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.

Forever With You (그대와 영원히 / 그대와永遠히, Yu Hyun-mok,1958)

Forever with you posterBest remembered for his 1961 feat of neorealist social drama Aimless Bullet, Yu Hyun-mok was one of the early masters of Korea’s golden age who sought to bring a degree of intellectual rigour and formal experimentation to a medium which often favoured the populist or propagandist. He did, however, have to start somewhere and the earliest surviving film in Yu’s filmography is indeed a melodrama though one perhaps a little to the side of the norm and with an axe to grind as regarding economic equalities and the demands of spiritual morality, even if he is forced to retreat to entrenched social codes in the closing moments.

The camera pans over a city filled with rooftops and eventually lingers on a group of children playing quietly by a wall. Panning over the wall which is exceedingly high, Yu reveals the children to have been playing on the other side of a prison where Gwang-pil (Lee Ryong), an inmate, is about to be released after 10 years inside. All things considered, Gwang-pil does not seem to be a hardened criminal and is optimistic for the future, intending to go straight and hoping to reconnect with the childhood sweetheart he believes is still waiting for him in the outside world though they have not seen each other since Gwang-pil made an ill-advised escape attempt and got his sentence increased a number of years. He recounts all of this to another inmate who is happy for him, broadly, but not quite convinced Gwang-pil is going to make it in the regular world.

Switching to a lengthily flashback, Yu allows Gwang-pil to recount the circumstances which landed him in jail, which also gives the director a chance to engage with his socio-political concerns. 10 years previously, Gwang-pil was a happy young man from an exceptionally poor village who was best friends with Ae-ran (Do Kum-bong). Ae-ran works in a bakery to help support her family, and often walks home with Gwang-pil which is one of the few times they have to be together. A happy day at the beach sees them building sandcastles and dreaming of the life they will one day live with a house and children of their own, only to see all their dreams washed away by a sudden outbreak of rain. In desperate need of money both to support himself and his bedridden mother and to impress Ae-ran, Gwang-pil starts hanging round with delinquents and picking pockets. Though Gwang-pil wants to give back some of the money they stole fearing the woman they took it from is also poor and cannot spare it, he goes along with the delinquents’ plan to rob a nearby US army depot. The others get away but Gwang-pil is arrested and sent to prison.

The first and foremost motivator for Gwang-pil’s descent into criminality is poverty and familial breakdown. His father was a gambler who left his mother flat, while she has become bedridden and is dependent on her teenage son for financial support. With no real jobs available in the town and no prospect of a way out through education, Gwang-pil is seduced by crime despite having no real aptitude for it. The other motivator, if indirectly is Ae-ran or, more specifically, jealous insecurity related to the harmonica playing delinquent Dal-soo (Choi Nam-hyun). Too poor to afford a harmonica of his own, Gwang-pil fears losing Ae-ran to a flashier guy and so he picks pockets to buy her fancy treats little realising all she wants is his time – something he will rob her of by getting himself sent to prison.

The war between Gwang-pil and Dal-soo over possession of Ae-ran will occupy the rest of the film though Ae-ran, like many women in the golden age of Korean cinema, is left with little choice of her own other than to continue suffering. When Gwang-pil gets out of jail it’s one of the other delinquents who meets him – Sang-moon (Choi Myung-soo) has become a priest, in part out of remorse for what happened to Gwang-pil and regret over his criminal past. Sang-moon is determined to help Gwang-pil repair his life but knows finding out what happened to Ae-ran is going to break his heart and send him spiralling into a nihilistic whirlpool of despair. Ae-ran has married Dal-soo who chose the path of crime and still operates a dodgy hostess bar as a front for his gangster activities.

Gwang-pil is just as upset and angry as Sang-moon feared. So much so that he completely misses how miserable Ae-ran is in her marriage and that her daughter, Eun-joo, is nine years old meaning she was conceived before he went to prison. Obsessed with his own pain, anger, and self loathing he fails to see anything other than his ruined hopes and commits himself only to further ruination through drink and the attentions of the manager at Dal-soo’s bar which are not altogether as one might assume them to be.  Only too late does he begin to grasp the real situation but is still too wounded to process it fully. Dal-soo, knowing Ae-ran has never loved him and wondering if her decision to become his wife has been a long form act of revenge, sets a plan in motion to remove his rival from the scene while Gwang-pil also longs for revenge against the man who has stolen everything from him.

