Seven People in the Cellar (지하실의 7인 / 地下室의 七人, Lee Seong-gu, 1969)

Seven People in the Cellar posterThe “literary film” was beginning to fall out of favour by 1969. The collapse of the quota system introduced under the 1962 Motion Picture Law, the exclusion of literary film from the “Domestic Films of Excellence” programme (which encouraged producers to produce high quality Korean films to qualify for distributing more lucrative foreign ones), and the rise of television all conspired to produce a shift towards the populist. Lee Seong-gu had made his name with a series of literary adaptations which enabled him to experiment with form in the comparatively more elevated “arthouse” arena but with horizons shrinking even he found himself with nowhere left turn. Seven People in the Cellar (지하실의 7인 / 地下室의 七人 *, Jihasil-ui Chil-in) is Lee’s last “literary film” and is adapted from a stage play by Yun Jo-byeong who was apparently unhappy with Lee’s adaptation in its abandonment of his carefully constructed ideological balance in favour of adhering to the typical rhetoric of the “anti-communist” film.

Set towards the end of the Korean War, Seven in People in the Cellar presents itself as a conflict between the godless and hypocritical forces of communism and the good and righteous Catholic Church. Accordingly, our hero is a priest, Father Ahn (Heo Jang-gang), who has just returned to his church after being forced to flee by the encroaching “puppet army”. Accompanied by a nun, Lucia (Yun So-ra), and a new curate, Brother Jeong (Lee Soon-jae), Father Ahn is glad to be reunited with his flock but there are dark spectres even here – Maria (Yoon Jeong-hee), a young woman Ahn was forced to leave behind when he fled, runs away from the priest on catching sight of him, apparently out of shame. Meanwhile, while Ahn was away, three rogue Communists began squatting in his cellar waiting for the “reinforcements” which are supposedly going to retake the town. Taking Sister Lucia hostage, the Communists force Ahn to feed them while keeping their existence a secret. To Jeong’s consternation, Ahn agrees but out of Christian virtues rather than fear – he feels the Communists too are lost children of God and have been sent to him so that he may guide them back towards the light.

Not a natural fit for the world of the anti-communist film, Lee does his best to undermine the prevalent ideology even if he must in the end come down hard with Ahn’s essential moral goodness. Thus, Communists aside, the conflict becomes one of age and youth, male and female, as much as between “right” and “wrong” or “North” and “South”. Jeong, youthful and hotheaded, lacks Ahn’s Christian compassion – he bristles when Ahn immediately sets about feeding the starving villagers with their own rations, and disagrees with his decision to harbour the Communists even while knowing that Lucia’s life is at stake if they refuse. Twice he tries to kill the communist “enemy”, threatened by their ideological opposition to his own cause – once when he enters the cellar and misinterprets an altercation between Lucia and sympathetic soldier Park (Park Geun-hyeong), and secondly when the troop’s female commander, Ok (Kim Hye-jeong), attempts to seduce him.

Sexuality becomes spiritual battleground with Christian chastity winning out over Communist free love. Ok, as unsympathetic a communist as it’s possible to be, is sexually liberated and provocative. She suggestively loosens her shirt and fondles her breast in front of a confused junior officer, later taking him into the forest and more or less ordering him to make love to her (which he, eventually, does). However, it is to her simply a matter of a need satisfied. Ok describes the moment she has just shared with her comrade as no different than sharing a meal. She was “hungry”, she ate. When she’s hungry again she will eat again but there’s no more to it than that and there is no emotional or spiritual component in her act of “lovemaking”, only the elimination of a nagging hunger. 

Ok’s transgressive and “amoral” sexuality is contrasted with that of the abused Maria who was tortured and later raped by the Communists’ commanding officer. Forced to betray a nun, she was robbed not only of her innocence but also of her faith. Maria is the “pure woman” corrupted by Communist cruelty. Her chastity was removed from her by force, and she sees no other option than to continue to ruin herself in atonement for her “sin”. Unable to live with the consequences of her actions, she sees no way out other than madness or martyrdom.

The fact that Maria’s torturer is another woman, and such an atypical woman at that, is another facet of the Communist’s animalistic inhumanity. As in The General’s Mustache, the Communists are seen to use innocent children as bargaining chips when ordinary torture fails, even this time killing one to prevent him telling the village about their hiding place. Yet the height of their cruelty is perhaps in their indifference to each other – Park, touched by Sister Lucia’s refusal to leave when he tried to let her go fearing that he would face reprisals, announces his intention to defect to the South and is shot dead by his commander in cold and brutal fashion. Park’s defection is a minor “win” for Ahn who sought restore the Communists’ sense of humanity and bring their souls to God, but it’s also born of misogynistic pique in his intense resentment of the “bossy” Ok who turns out to be an undercover officer from HQ on a special mission to spy against him.

