Daughter-in-Law (민며느리, Choi Eun-hee, 1965)

Domestic power struggle meets oppressive patriarchal social codes and entrenched class prejudice in Choi Eun-hee’s lighthearted marital drama, Daughter-in-Law (민며느리, Minmyeoneuli, AKA The Girl Raised as a Future Daughter-In-Law). One of the biggest stars of Korean cinema’s golden age, Choi was only the third woman to direct a feature film and the first to direct herself as the leading lady, adapting a popular radio serial in which a pure hearted young girl finds herself suffering while patiently fulfilling the role of a dutiful daughter-in-law to a tyrannical middle-aged woman. Though the film may eventually reinforce traditional gender roles and the patriarchal norms of the conventional marriage it also subtly undercuts them in its final bid for female solidarity as well as in the surprisingly frank depiction of the sexually active relationship between the middle-aged in-laws. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the film opens with a montage sequence of a young woman doing laborious household tasks while the title song muses on the difficulties of married life. For young Jeomsun (Choi Eun-hee), the problems are compounded as we discover she was in effect sold into marriage because of her once wealthy family’s poverty and as her intended husband is still only a child is treated as an unpaid housekeeper by her harridan of a mother-in-law, Mrs Kim (Hwang Jung-seun). “Serve your parents and respect your husband, that’s this country’s way” Mrs Kim reminds her, continually dissatisfied with everything but mostly that she isn’t getting enough respect or attention as the head of the household (in the domestic sense at least). 

As thoughtlessly cruel as she often appears to be, Mrs Kim’s behaviour can perhaps be seen as merely an attempt to leverage the only power she will ever have as the matriarch in her own house, a power made all the greater by the fact her son is still a child and her future daughter-in-law only afforded a liminal space within the family hierarchy. She continually reminds her husband (Kim Hie-gab) and Jeomsun that she too had a mother-in-law who treated her badly, often making her work through the night, and so her treatment of Jeomsun is a way of paying down the system, a facet of the “custom passed down through the generations”. Having been badly treated herself, she relishes her new sense of power and treats her daughter-in-law badly as misdirected payback for her own youthful suffering. 

Jeomsun herself has internalised a sense of the system’s righteousness, fully believing that she must do her “duty” as a good daughter-in-law even when her own mother points out that her in-laws are hardly doing their duty when they wilfully mistreat her. Added to notions of patriarchal subjugation is a further class dimension that leaves Jeomsun at their mercy because she has become impoverished, her mother having consented to her marriage only reluctantly in an attempt to avoid having to sell the family house. Jeomsun had been in love with a local man, Sugil (Park No-sik), but felt their union was impossible while her father was alive because he was of a lower social class and continues to believe it improper even after his death with only her mother lamenting that she wishes she had found a way that her daughter could have had a happier life marrying a man she loved. For his part, Sugil attempts to buck the system by continuing to pursue her, hoping to “buy” her back off the Kims after raising money while the marriage remains unconsummated and therefore unofficial. 

Choi’s age, then in her late 30s though presumably playing the part of a young woman in her late teens or early 20s, further adds to the incongruous inappropriateness of her position in the household as the future wife of a boy who is still quite clearly a child. Yet the young master, Bokman, appears to dote on her, often taking her side against his mother but in the end unable to defend her, too afraid of Mrs Kim to tell the truth and risk having to take responsibility for his actions preferring to let Jeomsun pay for them instead. In an interesting role reversal, it’s Mr Kim who is the perpetual peacemaker, a kind and patient man who quite clearly loves his firecracker wife despite her harsh demeanour. The slightly comedic depiction of their cheerfully active sex life as a middle-aged couple is perhaps at odds with the often prudish times, but also softens Mrs Kim’s otherwise difficult character until such time as she’s tricked into a moment of self-realisation in the recognition that her resentment of Jeomsun is really a reflection of her maternal jealousy and therefore entirely unfair. 

It’s this momentary epiphany that brokers an opportunity for a new female solidarity not only between Jeomsun and her mother-in-law but also with her own mother who must then find the magnanimity to forgive Mrs Kim for treating her daughter so badly in the first place. What began as a tale of patriarchal cruelties, a young woman sold as a wife to a spoilt child at the expense of her own romantic fulfilment, ends with a wilful reversal of the “custom passed down through the generations” as Mrs Kim agrees to cede some of her power in treating her daughter-in-law as more of an equal while making space to welcome her mother, another mother-in-law, into her home. “We all have to live according to our duties” Jeomsun had sadly explained to her former love, yet what she discovers is that duty is a two way street and lies perhaps more in mutual compassion than in slavish devotion to outdated tradition. 


Daughter-in-Law is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Korean Cultural Centre UK’s Korean Film Nights: Filming Against the Odds where it will be followed by Choi Eun-hee’s second film as a director A Princess’ One Sided Love on 27th May. Other films streaming in the season include Park Nam-ok’s The Widow (streaming throughout), Li Mi-rye’s My Daughter Rescued From The Swamp and Lee Seo-gun’s Rub Love (both 10th June).