Dal-soo and Gwang-pil square off, leaving Ae-ran whose health is so poor and nerves so fragile that she has virtually lived in hospital for the last few years, to suffer alone with only the austere comfort of Sang-moon’s priestly ministrations. Wanting to be “a good wife” she stands by Dal-soo but fears for Gwang-pil, not only for his life but also for his soul lest he fall back into criminality in the shock and hopelessness of her betrayal. Her situation is impossible and the strain of it difficult to bear. She hates her husband and blames herself for the fate of her one true love but has no recourse other than to continue suffering or die. In keeping with the story’s melodrama origins, Ae-ran pays a heavy price for her “weakness”, as does Dal-soo, leaving only the priest and the wronged man behind, strengthened by the need to care for the daughter he never knew he had.

Far from the rigour and furious intent of Aimless Bullet, Forever with You (그대와 영원히 / 그대와永遠히, Geudaewa yeongwonhi) is a much more modest effort even among studio pictures from 1950s. Largely filmed on set with low production values, Forever With You does allow Yu a degree of formal experimentation as he makes frequent use of pans and zooms more commonly seen in the films of 20 years later and occasionally gives in to ostentation as in his expressionist spinning shot of Gwang-pil and a bar girl dancing as he attempts to lose himself in abandon, or an overhead view of a gangster meeting. In the end Gwang-pil comes to himself too late, only realising his foolishness just as he loses everything that mattered to him but Yu changes track, gives him hope again in the prospect of a new beginning, learning to live for others in purehearted sincerity whilst walking away proudly into the harshness of the post-war world.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Yu Hyun-mok boxset. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s official YouTube Channel.

North and South (南과北/남과북, Kim Ki-duk, 1965)

north and south posterMelodrama has often been an unfairly maligned genre, dismissed as pandering to the sentimental or engaging in frivolous emotion but to do so misses the undercurrent of social questioning that such films often entail. Korea has made the melodrama its own – indeed, though genre is often a more fluid matter in Korea than it is elsewhere it’s difficult to find films of any kind which are completely devoid of melodramatic themes. It’s less of a surprise therefore to find that Korean cinema turns to melodrama to examine one the nation’s most pressing concerns – the relationship between North and South. Kim Ki-duk’s North and South (南과北/남과북, Namgwa Buk) is the story of a woman caught between two men, two nations, and two eras but it’s mediated through the story of a noble North Korean who has battled all in the name of love, left his family, his home, his country only to find that he is too late and the world has already left him behind.

The film begins with capture of a North Korean soldier in November 1952, the middle of the Korean War. Following normal procedure, the soldier, Major Jang Il-gu (Shin Young-kyun) is taken in for questioning but the major matter on his mind is the lady in the photograph he keeps brandishing to everyone he meets. Rather than political disaffection, Il-gu has defected to the South in the name of love – he’s looking for a woman he regarded as his wife, the mother of the son he has never seen. The South Korean officers are less than sympathetic, they’ve been noticing increased activities on the frontiers and they want to know some concrete military details before they even agree to admit Major Jang, but Il-gu won’t talk until they promise to help him look for Eun-ga (Um Aing-ran) – the woman for whom he has betrayed his comrades.

Captain Lee Hae-ro (Choi Moo-ryong), otherwise sympathetic to Il-gu’s plight, runs into a problem when elements of Il-gu’s story start sounding all too familiar. In a coincidence too staggering to believe, Eun-ga is Hae-ro’s wife. Originally reluctant to marry him, Eun-ga had explained that she had a son already and was waiting for the child’s father (to whom she was not “legally” married) from whom she had been separated by the 38th parallel. Lee was patient and persistent, he told Eun-ga that she was free to leave him should her long lost love return (never believing it was possible) and that he was content to look after her until that day came or, should he be so fortunate, for the rest of his life. Now Il-gu has arrived as if to punish him for disrupting this fairytale of doomed romantic love.