With the one redeemed Communist dead, all that remains is for the others is to slowly destroy themselves. Ahn, cool and composed in absolute faith, waits patiently certain that the friendly South Korean soldiers will shortly liberate them. A hero priest, Ahn is the saintly opposite of the Communists’ cruelty in his compassionate determination to save them even at the risk of his own life. Lee keeps the tension high, creating siege drama that feels real and human in contrast with the often didactic and heavily stylised narrative of the “anti-communist” film, subtly muddying the essential messages but allowing Ahn’s compassion (rather than his “faith”) to shine through as the best weapon against oppressive inhumanity.


Seven People in the Cellar is the fourth and final film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Not currently available to stream online.

* In rendering the Hanja title, the landscape poster uses the arabic numeral 7 while the portrait version uses the Chinese character 七.

Mist (안개, Kim Soo-yong, 1967)

Mist 1967 posterBy 1967 Korea’s fortunes were beginning to expand. For the young, the future held promise but the nature of that promise was still indistinct. Often considered his masterpiece, 1967’s Mist (안개, Angae, AKA The Foggy Town) was another in the series of literary adaptations for which director Kim Soo-yong had become well known but its avant-garde mise-en-scène and gloomy outlook stand in stark contrast to the heartrending melodramas with which the genre was synonymous. Economic prosperity and superficial success have provoked only emptiness and despair, but a return to source provides little clarity for one harried salaryman lost in the expanding landscape of Korea’s global ambitions.

A poor boy from a remote coastal village, Gi-joon (Shin Seong-il) is now a successful salaryman in the capital where the constant clacking of typewriters, ringing of telephones, and racing of traffic rub at his tired mind. The fact of the matter is Gi-joon is not all that successful – he owes his position to having married the widowed daughter of the CEO. His wife and father-in-law, however, have relatively little faith in his business acumen and so, with the annual shareholders meeting on the horizon, they suggest he get out of the way by paying a visit to his hometown. Gi-joon is not all that happy to be going back, he hated Mujin with its unrelenting fog and general air of existential malaise, but he’s spineless and so he goes, despite himself.

Taking the train, Gi-joon has plenty of time to dwell on his past, literally seeing reflections of his younger self and entering extended flashbacks of memory. Mimicking the stream of consciousness approach of the novel, Gi-joon provides frequent voiceover, introducing his hometown in a less than favourable light as a place which traps its young who yearn to be free of its oppressive boredom. According to the irritated dialogue of two passengers on the bus (which Gi-joon has to take after his lengthy train journey), Mujin is a nothing sort of town where the sea is too shallow for fishing and the fields to narrow for farming, yet the population is large and largely survives on desperation alone, isolated by the oppressive fog that envelops the landscape each and every morning.

Gi-joon characterises the residents of Mujin as petty and materialistic. Having longed to escape, he thought he’d achieved his dreams in Seoul but a trip home forces him to reconsider what it is he’s become. In truth he’s no different from the petty and materialistic villagers he looked down on in their need to look down on each other. Powerlessness has defined his life. As a young man, he resorted to hiding in a cupboard to escape the draft on the orders of his terrified mother and later suffered from weak lungs which made him something of a local laughing stock. Now he’s set for a big promotion in the city but, as his wife reminds him, he wouldn’t even be there if it weren’t for her. Gi-joon’s marriage is one of convenience but it’s clear his wife holds all the cards – a wealthy widow with ambition needs a husband to act as a foil, and a weak willed man like Gi-joon is just the sort to submit himself to her authority in return for the obvious benefits she can offer him. Gi-joon has gained everything he ever dreamed of, but he feels only despair, oppressed by the very system he longed to be a part of.

Back in Mujin his various self delusions are rammed home to him. Trapped once again by the unrelenting fog, he longs to escape from his Seoul life and free himself from the yoke of his marriage and career. Whilst in town he meets up with old friends who introduce him to recent arrival Ha In-sook ( Yoon Jeong-hee) – an opera student turned music teacher who has joined the local school. In-sook is by far the most exciting thing in the extremely boring town, but Gi-joon is worried he’s stepped into the middle of something when he realises his old friend, Park, now a teacher, has a crush on In-sook while another old friend, Cho, now a status obsessed tax inspector, may also have marital designs.

Gi-joon didn’t need to worry about the tax inspector – as it turns out, he thinks he can do better than a mere music teacher and plans to marry up, much like Gi-joon has. Gi-joon bristles slightly at this, as he does to Cho’s lewd story about how he trapped In-sook on an overnight trip and planned to have a fling with her but she managed to get away (much to Gi-joon’s relief). Back home Gi-joon sees reflections of himself everywhere and particularly doesn’t like this alignment of himself with the ugly ambition of men like Cho who only want to lord it over their former friends. More flatteringly he sees his younger self in the depressed, conflicted In-sook who is already going half mad in the stultifying rural town and longs to go back to Seoul. Despite mild qualms about his friends’ feelings, Gi-joon finds himself bonding with the melancholy young woman who again forces him to see himself the way he really is rather than as the idealised personality he’d constructed for himself as a successful Seoul salaryman.