Yalkae, a Joker in High School (高校 얄개 / 고교얄개, Seok Rae-myeong, 1976)

The mid-70s saw a small youth movie craze in South Korea as the boomers came of age and teenagers became a key demographic. It was also a time of increasing prosperity as the economic policies of the repressive Park Chung-hee regime began to bear fruit, but at the same time such films perhaps had a certain responsibility in addition to conforming to the era’s strict censorship requirements. Yalkae, A Joker in High School (高校 얄개 / 고교얄개, Gogyo-yalgae) is a remake of Jeong Seung-moon’s A Legend of Urchins from 1965 which was itself adapted from a serialised novel published in 1954. As such it presents a kind of awakening in a goofy privileged teen after he realises that the prank he played on another boy for fun has had much more serious consequences than he could have imagined partly because he had no idea that his classmate lived in such different conditions to himself. 

We first meet the “yalkae” or joker of the title during a religious assembly at his strict missionary school. While his friend Yong-ho (Jin Yoo-young) snatches crunchy snacks from another boy and sneakily chomps them down, Doo-soo (Lee Seung-hyeon) is caught napping and tries to talk his way out of it by claiming he was merely at prayer before reciting bits of the bible only forget all the names and replace them with those of his own family members. A montage sequence sees him play tricks on his friend in chemistry and set off an alarm clock in class to make the teacher think the lesson’s over. Like many young boys Doo-soo is a class clown. His pranks may be mildly disruptive, but they are never malicious and meant only in fun. 

Nevertheless, he’s got himself a reputation as a troublemaker. Doo-soo’s dad is also a teacher at the school, which is mildly embarrassing for him, and perhaps why he’s given a job to a sympathetic young man, Mr. Baek (Ha Myeong-joong), who was once his own student and will now be teaching Doo-soo. Doo-soo finds this all a bit awkward, especially as it’s quite obvious to him that Mr. Baek has a crush on his grown-up sister Doo-joo (Jeong Yoon-Hee). Meanwhile, Mr. Baek’s errand to fetch something from his room above a greengrocer’s introduces him to the earnest In-sook (Kang Joo-hee), a student at the girls’ high school who works in her family’s shop, with whom he is instantly smitten. 

The major antagonist in his school life, however, is Ho-cheol (Kim Jeong-hoon), a bit of a swot with a tendency to tell tales to teachers. To teach him a lesson, Doo-soo pulls one of his elaborate pranks, colouring the lenses in his glasses red while he sleeps and then waking him up shouting “fire”. Ho-cheol inevitably panics and his glasses get broken in the chaos. Doo-soo pulls another prank on the headmaster which loses him Mr. Baek’s sympathy and nearly gets him expelled, which might be why he ignores Ho-cheol’s small apology for being a tattletale and plea for him to pay for the broken specs. Ho-cheol stops coming to school and a guilty Doo-soo eventually finds out that he’s broken his leg after coming off his bike during his part-time job delivering milk because he didn’t have his glasses and wasn’t able to see. 

Tracking Ho-cheol down takes Dal-soo to an unfamiliar environment on the outskirts of the city where the boy lives in a tiny rooftop room with his older sister who has a job in the factory. To pay for school and help with expenses, Ho-cheol gets up early to deliver milk every morning before classes. A strange but cheerful sort of boy he isn’t afraid of Doo-soo and is actually quite excited to receive a visit, blaming himself for talking too much and apologising for his habit of tattling to the teachers. Up til now, everyone has been trying to “reform” Doo-soo by instilling in him the urge for order and discipline, which he has always resisted. Discovering how Ho-cheol lives and how his silly prank has affected him brings about a real humbling, finally encouraging Doo-soo to start growing up and accepting responsibility which he does by taking over Ho-cheol’s part-time job to raise money for his medical treatment while diligently taking notes in class to bring back to him so he won’t fall too far behind. 

Grateful for the notes, Ho-cheol is perplexed when he tries to ask Dal-soo a question about the lesson only for him to reply that he only wrote down what he heard. Ho-cheol’s confusion prompts him into a reconsideration of his schooling as he asks sensible questions on behalf of his friend and accidentally becomes an earnest student more out of kindness than curiosity. Mr. Baek, with whom he’d fallen out, had asked In-sook to ignore Doo-soo because his crush was getting in the way of his studies so she ended up telling him she didn’t want to hang out with someone who’d been held back, further fuelling his sense of embarrassment in being an educational slacker when education is, according to Ho-cheol who dreams of a top job in one of the many gleaming spires now lining the city, the way forward. 

The “yalkae” is reformed, not quite as serious as the slightly ridiculous pastor, but returned to religion in furiously praying for Ho-cheol’s recovery and pushed towards earnestness in his pure hearted determination to help his friend by working hard in his place. Everyone suddenly sees his goodness rather than his mischief, In-sook starts talking to him again, and the family is repaired with Doo-soo now recognised as a “good son” rather than a problem child. The message is less that being a goof off in class is bad than it is that studying hard for a better future is part of being a good guy, as is being kind and developing an awareness of your social responsibility in acknowledging the consequences of your actions on those around you while remaining aware that not everyone is quite as fortunate as oneself.


Yalkae, a Joker in High School is available on DVD from the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a bilingual booklet featuring essays by film critics Kim Jong-won and Park Yoo-hee.

A Sister’s Garden (姉妹의 花園 / 자매의 화원, Shin Sang-ok, 1959)

In melodramas of the post-war era, the good suffer nobly but often find their goodness ill rewarded by an increasingly amoral society. Shin Sang-ok’s A Sister’s Garden (姉妹의 花園 / 자매의 화원, Jamaeui Hwawon) is, perhaps, a little different despite its rather mild critique of a society preparing to head into rampant capitalism, allowing a magnanimous entrepreneur to become the pure hearted saviour of an equally pure woman while her weak willed lover remains petulantly on the sidelines unable to defy outdated social codes to claim his right to happiness. 

In fact, this is in many ways Mr. Bang’s (Kim Seung-ho) story. It’s him we first meet getting off a swanky Korean Air plane signalling his position as a member of a new class of jet-setting elitists. He is, however, kindhearted which is why his first thought is to pay a visit to Dr. Nam (You Chun) who cured him of a serious illness. Unfortunately, Dr. Nam has now been laid low by the same illness himself. His business has suffered, he’s sold his clinic, taken a job at the hospital, and even mortgaged his house to a persistent loanshark. Unfortunately, all the stress has got to him and soon after Bang is able to meet with Dr. Nam he collapses and dies, breathing his last words to his assistant, Sun-cheol (Kim Seok-hun) who had been like a son to him, to the the effect that he has already arranged a marriage for eldest daughter Jeong-hui (Choi Eun-hee) to an artist named Dong-su (Nam Gung-won) and hopes that Sun-cheol will watch over his younger daughter Myeong-hui (Choe Ji-hui) and much younger son Chang-sik (Ahn Sung-ki). 

This last request will cause a series of problems among the young, the first of them being that it’s extraordinarily insensitive because Sun-cheol is himself in love with Jeong-hui who is also in love with him. Both of them are, however, good people which is why Sun-cheol wastes no time telling Jeong-hui about her father’s last words while she is minded to obey them even if her primary concern is the family finances seeing as she is now the sole provider for her siblings and there will be no more money coming in. With the loanshark still breathing down their necks, Jeong-hui is in danger of losing the family home. 

The other major problem is Myeong-hui who unlike her sister is a thoroughly modern woman, thoughtless and selfish in a childish sort of way. Unaware of the family’s financial situation, she hoped to use some of the money from selling the clinic to open a dress shop and is put out to realise there isn’t any because the clinic was only sold to pay off debts. Meanwhile, it’s also quite obvious that Dong-su, an equally naive son of a wealthy family, prefers Myeong-hui and almost certainly intends to marry her not her sister. Dong-su thinks he’s hot stuff in the art world and is going to make a lot of money selling paintings, which is optimistic whichever way you look at it. 

This awkward love square creates a series of problems of its own as Myeong-hui convinces herself that her sister is jealous of her relationship with Dong-su while also knowing that she has been silently in love with Sun-cheol for many years. Sun-cheol, for his part, feels himself indebted to the Nams and allows the debt to come between himself and true entrance to the family through marrying Jeong-hui. He saves their house through selling his own, but times being as they are Jeong-hui still needs to find a job which is another problem because she is an upper middle-class woman raised for marriage. She gave up school to keep house after her mother died and has no qualifications, even if qualifications could help a woman in need find a good job in 1950s Seoul. She asks Bang for help, and he offers her a frankly insulting opportunity as the head hostess at a sleazy bar he owns where businessmen go to have discreet fun without their wives. 

Jeong-hui wasn’t going to take it, but in the end she has little choice, allowing the married Myeong-hui and Dong-su to move into the house to look after Chang-sik while she lives at the bar. Sun-cheol, still afraid to speak his heart, is judgemental and filled with resentment, entirely unsupportive of Jeong-hui’s position or her proactive decision to try and change it even if changing it means hovering on the fringes of the sex trade. Myeong-hui also, perhaps because of her selfishness and naivety, fails to understand the sacrifices her sister has made on her behalf. Worried that Myeong-hui and Dong-su may have re-mortgaged the family home that she is actively debasing herself to save, Jeong-hui asks her sister to reassure her that the deed to the house is safe. Myeong-hui had been thinking of doing just that so she fires back cruelly that Jeong-hui has everything “easy” and can’t understand how hard it is for her, which is a strange thing to say given that Jeong-hui has become a bar girl solely to keep a roof over her sister’s head. 