Unlike many films of the time, Kim is not interested in demonising the North so much as emphasising the tragedy of Korea’s division. Eun-ga and Il-gu are divided by more than just politics. Eun-ga was the middle-class daughter of a wealthy doctor, Il-gu was the son of one of their servants. Their love was not possible even before the war, but still it blossomed. Growing up together, Il-gu and Eun-ga experienced the quintessentially innocent taste of first love, vowing to stay together even in the face of fierce parental opposition and social convention, but it is the war which eventually seals their fate. Il-gu, not wanting to be conscripted into the Japanese army hides out in a shack where Eun-ga, the only person to know his whereabouts, spends a fateful night with him during which time their child is conceived.

Dreaming only of being re-united with his “wife” and child, Il-gu has been carrying around a picture of Eun-ga and looking for an opportunity to defect ever since the erection of the 38th parallel. Abandoning everything in the name of love, he has left his mother alone in the North and risked his life in hope of seeing Eun-ga once more. Hae-ro, a romantic man himself, is intimidated by Il-gu’s passion. The great, fated love he’d imagined for himself in marrying the nurse who had saved him at his lowest ebb suddenly pales in comparison to Il-gu’s willingness to sacrifice his life in pursuit of a true love dream. Understating Il-gu’s feelings, Hae-ro finds himself in a terrible position, worried that his love will leave him, feeling guilty for pestering her into a marriage she may not have really wanted, and unsure whether he should even tell Il-gu and Eun-ga that he holds the key to their long delayed reunion. Il-gu remains resolute, demanding love or death, but Hae-ro vacillates, drinks himself into solipsistic misery, and indulges his own weaknesses which are only made worse by Il-gu’s continued heroism.

Immediately before the final sequence in which the trio are forced to confront their emotionally difficult situation, Il-gu is threatened with a gun but refuses to give up any information without proof he can meet Eun-ga. Believing all hope to be lost, he asks only to be allowed to go up a mountain to die but is moved by the compassion of intelligence officer Kwon (Namkoong Won) who alone is committed to delivering Eun-ga and eventually gives up his information even though it pains him to betray his own comrades. In an impassioned debate with Kwon, Il-gu gives voice to the film’s overarching message in reminding him “Are we not all brothers”. Kwon, counters that the reason they fight is in service of Il-gu’s quest – it’s precisely so that he can come here, speak freely, and pursue his love unhindered. The “South” is winning, in a sense, but the message of brotherhood and understanding between men is the one which is delivered with the most clarity.

Understanding between men is indeed the theme of Hae-ro and Il-gu’s eventual meeting. Eun-ga’s torment is relegated to background detail as she sobs her heart out in the corner in the unfairness of her impossible situation. Her heart has always belonged to Il-gu and she feels herself to have betrayed him, betrayed love, in marrying an admittedly good and kind man out of reasons of practicality rather than passion. Coming to understand the situation, Il-gu responds with compassion and understanding even in the middle of his own heartbreak. He bitterly regrets his journey and wishes Hae-ro had told him Eun-ga was now his wife rather than allow him to hurt her by suddenly reappearing and breaking her heart all over again. Witnessing Il-gu’s magnanimity, Hae-ro is also moved, offering to step back and allow Il-gu to return to the family he may have lost. Both men recognise the goodness of the other, want nothing more than the best outcome of the situation for Eun-ga and her son, and are committed to moving forward with sensitivity in trying to minimise the emotional pain inflicted on the innocent Eun-ga who continues to suffer through no fault of her own.

The “fault” falls on the 38th parallel which, as Il-gu explains during a painful first meeting with his unknowing son, is “the worst thing ever made by stupid men”. The situation is indeed impossible, there is no easy answer for Eun-ga who will have to choose between past love and a present commitment (or, uncomfortably, have that decision made for her by her respective lovers). Kim dramatises their anguish perfectly through the extraordinary performances of his cast during the drawn out, painful encounter in which they attempt to forge a way forward, but Eun-ga, who stands in for her nation, stands to lose all when this same fierce love and understanding between men may cost her everything in tragic gestures of love and sacrifice.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Ki-duk box set. Not currently available to stream online.