The Bell Tower (종각 / 鐘閣, Yang Ju-nam, 1958)

bell tower newspaper 1Yang Ju-nam directed only five films and spent the bulk of his career, which began in the mid-1930s, working as an editor. Making his directorial debut with Sweet Dream in 1936, Yang would not return to the director’s chair for 21 years, releasing Exorcism of Bae-Baeng-Yi in 1957. In 1958, however, he completed two more, The Bell Tower (종각 / 鐘閣, Jonggak, AKA The Bell Tower: Missing Another Dawn) following on from A Mother’s Love. Adapted from the novel by Kang Ro-hyang, The Bell Tower is a small scale affair starring two actors who would become giants of golden age cinema in a melancholy chamber piece charting the tragic history of mid-century Korea through the life stories of a bell maker and a lonely orphan.

The scene opens with a voice over from Yeong-sil (Moon Jeon-suk) who tells us that she has been staying in this temple for sentimental reasons seeing as she loves the sound of its bell and was once told that her father was a bell maker. Her story quickly gives way to that of the bell maker himself, Seok-sung (Heo Jang-gang), now very elderly and in poor health, who recounts his own sad life story in answer to her question about the bell. As a young man, Seok-sung had been in love with a young woman, Ok-bun, and planned to marry. After she died suddenly, he became a bell maker in honour of a promise he made her but met tragedy again when his mentor died, only latterly finding happiness with a widow who bore him a child only to lose them too.

Of course, we are conditioned to assume that Seok-sung must be Yeong-sil’s long lost father – after all, that’s how these stories go, but Yang keeps wrong footing us, not least through the triple casting of Moon Jeong-suk who plays each of the women Seok-sung meets throughout his life including the tragic Ok-bun, dead of appendicitis at only 19 and around 40 years previously. Then again, our perception of events is that of an old man’s memories – perhaps none of these women truly resembled Yeong-sil and Seok-sung has simply read her into his story as he leads her through the course of his life which eventually led him to creating his masterwork in the beautiful bell which now hangs in the temple.

Tellingly, Heo also turns up in Yeong-sil’s eventual flashback as we come to learn how it was she came to be staying in the temple. Her story and Seok-sung’s occupy differing temporal spaces, seemingly cleaved in two by historical circumstance. Seok-sung is man of Joseon whose long life story takes him into the age of occupation but his troubles are all those of an old world and not the new, until, that is the present day. Yeong-sil is a child of the colonial era whose life has been lived in the shadow of imperial violence though it is men of her own nation who seem to have betrayed her. A lonely orphan she made her way to the city but was tricked by a people trafficker who sold her to a mine as a sex slave. Falling in love with an indentured miner (Chan Min-ho), she managed to escape when the trafficker decided to sell her on a Japanese comfort woman station in China, but lives her life as a fugitive in fear of discovery, hiding from those who would misuse her but longing for her lover to return and a new life to start.

For Seok-sung the bell seems to toll mournfully as if in memory of things past, while for Yeong-sil it rings of determination, as if urging her not to give up rebelling against her fate. Yet the bell itself is doomed by the times of its creation. Now finding itself in the middle of a failing war, the bell is just hollow metal and soon to be melted down for military use. Having poured his heart, soul, suffering, and familial legacy into its creation, Seok-sung can hardly bear to see it put to such a sordid purpose. He would rather destroy his bell or take it with him than allow it to be sullied in such a way, but he is old and his gesture of rebellion futile.

Contrary to expectation, Yang ends on an ambivalent note as if anticipating a kind of limbo in which the present struggles to break free of the past but is, in essence, still waiting for something to begin rather than resolving to begin it. Beautifully framed and told almost entirely in flashback, The Bell Tower is a strangely melancholic meditation on post-war malaise and temporal dissonance as a dislocated father and daughter ponder on past and future while pulling at the threads of their miscommunication.


Available on DVD from the Korean Film Archive accompanied by a bilingual booklet featuring essays by film critics Kim Jong-won and Chung Sung-il, plus a documentary on the career of direct Yang Ju-nam. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

The Midnight Sun (0시(영시) / 0時, Lee Man-hee, 1972)

midnight sun posterIn Korean cinema, the police are a problematic presence. Often corrupt, violent, self-interested, and incompetent, even when the cops are the good guys it’s generally because they’re badder than the bad. 1972’s The Midnight Sun (0시(영시) / 0時, 0 Shi), however contains a rare example of a virtuous policeman whose fierce commitment to ethical values perhaps runs too far in endangering his role as a husband and father.

Police captain Jang Jung-han (Heo Jang-gang) has been charged with tracking down a couple of delinquents who’ve been going round committing robberies on a motorcycle they stole from the son of a high ranking police officer. Meanwhile, his son, Kyuseok, has made friends with a boy from the country, Dol Lim, who’s looking for his sister. Feeling sorry for the boy who’s all on his own, Jang takes him in until Kyuseok manages to get him a job as a greeter outside a local restaurant. Complications arise when Lee Min-soo (Mun Oh-jang), a felon previously arrested by Jang, is released and signals his intention to get revenge on Jang whom he blames for the death of his son while he was inside.

Jang is in all ways a model police officer who is good at his job and pursues all of his investigations with the utmost professionalism. His work is, however, not always compatible with being a regular family man. An early scene sees him greeted by his young son, up early on a part-time job delivering newspapers on his flashy pushbike, who reminds him he’s not been home in a couple of days. Kyuseok has been given a message from both his aunt and his mum to make sure his dad remembers to come home early – Jang has completely forgotten that it’s his wife’s birthday (and not for the first time).

Though she has long made her peace with being a policeman’s wife, Mrs. Jang (Yoon Jeong-hee) has her share of troubles with a husband whose safety is not assured while he is often absent from home for extended periods of time. Jang’s salary is also comparatively low and the family have a very modest quality of life with little chance of any kind of advancement. For all of these reasons, she counsels her sister, Hye-rung (Kim Chang-sook), not to get into a relationship with Jang’s junior officer, Park (Shin Seong-il). Hye-ryung, unmarried, lives with the Jangs and works as a tour guide on a tourist bus. Rather than advocating marriage, Mrs. Jang thinks her sister should look into becoming an air hostess, hinting at new possibilities outside of the home for the next generation of Korean women. Despite her sister’s advice, however, Hye-ryung purses a tentative, spiky romance with Park even if somewhat irritated that he only takes her out for noodles rather than something fancier. A policeman’s salary only stretches so far, after all.

Jang’s loyalties are strained when his cases begin to overlap. Lee Min-soo has returned from his prison sentence to find his wife has left him for another man and his son has died. Lee only turned to crime because his son was ill and he needed money for medical treatment, but Jang wouldn’t listen to his mitigating circumstances and arrested him anyway. While he was inside his boy died and Lee holds Jang responsible. In revenge, he kidnaps Kyuseok but rather than drop everything to look for his son, Jang continues to work on the delinquent case and reminds his colleagues to split their workloads. He regards his son’s predicament as “personal” and refuses to dedicate extra resources or take men and time away from other matters for his own benefit. Jang’s coolness further strains his relationship with his wife who can’t understand why he isn’t trying harder to find their son. Yet in Jang’s officious mind, to do so would be wrong and a betrayal of his duty as a police officer.

Lee eventually decides to give up on his revenge and let Kyuseok go after bonding with the boy and being swayed by his cheerful innocence. Kyuseok forgives his kidnapper and wants his dad to do the same. Jang too is a compassionate soul – he is eventually able to help Dol Lim find his sister though, unfortunately, also has to arrest her. Like Lee, Dol’s sister is also forced into a reconsideration of her life of crime after seeing her brother. Arrested by Jang, she resolves to atone, swaps her bright red mini skirt for modest attire, and ties her hair up in a more innocent style. She even manages to convert her boyfriend to the same cause and the pair decide to get married once they’ve paid their debts to society. Wanting to help Dol, Jang does his best to get the pair as a light a sentence as possible while ensuring justice is served both on a legal and on a human level.

Mixing the crime genre with family drama, Lee Man-hee continues his tendency towards experimentation but with a more hopeful outlook, allowing for a happier ending in which family bonds are restored and crimes forgiven rather than punished. Rather than the frustration and inertia which often traps Lee’s conflicted heroes, Jang and his family are able to free themselves from their various prisons through nothing more than compassion and goodness. Sponsored by the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, Midnight Sun is an oddly cheerful piece of pro-police propaganda in which the stigmatised face of authoritarian rule is given a humanising makeover even while remaining steadfast and selfless in the pursuit of justice.


Available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

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.

Confession of an Actress (어느 여배우의 고백 / 어느女俳優의告白, Kim Soo-yong, 1967)

Confession of an actress posterKorean filmmaking of the 1960s is sometimes referred to as a “golden age”, but the reality is that films were often churned out at a rapid pace for immediate distribution. Producers got an advance from local distributors, picked a scenario, assigned a suitable director and slotted in big name stars they already had under contract. For this reason production values are often low, but performance standard high despite the fact that many stars are bouncing around from one film to another shooting a scene here and a scene there. Director Kim Soo-yong filmed 10 features in 1967 – including his masterpiece Mist. Confessions of an Actress (어느 여배우의 고백 / 어느女俳優의告白, Eoneu Yeobaeu-ui Gobaek), inspired by a novel by Yun Seok-ju, is the kind of straightforward melodrama that was going out of style – a virtual remake of Chaplin’s Limelight with a little Phantom of the Opera thrown in, but Kim neatly repurposes it as a meta take on the Korean film industry of the day.

Kim Jin-kyu (played by the actor of the same name) was once a famous movie star, but heartbreaking tragedy ruined his career and now he’s a washed up drunk dreaming of the past. Hearing the dreaded “hey mister, didn’t you used to be somebody?”, Jin-kyu wanders into a film shoot and is thrown back to a happier time when he starred in prestige pictures with his regular co-star who was also his lover. Sadly, Miyong died of an illness leaving their last picture unfinished. The studio producers wanted to replace her and complete the movie, but Jin-kyu wouldn’t have it. They sued him for obstruction and his career was ruined. Jin-kyu was told that the child Miyong was carrying had died, but unbeknownst to him, a daughter was born and Miyong asked her friend Hwang Jung-seun to give the baby up for adoption and save it from the stigma of being illegitimate. Running into Jung-Seung at the shoot, Jin-kyu finds out his daughter is alive and determines to turn her into a great star – the only thing he can do for her as her father now that he is in such a sorry state.

Almost all of the characters in the film are named for their actors, though they are obviously not playing themselves in any biographical sense. Nevertheless, there is an intentional reflexivity in Kim’s decision to shift away from his literary source to towards one more immediately cinematic. Much as in Chaplin’s Limelight which does seem to provide a blueprint for the narrative, the arc is one of tragedy and redemption as Jin-kyu attempts to make up for lost time by imparting all his professional knowledge to the daughter he never knew and ensuring her success even at the cost of his own. Ashamed to introduce himself to her as a father given that long years of lonely drinking have reduced him to a broken old man, Jin-kyu gives his advice via letter and avoids seeing Jeong-im, longing to embrace her but afraid he’ll bring shame on her growing fortunes.

When Jin-kyu gets Jeong-im into show business, Kim gets a chance to put the Korean film industry on screen. He starts with a mildly sleazy producer and the established star who’s getting too old for ingenue roles but is desperate to hang on to her leading lady status. Nevertheless, she does have the option, as she points out, of a dignified escape through marriage should her career fail – something that is not an option for her male co-stars. As a young hopeful with no experience and nothing to recommend her beyond a pretty face, Jeong-im’s entry into the world of film is a baptism of fire. Rushed through makeup with its uncomfortable fake eyelashes and into an unfamiliar costume, Jeong-im’s rabbit in the headlights performance does not endear her to the director or more particularly the producer who is looking on from the wings in exasperation quietly calculating how much all of these extra takes are costing in wasted film. Nevertheless, the film is a success and, thanks to Jin-kyu’s careful tutoring, Jeong-im is on track for stardom.

Kim fetishises the camera, the process of filming with its bright artificial lights, tricks and techniques from the ice cold studio shoots to the difficult trips out on location. He makes full use of the relatively rare colour format utilising frequent superimpositions and montages, overlaying the bright neon lights of Seoul with the interior journey of our leading lady as she begins to find her voice. Making a final self cameo, Kim gives in to the inherently melodramatic quality of the underlying narrative but he does so somewhat ironically, rolling his eyes at the need for overly dramatic emotionality while actively embracing it, and lamenting the hardships of filmmaking while churning out his third picture in as many months. Confession of an Actress is not the salacious exposé promised by the title, but it is an illicit look at the decidedly unglamorous side of film production a world away from the bright lights and glossy magazines. 


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