Bonding in their existential loneliness, the two eventually embark on a tender if melancholy affair which, despite their protestations to the contrary, is built on self delusions if not exactly on lies. Gi-joon intends to take In-sook to Seoul, but he won’t, and In-sook knows she won’t leave even if she wants to believe in the possibility of rescue. The world for them is as foggy and indistinct as the mists around the beaches of Mujin. Filled with emptiness and despair, they remain adrift in the post-war society unable to accept the soulless compromises of conventionality but finding no escape from their self imposed prisons.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Soo-yong box set. Also available to stream for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

The Seashore Village (갯마을, Kim Soo-yong, 1965)

The Seashore village posterKorean cinema of the 1960s was a tightly controlled affair. The authoritarian government of Park Chung-hee had instituted the Motion Picture Law of 1962 which insisted on a studio system with stars under contract and a turnover of at least 15 films a year. The law intended to increase the amount of films produced for mass consumption, giving free reign to the melodrama and thereby accidentally undermining its more censorious aims. Nevertheless, The Seashore Village (갯마을, Gaenma-eul), adapted from a novel by Oh Yeong-su and part of the “literature film” genre for which director Kim Soo-yong would remain famous, goes much further than one would reasonably expect given the conservative nature of Korean filmmaking across the ages. A story of village life with all of its various superstitions and primitive practices, Kim’s film is a daring exploration of female sexuality and the collective power of women away from men.

An opening voice over introduces us to a melancholy fishing village where the life is hard and the people resigned to loss. The boats depart to great fanfare, but just as they are leaving someone remarks that he’s had a bad dream – bad dreams are one of many bad omens for sailors. New wife Hae-sun (Ko Eun-ah) doesn’t wait to watch her husband disappear over the horizon, she takes to the clifftop shrine of the Dragon King and prays for his safe return.

Her prayers are unanswered. A typhoon strikes and Hae-sun’s husband, along with another sailor, is killed. So young a widow, Hae-sun becomes an awkward problem for the villagers. Sang-su (Shin Young-kyun), a shady drifter, begins making subtle overtures which eventually turn into outright harassment and attempted rape. Hae-sun likes the family she married into and wants to stay true to her husband’s memory, but the forces of nature conspire against her.

While Hae-sun is a classically “good” woman who rejects the advances of Sang-su, the other village wives feel rather differently. Everyone except Hae-sun’s widowed mother-in-law (Hwang Jung-seun) knows about Sang-su’s obvious desire for Hae-sun but they see nothing wrong in it. Rather than the conservative atmosphere of the middle-class urban melodrama in which bodies of surrounding middle-aged women act as enforcers of moral discipline, these literal fishwives are of an earthier disposition. Many of them have been widowed with husbands lost at sea – the way they see it, you’d best take your pleasures where you can and there’s nothing wrong with a quick roll in the hay if it eases frustration and aids productivity. They laugh at Hae-sun’s prudery and marvel at her ability to carry on as normal after losing her husband not because of the grief, but because of the lack of intimacy.

It might be 1965 outside of the village, but the old ways still rule here even if they’re on their way out. In the old days, women did not remarry – a serious problem in a small village with few men around to replace those lost at sea. Hence, women have learned to live alone, supporting each other in place of men and often forced to do without them. In a surprising development, Kim flirts with the taboo of lesbianism – something which is addressed half-jokingly by the gossipy widows but eventually gives way to a literal roll in the hay with half the village women looking on in hilarity rather than horror. The women joke about living together but lesbianism does seem to be presented as an imperfect solution to their present problem in the lack of satisfaction available to them due to the absence of men. Far from a taboo, sexual desire is a normal part of life in the village – something ranked alongside eating and sleeping and no more or less embarrassing than any other bodily function. The widows crave men and are unafraid to say so even if some of them are content to make do with each other in resignation to their awkward status as older single women.

Hae-sun is in a slightly better position given that remarriage is apparently no longer so much of a taboo. Unfortunately that presents a problem for her as all she wants to do is stay with her family just as she is. She doesn’t like Sang-su and his increasingly aggressive behaviour towards her is unlikely to change that but nevertheless she eventually finds herself given to him almost against her will. Despite becoming a wife once again, Hae-sun’s beauty continues to curse her by causing problems between men wherever she sets foot. The problems, however, are definitively on the male side – men long to possess her, with violence if necessary, and ruin themselves in their immoral pursuit of a “pure” woman. The village widows rejoice in their earthy pleasures, finding comfort and release in each other but the male impulse, by contrast, is always towards conquest and control, domination rather than mutual support.

Life in the village is hard and often sad, but the women are happy and optimistic. They live the lives that are given to them, and do the best they can with what they have. The very antithesis of the lurch towards modernity, the simple life of the villagers harks back to something purer and more honest without the pretension of urban civility and apparently free from the political concerns of the day. Bold in its outlook, The Seashore Village is a surprisingly progressive effort from the Korea of 1965, subverting its “primitive” setting to present a positive picture of female power and sexuality.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Soo-yong box set. Also available to stream for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.