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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.