Myeong-hui and Dong-su continue to make mistakes, Dong-su convincing his friend to embezzle money from his company to plough into the dress shop even though it’s a loan they can’t repay and threatens to get them all in hot water. Jeong-hui has to sort everything out again, but that puts her in further debt to Bang to whom she is already substantially indebted because he convinced her to take a loan to pay back Sun-cheol who didn’t even really want paying back. Uncharitably, Bang’s behaviour looks suspect. He makes a prim upperclass woman degrade herself by plunging her into the sleazy underbelly of a burgeoning economy and then burdens her with debt to be able to manipulate her better. Perhaps he gets a kick out of that, but soon feels guilty seeing someone who so obviously does not belong in one of his bars forced to drink with clients and play nice with the customers. On the other hand, perhaps there really were no better jobs available for a woman without qualifications and he only wanted to help. 

Ultimately, Bang turns out to be the good guy, falling in altruistic, selfless love with the innocent Jeong-hui who always does the right thing and acts with absolute integrity. Debt, once again messes everything up. Bang decides to propose to Jeong-hui, which practically speaking is a good option in the situation, but makes it clear that he is not forcing her and will continue to help and support her whatever she decides. But how is Jeong-hui to refuse someone who has been so “kind” to her without a sense of betrayal? Sun-cheol, meanwhile, is prevented from declaring his feelings because of the “debt” he feels he owes to the Nam family, not quite good enough for Jeong-hui but also the custodian of her father’s last words which were that she should marry Dong-su. Myeong-hui and Dong-su meanwhile think only of themselves, acting with selfish recklessness. Only when Jeong-hui comes through for Myeong-hui and tells her of Bang’s proposal does she begin to grow up and realise that her sister may throw away her own happiness for the sake of her family’s in marrying a rich old man out of a sense of hopelessness and obligation. 

Contrary to other melodramas, the solution is Bang’s and Bang’s alone. He makes the decision to release the youngsters from patriarchal control by essentially canceling out Dr. Nam’s last wishes by telling Jeong-hui that she should try to be happy with Sun-cheol while giving her the financial means to do so by gifting her the bar to run as her own, making her both business owner and career woman as well as wife. He absents himself in recognition that age has to give way to youth, pushing the youngsters to pursue personal happiness rather than serve outdated ideas of duty or filial obligation. Jeong-hui’s goodness wins out, but only because it was recognised by Bang who decides to set her free by cancelling not only her literal debt, but the entire idea of indebtedness in giving her permission to seek her own happiness rather than feeling obliged to prioritise that of others. 


A Sister’s Garden is the third of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Dongsimcho (동심초, Shin Sang-ok, 1959)

The Korea of 1959 was one of change, but the hardest thing to change is oneself and oftentimes the biggest obstacle to personal happiness is the fear of pursuing it. The pure hearted heroine of Shin Sang-ok’s Dongsimcho (동심초) describes herself as “a woman who thirsts for love, yet foolishly gives in to fear first”. A war widow, she’s fed up with society’s constant prejudice but too afraid of what they might think if she chose to choose love, embrace her desire, and marry again for no other reason than personal happiness. Yet for all that she’s a mother with a grown up daughter, she’s a woman too, and young, only 38, but nevertheless consigned to a life of loneliness because of a series of outdated social codes. 

When we first meet Suk-hee (Choi Eun-hee) she’s rushing to the station but arrives too late and can only watch the man she loves board a train through an iron gate that perpetually divides them. Her husband having died in the Korean War, Suk-hee once had a dress shop but was conned out of all her money and the business failed. The kind hearted brother of a friend, Sang-gyu (Kim Jin-gyu), helped her out. Through the course of his managing her affairs, they became close and fell in love, but Sang-gyu is now engaged to the boss’ daughter, Ok-ju (Do Keum-bong), and their romance seems more impossible than ever. 

Suk-hee never quite dares to hope that Sang-gyu might break off his engagement, decide against a bright middle-class future, and start again with her. She’s an old fashioned kind of woman. Despite the fact she once owned a dress shop, she only ever wears hanbok and lives in an improbably spacious Korean-style house alone with her college student daughter, Kyeong-hee (Um Aing-ran), and a maid. The debt that exists between herself and Sang-gyu is the force that both binds them and keeps them apart. The money rots their relationship, but neither of them want it to be repaid because then they’d have no more excuse to continue meeting. They are both perfectly aware of each other’s feelings but entirely unable to acknowledge them because in some sense they already know that their future is impossible. 

On discovering her mother’s “secret”, Kyeong-hee is mildly scandalised, confronted by the realisation that a mother is also a woman just as she is now. She worries about the moral ambiguities of her mother’s position and of what people might say, but quickly reconsiders, deciding to be happy for her and actively support her chances of a happier future. As a younger woman coming of age in the post-war era, Kyeong-hee feels freer to shake off social convention and strike out for personal happiness rather than being content to be miserable while upholding a series of social codes which lead only to additional suffering. 

Only slightly younger than Suk-hee, Sang-gyu is beginning to feel the same. His widowed older sister, Suk-hee’s friend, has turned to religion to escape her loneliness while staking all of her hopes on Sang-gyu’s economic success. It’s she who’s set him up with the marriage to Ok-ju and is pressuring him to accept it because it will assure her own future seeing as she is obviously not planning to defy convention and remarry. Sang-gyu, however, is filled with doubts. Eventually he tells his associate, Gi-cheol (Kim Seok-hoon), that he cannot go through with the marriage, adding that he doesn’t want advice or a warning he merely needed to tell someone. In a strange coincidence, Gi-cheol was once Kyeong-hee’s tutor, and has a surprisingly conservative attitude. Questioned by Ok-ju, he tells her to “act more lovingly” to cure Sang-gyu’s obvious lack of enthusiasm for their relationship, explaining that love doesn’t just happen but is a result of concerted effort. He tells Sang-gyu that he’s being childish and irresponsible and should think about “social ethics and morality”. In short, he should forget about the past and marry Ok-ju like a good boy. But Sang-gyu quite reasonably asks him who’s going to be responsible for what happens after that. If he marries Ok-ju now, he will merely be condemning her to a cold and loveless marriage filled with intense resentment in which the spectre of the woman he loved and lost will always stand between them. 

Kyeong-hee unexpectedly arrives part way through the conversation having followed Gi-cheol with whom she has perhaps also begun to fall in love despite the difference in their attitudes. She jumps in to defend Suk-hee, taking Sang-gyu’s side in berating Gi-cheol for insulting her mother, asking if he thinks a woman like her has no worth. Her mother is a woman too, and though she was originally confused and scandalised, after getting to know Sang-gyu and giving it some thought she’d like to give them her blessing though of course they don’t need it. Kyeong-hee is still young enough to fight for love, and the world in which she lives gives her the courage to believe it might be possible. 

The generation gap between herself and her mother, who it has to be remembered is only 38, cold not be more obvious. Suk-hee struggles against herself. She loves Sang-gyu, but the world tells her that it’s wrong and she must deny her feelings for the sake of social propriety. She can’t stand the way people look down on war widows, and she’s too afraid to give them any more ammunition. Given the relative mildness of the sanction on their relationship, in moral terms at least, it would be easy enough to read it as a metaphor for something else, especially with the repeatedly pregnant dialogue about the pain of not being permitted to marry the person that you love, that no one has the right to judge others for their personal lives, Sangyu’s sister’s aside about being “one of those people”, and finally Sang-gyu’s rather strange confession to Ok-ju that he “may have a personality disorder” in being unable to give up on his love for Suk-hee. It is definitely the case, however, that the gate that stands between them is a rigid an unforgiving society which denies love in fear of disrupting the social order.  

Suk-hee feels guilty not only for her feelings, but feeling as if she’s getting in the way of Sang-gyu’s bright and rightful future. Meanwhile, no one seems to give much thought to poor Ok-ju, used as a pawn by all while pinning for Sang-gyu despite her conviction that he’s in love with someone else and will never truly be with her. Even Gi-cheol implies it’s her own fault not being “loving” enough, while she is left with nothing but sympathy for Suk-hee as another woman forever separated from Sang-gyu because of what other people think. This world is not, it seems, entirely ready for love. Suk-hee makes the “right” choice by many people’s reckoning, one filled with nobility and self sacrifice, yet it’s a choice that becomes increasingly impossible to accept and stands only in stark condemnation of the society which convinced her that misery was virtue. 


Dongsimcho is the second of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Burning Mountain (山불 / 산불, Kim Soo-yong, 1967)

Burning Mountain still 1In his 1965 film The Seashore Village, Kim Soo-yong had presented a broadly positive vision of a community of women who had learned to survive without men by supporting each other. 1967’s Burning Mountain (山불 / 산불, Sanbul, AKA Flame in the Valley) revisits a similar theme but with much less positivity. This time around, the women have been deprived of their men not because of nature’s cruelty, but because of man-made corruption. Set during the Korean War, Burning Mountain finds a collection of wounded, lonely women condemned by patriarchal social codes and hemmed in by political strife not of their making struggling against their baser instincts as they determine to survive in an often hostile environment.

A small village near Jirisan has lost all of its men. Pressed by communist guerrillas for food, the lone women are hungry and afraid. Consequently, they are often at each other’s throats and united only in a shared futility of waiting for men they are almost certain will never return, either because the war has taken them or they have taken the opportunity to seek a better kind of life. The drama begins when Jum-rye (Ju Jeung-ryu) discovers a communist deserter, Kyu-bok (Shin Young-kyun), hiding in the bamboo grove and is seduced by him, satisfying her long repressed desire and escaping her loneliness through a transient bond with a captive man.

Unlike the fishwives of The Seashore Village, the women of Burning Mountain are a more conservative bunch though they too are largely unafraid to talk plainly of their unanswered desire in the absence of men. Rather than embracing each other as the fishwives had, the mountain women allow their sexual frustrations to make them bitter and irritable, forever at each other’s throats and unable to let go of past grievances. They dwell on the possibility of escape, but do not believe it to be real. One of the younger, unmarried women, talks of going to the city to find work as a maid but is confronted by a world of checkpoints and soldiers which restricts both her movement and her freedom in ways she is ill-equipped to understand.

The village stands as a tiny enclave, caught between North and South, part of both and neither as if lost in some eternal netherland. The bamboo grove represents the innocent natural freedoms which have been taken from the villagers by civilisation and by later by the folly of men and war. It’s in the bamboo grove that Jum-rye first encounters Kyu-bok in a meeting which begins as rape but ends in seduction as Jum-rye surrenders herself to a rough stranger in desperation and loneliness. The affair continues and relations between herself and the other women improve until Sawol (Do Kum-bong), a woman with whom she’d been on bad terms because their absent husbands had been on different sides, discovers Kyu-bok’s existence and blackmails the pair into allowing her to make sexual use of him in order to ease her own frustration.

Roles interestingly reversed, Kyu-bok takes exception to his new status as a kept man, resenting the feeling that he is nothing more than a pet, breeding stock kept to scratch an itch. Nevertheless, he stays while the women, increasingly conflicted, urge him to turn himself in to the authorities sure that if he explains himself they will not treat him harshly. Already emasculated in having been forced into the mountains against his will, Kyu-bok remains impotent in all ways other than the sexual, pleading with Jum-rye that she let him stay in the bamboo grove “until the world gets better”.

Sadly, the world shows little sign of doing that, though thanks to their shared transgression a strange kind of camaraderie arises between former enemies Jum-rye and Sawol, now disposed towards female solidarity having eased their own frustrations. They want to trap Kyu-bok and keep him for themselves, but at the same time they dwell on the idea of the unseen woman waiting somewhere for him just as they are waiting for their menfolk and know they cannot have him for long. Where the constant refrains of “we are all the same” had rung somewhat hollow, they ring true now in the two women’s commitment to a woman they don’t know who is, in some senses, their rival.

Yet, the liminal space of the bamboo grove cannot be allowed to stand in the increasingly straitened future. Already subversive in his frank depiction of female desire, Kim subtly undercuts the austerity of the times in making accidental villains of the South Korean army who arrive to burn the bamboo grove down to smoke out the guerrilla fighters, taking from these women the symbol of their freedom in the natural pleasure of the forest. The cowardly communist, while fulfilling the demands of the censors’ board, is both passive victim of his times and a representative of the frustrated masculinity which has caused them in the first place. The corruption of the war has come to the bamboo grove and set light to the last vestiges of hope in taking from these already impoverished women their very source of life. A sorry tale of despair and futility, Burning Mountain spins a tale of weak men and resilient women whose solidarity is bought through a mutual satisfaction cruelly ended by an austere and unforgiving regime.


Burning Mountain is available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

The General’s Mustache (장군의 수염 / 將軍의 수염, Lee Seong-gu, 1968)

General's Mustache posterBroken dreams of the post-war society prove too much for one man to bear in Lee Seong-gu’s masterpiece of Korean Modernism – The General’s Mustache (장군의 수염 / 將軍의 수염, Janggun-ui Suyeom). Adapted from the novel by Lee O-young, Lee’s film co-opts the procedural but subtly subverts it, taking a cue from the film noir to turn it in on itself and ask if we can truly ever know another person, or if we simply conjure an image of everyone we know based on a collection of external observations gathered by ourselves and others. Our hero, Cheol-hun (Shin Seong-il), is a melancholy man who has chosen to live in a world of his own creation but when his shield of artifice is pierced by a spear of reality he can endure it no longer. Cheol-hun is dead, but who, if anyone, killed him and can we ever really understand why he died without his words to guide us?

Lee opens with a scream as Cheol-hun’s landlady discovers his body, draped half naked over his bed next to a stove with the safety cover removed. Concluding that carbon monoxide poisoning is likely the cause of death, the police find the panicked landlady suspicious but leave with three clues – a ladies’ stocking, a missing camera, and the scar on Cheol-hun’s forehead. The stocking takes them to Cheol-hun’s ex, who tells them that Cheol-hun gave his camera to a “nude model” which was perhaps a point of tension between the two, but not apparently the reason they decided to separate. The scar, ruining the detective’s (Kim Seung-ho) theory, turns out to be an old one – received in infancy when his exhausted mother (Han Eun-jin) dropped an iron on his head after a long day at the press.

After the testimony from Cheol-hun’s mother, the scar seems incidental but turns out to be anything but. Cheol-hun’s mother blames herself for his childhood injury (as any mother would) and has spent her life worrying about him, believing that the scar itself has been the cause of all his misfortune and sent him off on an unlucky path. From Cheol-hun’s sister (Kim Sin-jae) we learn that the family was once wealthy – local landowners who valued their “aristocratic” blood. After the war all that ended. The land was given back to the people, and Cheol-hun’s family were stripped of not only of their prestige but of their means of living. Nevertheless, Cheol-hun’s austere father refused to let his children play with the “commoners”, and so little Cheol-hun’s loneliness was born.

The testimony of Cheol-hun’s former boss reinforces the view that Cheol-hun was an eccentric loner, ill equipped for life in the “real” world. A former photojournalist, Cheol-hun lost his job as a result of a disastrous interview with a recently returned scholar who had enjoyed some minor success in America. The scholar, having been abroad five years, peppers his speech with random English and puts up a pretence of having forgotten his Korean. He complains that Korean kimchee is too spicy, and suggests that the key to improving the “backward” nation lies in “reforming” the cuisine. Cheol-hun, becoming ever more irritated, offers a few barbed comments but cannot contain himself when the kids, “John” and “Mary” who do not speak any Korean, arrive. American names, he points out, are usually associated with dogs and sex workers – why would you give them to your children if you plan to live in Korea? Needless to say, the interview is over.

Cheol-hun has now been characterised as a man who cannot read the air, but it’s time to hear from him too though it will have to be second hand. Shin-hye (Yoon Jeong-hee), the girlfriend, radically changing under testimony broadly agrees with this view of the man she loved but could no longer live with. Cheol-hun told her that he’d never been good with people and had no real friends save one in the army – interestingly enough a man descended from royalty, but that he died leaving Cheol-hun alone again with the lingering guilt that he was unable to save his only friend. His tragedy is that he yearns for true connection, to truly become one with another person, but he cannot achieve it. His life with Shin-hye crumbles not because of “reality” but because Shin-hye craves the real – to live in the real world where people bleed and hurt. She cannot live with Cheol-hun in his escapist paradise, but he cannot bear to leave it.

The title of the film comes from the book that Cheol-hun wanted to write. In the story, a victorious general fighting for “independence” returns to his “liberated” country. The general is dashing and brave and he has on his face the most magnificent mustache. A weedy reporter giddily asks him if he too might dare to grow such a wonderful mustache to which the general cooly assents. Before long a mustache craze sweeps the nation. Even those who cannot grow a mustache of their own have taken to wearing wigs, but our protagonist says no. He doesn’t want a moustache and refuses to wear one. He loses his job, but it remains open whether the fact of his not having a mustache (which no one forces him to have) or his melancholy loneliness in not wanting to have one and not understanding why everyone else does is the cause of all his suffering. 

The quote at the film’s beginning, painted on Cheol-hun’s maddeningly crowded walls, reads “I refuse to, That’s why I’m alive”. Yet it isn’t quite a refusal so much as a lack of capacity. Cheol-hun’s boss had a point when he said that Cheol-hun was fundamentally unsuited to living in human society, as did Shin-hye when she described him as a lonely child in need of a guardian. If anything killed Cheol-hun, it was loneliness – a revelation which profoundly shakes the conviction of the veteran detective. After all, you can’t put handcuffs on spiritual isolation. The detective thinks of his family, and decides to take a watermelon home to share with them as means of reinforcing his own shallow connections but it’s clear that his conception of the world, of his abilities as a detective and the entire framework of his existence have been irreparably compromised by his investigation into the life and death of Kim Cheol-hun.

Partly a satirical swipe at post-war conformity, Lee’s film also subtly subverts a popular trope from the anti-communist genre in its apparent sympathy for landlords. Cheol-hun’s loneliness is posited as a direct result of his “fall” from his rightful position – the only friend he ever makes is also a fallen nobleman, and he struggles to adapt himself to the “classless” society of the “democratic” era. Yet it’s precisely these outdated ideas of “class” that have ruined his life in his father’s refusal to let him play with the other children. Cheol-hun retreats to a fantasy childhood world to avoid the harshness of modern life, but cannot escape his loneliness or his longing and when he realises Shin-hye is not the soulmate with whom he thought he could forge a new, perfectly isolated paradise, his entire existence becomes impossible.

Lee conjures a mosaic of Cheol-hun composed of the memories of those around him, gradually thickening in texture and finally coming into focus but always only a simulacrum of a man and not the man himself. Adopting a standard procedural narrative, Lee adds in extensive flashback and hypothetical dramatisations as the police investigate, switching to black and white for raw hypotheses and even breaking into elegantly drawn animation to recreate the surreal world of Cheol-hun’s putative novel. Dark and sad, The General’s Mustache seems to imply that there is no answer for solitude, that you can never really know another person fully, and that the loneliest man of all is the one born without a “mustache”, already naked of face in having no final mask to expose but finding that no one wants to see his true self only the one which is demanded he wear to appear just like everyone else.


The General’s Mustache is the third film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon (일월 / 日月, Lee Seong-gu, 1967)

Sun and Moon posterOld habits die hard in Lee Seong-gu’s Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon (일월 / 日月). The feudal past refuses to ease its icy grip even in the new “democratic” era in which freedom and prosperity are promised to all. Lee Seong-gu, closely associated with the Western Modernist movement, flexes his Literary Film muscles with an adaptation of Hwang Sun-won’s novel. Mixing a standard melodrama narrative with an exploration of “outdated” social prejudices and the gradually fracturing psyche of a man who learns a “dark secret” regarding his personal family history, Lee isolates the individual within a changing society as an ordinary man finds himself unable to move forward despite his own desire to be free of the superstitious past.

Lee opens with a scene more in keeping with a romantic comedy. Aspiring architect In-cheol (Shin Seong-il) meets drama student Na-mi (Nam Jeong-im) at an upscale ski resort and is instantly smitten. After spending time with her, In-cheol goes home and visits a childhood friend, Da-hye (Moon Hee). Da-hye is quite obviously in love with In-cheol – a fact of which he is obviously unaware or just completely insensitive since his purpose in coming is to tell her about Na-mi. Despite her personal pain, Da-hye is a good friend and gives In-cheol the appropriate advice regarding his romantic endeavour, reminding him that many of his previous relationships have failed because he was too diffident and he let them drift away.

Meanwhile, In-cheol is called into his father’s study to meet his dad’s new business contact who, it happens, wants a house designed. In a piece of near dynastic finagling, In-cheol gets a new job and, surprise surprise, the house turns out to be for Na-mi who is the daughter of the bank manager In-cheol’s dad wants a loan from. Everything is working out just fine, but then In-cheol’s brother – the Mayor of Gwanju (Jang Min-ho), turns up in a state of agitation and tells them he’s being blackmailed. Someone has discovered their dark family secret – In-cheol’s dad ran away from his family because they were butchers, a near “untouchable” class even in the Korean society of 1967. In-cheol thinks this is all very silly, who cares about things like that anymore? But on another level the discovery profoundly disturbs him in what it says about him as a person and about the society in which he lives.

It does seem ridiculous to stigmatise such commonplace occupation in a supposedly modern society, but In-cheol can’t seem to move past it. He pays a visit to a slaughter house which is just as awful as he’d expected it to be as he watches a once powerful cow twitching helplessly on the floor while other workers dismember the corpses of animals, pulling out entrails and severing heads ready for keener butchery. Still, In-cheol reminds himself it’s just a job and resolves to meet his cousin, but his cousin, insisting that he has no relatives, won’t talk to him. In-cheol takes this for rudeness or rejection, but really his cousin is attempting to protect him. In having internalised the constant abuse he suffers – even once being arrested by the police when a murder took place nearby solely because he is a butcher and had no alibi, In-cheol’s cousin avoids contact with those outside of his group and does not want to taint him with the butcher brush. Yet In-cheol keeps pushing, only for his cousin to roundly tell him to leave it alone unless he has the courage to accept his butcher blood fully for all it is.

The problems are manifold. In-cheol’s father’s first engagement was broken when the bride found out he came from a butcher family, while his wife (who married him without knowing) became a religious obsessive after learning of her husband’s origins. In-cheol’s marriage prospects are almost certainly off the table if anyone finds out, but even if someone agrees to marry him knowing the truth should he really invite them to do so knowing that they (and their children) will share his shame?

Unable to speak, unable to move forward or back, In-cheol spirals into a depressive cycle of inertia and suffering. Da-hye tries to talk to Na-mi to get him to wake up, but Na-mi tells her she’s not much bothered about In-cheol’s mental state and has only been messing around. Nevertheless, she finally draws closer to him as means both of assuming the leading role in her relationship, and as a way of annoying her father whilst potentially getting herself involved in a small scale scandal. Meanwhile, Da-hye who had pointed out that In-cheol’s problem was his passivity, ironically reveals that she too has been waiting for him to wake up and realise her feelings for him, only now realising she has probably missed her chance. The melodramatic device of the love triangle becomes a symbol of In-cheol’s ongoing psychological fracturing as he finds himself caught between two women and realising he can choose neither of them because his “ancestral curse” has effectively disqualified him from living in the modern world.

Using innovative editing techniques, Lee dramatises the tragedy of an isolated generation, supposedly living in a “modern” society but unable to escape the outdated social codes of the past. Rather than attempt to free themselves from irrational and superstitious ways of thinking, they choose self-exile and willingly accept their unhappiness in an otherwise altruistic intention of preventing the spread of a contagion. Melancholy yet urgent, Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon uses the ridiculous survival of an ancient prejudice to lay bare a dark secret at the centre of its own society but finds only tragedy without sense of an escape.


Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon is the first film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. (Not currently available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel).