Piagol (피아골, Lee Kang-cheon, 1955)

piagol poster 1Under the oppressive regime of Park Chung-hee, “anti-communism” became a national policy and all films, at least implicitly, had to display anti-communist sentiment. In the 1950s, however, despite the immediacy of the war’s end, there might have been more room for nuance. Then again, perhaps not. Lee Kang-cheon’s Piagol (피아골), released just two years after the events it depicts, was among the first to concern itself with the North Korean partisans and was subsequently banned for its supposedly sympathetic depiction of communist guerrilla fighters, finally released only with the addition of the South Korean flag superimposed over the closing scene in order to suggest that the sole surviving partisan had decided to walk towards freedom.

Led by hardline Captain Agari (Lee Ye-chun), the partisans are in a sorry state. The truce has been signed and the war is “over” (or, at any rate, as “over” as it is now). They know no further reinforcements from China or the Soviet Union will be forthcoming, but have decided to continue fighting anyway. Holed up on Mount Jiri, the partisans are involved in an internecine guerrilla conflict with the encroaching South Korean and American forces, but are determined to root out “reactionary” elements and have been taking brutal revenge on local villages they believe to have “betrayed” them to the authorities.

Unlike the later anti-communist films, Lee’s partisans are not rabidly evil or gleefully sadistic but they are casually cruel and wilfully heartless. After the escape sequence which opens the film, a roll is called recording a casualty and a lost rifle. Captain Agari is much more worried about the gun than the man, eventually executing the soldier who dropped it after being shot in the arm for dereliction of duty. Agari’s actions are even harder to defend given that he knows there will be no further reinforcements and he’s down to a handful of men already, but neatly exemplify his lack of human feeling and intense need to enforce both dominance and ideological purity.

Convinced that someone in a nearby village is acting as an informant for the South, Captain Agari decides to carry out a raid to rid it of “reactionary” elements, which is a thinly veiled excuse to sack it. Not all of the partisans are entirely on board, especially as some of them hail from this village originally and have family members still living there. During the raid, Lee focuses on cowardly Captain Agari hiding in a nearby temple while Buddhist statues seem to be giving him the hard stare, before shifting to the same temple now in flames. A baby cries and crawls over the half naked body of its mother, raped and left for dead. Meanwhile, teenage recruit Il-dong (Cho Nam-suk) searches for his mum only to find her dying of a bullet wound in the street. Half delirious she asks him why he shot his own mother while all he can do is cradle her as she dies. Cold as ice partisan Ae-ran (Roh Kyung-hee) blows her whistle to tell him to get moving and brushes off the disapproval of sensitive intellectual Chul-soo (Kim Jin-kyu) with an affirmation that all actions to eradicate reactionaries should be praised.

Ae-ran is one of only two female partisans and seems to have something of a vendetta against the other, Soju (Kim Young-hee), who is berated by Captain Agari for being weak and womanly, “too wimpy for the communist party”. Breaking down in tears, Soju is raped by Agari who, a few moments later, is handed a commendation for heroism from the guerrilla commander and has her transferred to HQ out of the way. Unlike Soju, Ae-ran is presented as overly masculine, tough and unforgiving but, crucially, able to defend herself against Agari and successfully resist his advances. She is, however, softened by the quiet expression of desire for sensitive romantic Chul-soo whom she describes as “like a poet in fairyland”, and is unique among the partisans for her eventual acceptance of defeat as she urges to Chul-soo to go down the mountain and surrender to take advantage of the amnesty proposed by Southern forces, remaining reluctant to go herself in believing there is no way back for her after all she has done in the mountains.

Ae-ran has indeed done quite a lot in the mountains and none of it good. Chul-soo may lament that he has already lost his humanity despite being the only partisan to regularly voice dissent, but Ae-ran does not appear to have had very much of it in the first place. Still, she is “a survivor”. Given that we’ve seen them repeatedly commit atrocities and eventually destroy each other out a series of petty resentments, attempts to cover up crimes, and revenge born of sexual jealousy, you could hardly say that the communists have been shown in a very positive light, but audiences at the time failed to identify the film as sufficiently “anti-communist” because they couldn’t be sure that Ae-ran’s ideological disillusionment had led her to choose freedom in the South, rather than it simply being a case of physical desperation. Unlike the anti-communist films of the ‘60s, Lee refuses to demonise the partisans, depicting them as ideologically committed, cruel, and heartless, but also flawed and human as they succumb to despair on realising they have been abandoned by their nation, marooned in the South somewhere between death and freedom. In this at least, they are victims of their ideology, ruined by emotional austerity and betraying their own revolution even as they attempt to enact it.


Piagol was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Break up the Chain (쇠사슬을 끊어라, Lee Man-hee, 1971)

Break Up the Chain poster1970 had been a difficult year for Lee Man-hee. A conflict on the set of The Goboi Bridge in which Lee intended to star against the advice of his regular team resulted in the end of his creative relationship with screenwriter Baek Gyeol and cinematographer Lee Suck-ki. Meanwhile, he’d also suffered a crisis in his personal life after parting ways with actress Moon Jeong-suk who had been both a lover and a muse. To top it all off he also had some financial problems and didn’t work at all for the year following Goboi Bridge’s release – a significant period of time in the high-speed world of early ‘70s Korean cinema in which it was not unheard of for a director to make as many as 10 films in one year. Break Up the Chain (쇠사슬을 끊어라, Shwisaseuleul Geunheola) was intended to be something of a “come back” but it finds Lee defeated, doing what he does best but also playing the game he never really wanted to play in succumbing to the patriotism epic (albeit a little tongue in cheek).

Riffing off Sergio Leone, