is bright but it’s also dull, shining not with hope but with consolation for a hopeless world in which the only victory lies in the final act of surrender.


Short scene from the beginning of the film (English subtitles)

Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Takumi Furukawa, 1964)

cruel-gun-story-poster.jpgIn the history of Japanese noir, the name Haruhiko Oyabu looms large. Oyabu’s gritty, pulp infused tales of tough guy heroes found their clearest expression in the hardline ‘70s with Toru Murakawa’s unique brand of macho action as seen in Resurrection of the Golden Wolf or The Beast Must Die, but a decade earlier they were also finding fertile ground in Nikkatsu’s harder B-movie noir. Based on a novel by Oyabu, Cruel Gun Story (拳銃残酷物語, Kenju Zankoku Monogatari) seems to owe more than a little to Kubrick’s The Killing in its crime never pays tale of honest crooks undercut by their unscrupulous comrades but the central message is that the gun is a cruel master and those living under its control will pay a heavy price.

Togawa (Jo Shishido) has just been (unexpectedly) given early release from a prison sentence incurred when he took revenge on the truck driver who knocked down his little sister (Chieko Matsubara) and confined her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Middle rank gangster Ito – formerly a crooked lawyer with a pencil mustache a supercilious air, has a job for him the gang thinks only he can do. The payout is 120 million yen – not to be sniffed at, but Togawa has reasons to be suspicious. He takes some convincing but finally relents when he finds out an old and trusted friend, Shirai (Yuji Kodaka), has already agreed. The gang have another three guys lined up but Togawa rules the third one out when he tests him and confirms he’s an untrustworthy blabbermouth. The other two are a former boxer with mild brain damage whose girlfriend has just left him, and an unscrupulous but clever chancer named Teramoto (Kojiro Kusanagi).

Following the general pattern, Furukawa walks us through the heist as it’s supposed to go if everything goes to plan complete with a 3D diagram and plastic toy cars but, of course, not everything goes to plan. The job is to steal the ticket money from the Japan Derby (much like the race course robbery in The Killing). The gang will set up fake road signs and station a “policeman” to divert the armoured car onto a small country lane where they will kill the police motorcycle escort, get rid of the guards, and load the truck onto a bigger lorry that they will then take to a disused US airbase they’ll use as their lair.

Disused American airbase could easily apply to the entirety of the surrounding area. Jets fly ominously overhead while the world Togawa and his guys inhabit is one of noirish jazz bars filled with foreigners, grimy boxing clubs, signs in English and the relics of destruction everywhere. This is a place for those who’ve already fallen through the cracks, even the gangsters are only really small fry – not yakuza but hoodlums ripped straight from the Edward G. Robinson playbook. This giant heist is the most audacious in living memory, pulling it off would be the finest achievement any of them would ever make, taking them out of their dead end environments and catapulting them into the criminal high life.

Togawa knows there’s something not right about this – he almost turns it down because he wants to be around to take care of his sister, but he also wants the money to pay for an operation he hopes will restore her mobility to assuage his guilt over having sent her out on the fateful day she was injured. Rie now lives in the care of kindly nuns and is a goodhearted, religious woman hoping for her big brother’s reformation. Togawa and his sister are also victims of war having lost their parents during the evacuation from Manchuria and have been essentially on their own ever since. Rie has become a living symbol of Togawa’s failures – his inability to protect her, to keep them both safe and together, and to free them of the ruined post-war landscape within which they both remain trapped. Rie pins her hopes on God, but Togawa says to hell with that – where has He been so far?

Having pinned his hopes on the gun, Togawa intends this to be the heist to end all heists. After this, he’ll be free to give his sister the life she deserves away from crime and the rundown town strewn with mementos of a distant, dethroned occupying power. The gun, however, is a divisive weapon and engenders nothing but mistrust among men. Resentful of Togawa’s solid friendships, the other guys turn on him as do his shady employers sending Togawa even further along the dark path to moral ruination than he already was. All that’s waiting for Togawa is a hollow victory and the intense disappointment of those whose faith in him was ultimately misplaced.


The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Noboru Nakamura, 1964)

(C) Shochiku 1964Despite having two films nominated for a best foreign language Oscar and a handful of foreign festival hits under his belt, Noboru Nakamura has been largely forgotten by Western film criticism though a centennial retrospective of three of his most well regarded films at Tokyo Filmex in 2013 has helped to revive interest. The Shape of Night (夜の片鱗, Yoru no Henrin), Nakamura’s 1964 Shochiku melodrama focussing on the suffocating life of a young woman pulled into the Tokyo red light district, was one of the three newly restored films featured and was also screened in Berlin and Venice to great acclaim. Making full use of its vibrant colour palate, The Shape of Night paints its city as a constant tormentor filled with artificial light and false promises.

As we meet her, melancholy street walker Yoshie (Miyuki Kuwano) has been trapped in her dead end existence for six years and has lost all hope of living a “normal” life filled with love and happiness. A chance encounter with a supercilious client, Fujii (Keisuke Sonoi), prompts her into a series of recollections in an effort to explain exactly how it was she ended up in such a sorry state. As the eldest daughter of a poor family Yoshie left school early to work in a factory (making those neon tubes you see everywhere) while supplementing her income by working as a barmaid (not a hostess, just a girl behind the bar). Just shy of her 20th birthday, she meets a handsome “salaryman”, Eiji (Mikijiro Hira), who starts coming to the bar regularly to see her. The pair became a couple, and then lovers, and then cohabiters, but Eiji isn’t a “salaryman” so much as a low level gangster with a gambling problem whose street name is “princess”. Continual losses put Eiji in a tight spot with his crew and he begins borrowing money from Yoshie before asking her to prostitute herself to get him out of a hole. Thinking it will just be a one time thing, Yoshie resolves to make a sacrifice for her man but, of course, it wasn’t a one time thing.

Yoshie’s story is a sadly familiar one – an innocent woman duped by a duplicitous man whose empty promises aim to mask his continued fecklessness. Eiji, despite his smart suits and coolly confident attitude, is unlikely to make much of himself in the yakuza world yet is as tied into its hellish system of loyalty and reciprocity as Yoshie is in her non-marriage to the man she thinks she loves. Seeking constant approval, Eiji thinks nothing of living off a woman and his childishly excited smile on re-entering the apartment after Yoshie has sacrificed herself to save his face is a grim reminder of his priorities. When pleading doesn’t work Eiji turns violent, prompting Yoshie to finally consider leaving him but she’s too late – the yakuza world has already got its hooks into her and any attempt to escape will be met with terrifying resistance.

Fujii may seem as if he presents another option for Yoshie, a chance for a better, kinder existence but he too is merely another man trying to tell her how she should live her life. Hypocritical at best (as he freely admits), Fujii pays Yoshie to “ease his sexual urges” but expresses disgust and disapproval of her lifestyle and seeks to “save” her from her life of humiliating immorality, “purifying” her just like the dam he is building is supposed to do to the Sumida river. Fujii’s obvious saviour complex is worrying enough in itself though there is also the additional worry of what his “salvation” may entail if Yoshie decides to make a break from her yakuza chains and run off to the comparative safety of provincial Hokkaido. Fujii may claim to have fallen in love with her, but so did Eiji and who’s to say Fujii’s idea of wedded bliss will be any better than Eiji’s brutal reign as a common law spouse.

The situation is further complicated by Eiji’s gradual shift from a violent, overbearing, abusive boyfriend to a genial figure of gentle domesticity and what that shift later provokes in Yoshie. Rendered physically impotent by an incident during a gang fight, Eiji is literally and figuratively emasculated. Though his sudden inability to satisfy Yoshie originally provokes his jealously, it soon robs him of his violent impulses and turns Eiji into a willing housewife who dutifully does the couple’s washing and prepares the meals much to Yoshie’s consternation. This transformation is what finally kills her love for him, but still Yoshie cannot find it in herself to sever her connection with the man who has been the cause of all her suffering. Not quite hate or loathing, Yoshie’s burned out love has become a burden of care as she finds herself duty bound to look after a man she now believes incapable of looking after himself.

While Yoshie and Eiji sit in a bar one night after “work”, the television plays a report featuring the sad news of the death of a female student at the ANPO demonstrations. Prompting Yoshie to exclaim “what is ANPO anyway?”, the news report lays bare just how isolated her life as become – as all of Tokyo is aflame with with righteous indignation and the streets are filled with the largest protest in living memory, Yoshie is trapped in her tiny neon world which promises so much and delivers so little.

Nakamura makes fantastic use of sound design to capture Yoshie’s interior world – the background music rising over the droning voice of a boring client who hasn’t quite made up his mind, the radio cutting out at intense moments of violence, the terrible clanging of Eiji’s geta on the iron staircase which leads to his flat. Fading into blue dissolves of memory, Nakamura makes a hellish wonderland of nighttime Tokyo whose flashing neon lights, crowded bars and oddly darkened streets turn it into a prison of dubious delights. Finally making a drastic decision, Yoshie attempts to free herself from her burdens and sever the chains which bind her to her misery but in cutting the cord she finds the knots tightening, realising she will never be released from the source of all her suffering.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Black Hair (검은 머리, Lee Man-hee, 1964)

Black Hair 1964 posterFilm noir can be the most contradictory of genres. A moralistic world filled with immortality, fatalism mixed with existential angst, and a rage against society which is always tinged with a resignation to living on its margins. Genre in Korean cinema has always been a little more fluid than elsewhere and Lee Man-hee’s seminal crime thriller Black Hair (검은 머리, Geomeun Meori) is also a melodrama – the story of a self loathing man committed to his own arbitrary codes, and a woman he expects to pay the price for them.

In a brief prologue that has little to do with the ongoing narrative, ruthless gangster Dong-il (Jang Dong-hui) extorts a corrupt CEO by blackmailing him over some illicit smuggling. Meanwhile, across town, the gangster’s wife, Yeon-sil (Moon Jeong-suk), meets with a man, Man-ho (Chae Rang), in a hotel room. She’s come to pay him off, hoping it will be for the last time but Manh-ho, an opium addict, knows he’s onto an endless cash cow and refuses to put an end to their “arrangement”. Sometime ago, Man-ho raped Yeon-sil and has been blackmailing her for money and sexual favours ever since. Yeon-sil threatens to tell her husband and the police and suffer the consequences, but Man-ho knows she won’t. Dong-il’s gang have a strict rule about adultery and if Yeon-sil trusted him enough to believe he would believe her about the rape, she would have told him already.

Another goon hides behind a screen, snapping photos of Yeon-sil and Man-ho which he later passes on to Dong-il. The boss is shocked and shaken. He knows he has to enforce the rules he himself set down for the gang, but he never expected them to cost him his wife. Eventually Dong-il orders an underling to slash Yeon-sil’s face with a broken bottle, after which she is exiled from the gang. Anyone who tries to repair her scars or help her in any other way will be treated as an enemy.

At this point the narrative splits as Yeon-sil is cast down into a sleazy underworld, living with her blackmailer who pimps her out as a common streetwalker and then steals all her money to spend on drugs and booze. She pines for her husband whom she has been prevented from seeing, longing to at least explain why she did what she did and ensure he knows that her heart has always been with him. Dong-il, by contrast, is going to pieces – his gang no longer respect him, he feels guilty about the way he treated his wife, and he has no idea where to go from here.

Unlike other films of the era or film noir in general, Lee’s world view is non-judgemental in its treatment of the respective paths of Yeon-sil and Dong-il. Yeon-sil is left with no choice than to enter into a life of casual prostitution and the film forgives her for this – the fault is that of Dong-il and Man-ho rather than her own. Having been horribly scarred, she wears her hair longer on one side to hide her disfigurement but is constantly reminded of her emotional damage through its physical manifestation and the reactions it often elicits. Picking up a client in the street, she’s threatened with violence and cruel words for having “deceived” him when he catches sight of her disfigured face. A passing taxi driver witnesses the attack and challenges the man so Yeon-sil can escape. The cabbie then hires her and they spend the night together in a nearby brothel. He surprises Yeon-sil by being entirely unfazed about her facial scarring, offering to help her get it treated if that’s what she wants, and making it clear he would like to spend more time with her off the clock.

Yeon-sil’s life is completely controlled by her triangular relationship to the three men – her unforgiving husband Dong-il, the cruel and venal Man-ho, and the good and decent cab driver. After meeting the cabbie, Yeon-sil tries to see Dong-il again but his boys stop her. They say they’ll take her to see him, but really they’re planning quite another destination. Luckily, in a staggering coincidence, they’re spotted by the taxi driver who once again saves Yeon-sil, taking her home to stay with him and proposing they embark on a more formal relationship.

This is more of a problem than it seems for Dong-il’s guys who now fear their boss will find out they tried to kill his wife in an effort to wake him up from his ongoing existential malaise. The rules of the gang are tough and clear – adultery is not permissible, no woman is allowed to leave, no exceptions are to be made. Dong-il, however, is beginning to rethink the code he himself designed. A conversation with his childhood nanny throws up a number of interesting questions. She blames herself for giving Dong-il “evil” milk which has led to his spiritual corruption, though Dong-il later tells Yeon-sil that he did not choose evil so much evil chose him. He created these “evil” gang rules, but failed to live up to them in continuing to feel attached to Yeon-sil – he feels he must punish himself for the “sin” of being unable to forget her and abide by his own honour system which he now feels to be pointless and arbitrary. Effectively issuing himself a death sentence, Dong-il changes tack confirming that he has, in a sense, chosen evil even if it was a “choice” of refusing to resist the path set down for him. Suddenly realising the emotion he felt for Yeon-sil was love, he is struck by a terrible feeling of loneliness. 

As in much of Lee’s work, Yeon-sil and Dong-il are trapped by their own society and belief systems and finally perhaps by feeling. Yeong-sil is frequently captured behind bars or caught in a window, imprisoned within the frame as she tries to reconcile herself to her precarious position, daring to hope for a new, decent life with the good hearted taxi driver while also mourning her love for Dong-il and living with the humiliation caused to her by Man-ho. Lee’s structure is sometimes unclear as he introduces a fairly pointless subplot about the taxi driver’s modern woman little sister who has moved out to be independent but works in a hostess bar, inhabiting the same sleazy world as Yeon-sil and Dong-il, only more innocently, but never does much with it beyond contrasting the lives of the two women who occupy slightly different generations and have very different options open to them. There’s a fatalism and inevitability in the way Yeong-sil and Dong-il live their lives to which the taxi driver and his sister do not quite subscribe but Lee breaks with the genre’s trademark pessimism to offer the glimmer of a bittersweet ending and the chance of a new beginning for the much abused Yeon-sil now freed of her dark associations.


Black Hair is the second in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet. (Not currently available to stream online)

Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Ko Nakahira, 1964)

© 1964 Nikkatsu CorporationDespite being among the directors who helped to usher in what would later be called the Japanese New Wave, Ko Nakahira remains in relative obscurity with only his landmark movie of the Sun Tribe era, Crazed Fruit, widely seen abroad. Like the other directors of his generation Nakahira served his time in the studio system working on impersonal commercial projects but by 1964 which saw the release of another of his most well regarded films Only on Mondays, Nakahira had begun to give free reign to experimentation much to the studio boss’ chagrin. Flora on the Sand (砂の上の植物群, Suna no Ue no Shokubutsu-gun), adapted from the novel by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki, puts an absurd, surreal twist on the oft revisited salaryman midlife crisis as its conflicted hero muses on the legacy of his womanising father while indulging in a strange ménage à trois with two sisters, one of whom to he comes to believe he may also be related to.

After a brief prologue in which our hero, cosmetics salesman Ichiro Igi (Noboru Nakaya), imagines a scenario for a novel in which a dying husband becomes so jealous of the man that may succeed him in his wife’s life that he sets about plotting to make her the weapon of that very man’s destruction, Igi heads to his regular barber and longtime family friend where he takes the time to probe him about his late father’s womanising habits. Igi’s father died young at only 34 for years of age, three years younger than the age Igi is now. His father’s spitting image, Igi cannot help seeing him everywhere he goes and feels unable to evade his ongoing influence, almost as if he were possessed by his father’s (un)departed spirit.

The major preoccupation Igi has is that his wife (Yukiko Shimazaki) may have slept with his father before they were married while she was just a teenager. The barber tells him he’s pretty sure not, but Igi cannot let the idea go and repeatedly brings it up with his wife, creating discord in the family home. Meeting a precocious schoolgirl at the Marine Tower one evening, Igi finds himself taking her to a hotel and deflowering her even though she begins to resist him at the last minute. The girl, Akiko (Mieko Nishio), then makes a strange request of him – she wants Igi to seduce and “hurt” her older sister Kyoko (Kazuko Inano) whose sanctimonious attitude she can no longer stand. Igi does indeed visit the bar where Kyoko works as a hostess and embarks on an intense affair with her but Akiko’s pleas to “hurt” her sister are complicated by Kyoko’s masochistic tendencies and Igi’s descent into a kind of madness.

Beginning with the painting by Paul Klee which gives the film its name, Nakahira asks us to imagine what would happen if a large dash of red were suddenly to appear, disrupting the comforting harmony of Klee’s perfectly matched colours. The discomforting redness does dutifully appear as strangely shaped squares on the canvas but the symbolic value of the colour is felt throughout the black and white narrative from the dark stain of Akiko’s broken maidenhead to the affectation of her lipstick and constant references to red seas and suns.

Though Igi’s world may have seemed just as perfectly ordered as Klee’s painting from the outside, his constant preoccupations with his father become the disruptive influence which leads to all of the redness later leaking in. Haunted by his father as he is, seeing his face everywhere from train windows to the barber shop mirror, Igi’s attempt at a plot for a murder mystery takes on a strangely Oedipal quality as we begin to wonder if it’s his father rather than Igi himself who has assumed the role of the “protagonist”, leaving a time bomb for his wayward son, the inheritor of his woman, just as Igi laid out in his prologue. Bizarre reality or another symptom of Igi’s increasingly fractured mind, the plot seems likely to succeed at least in a sense as Igi declines into a dishevelled mess, prone to hallucinations and uncertain visions.

Nakahira gives us several of these as Igi panics and struggles with a key only to open a door into bright white light and nothingness or another in which he and Kyoko dine in an empty restaurant which is suddenly filled with the noisy chatter of other diners. Strange touches such as the German beerhall with a Spanish guitarist, or the odd peepshow in which Igi and his two friends take on the appearance of demons or impassive Buddhist statues thanks to the light reflected into their eyes, add to the unbalanced atmosphere as do the frequent closeups of lips and hands, and the symbolic value of seeds never meant to be planted which nevertheless flower at an unintended moment. Shooting in black and white, Nakahira begins with a colour sequence featuring the abstract artwork with occasional flashes of colour as well as voice over and occasional intertitle-style captions adding to the absurdist atmosphere.

A surreal and complex psychological exploration of sex, power, obsession, identity, and legacy Flora on the Sand finds Nakahira flexing his experimental mussels for a drama rife with ambiguity and strangeness. Sadly this brand of innovation was not entirely welcome at Nikkatsu head offices and so he found himself left out in the cold eventually ending up in Hong Kong making action movies for Shaw Brothers. Despite some later success at international festivals, Nakahira’s work remains sadly neglected but the unusual degree of sophistication and almost playful atmosphere seen in Flora on the Sand make him worthy of attention as more than just an almost was of the rising New Wave.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.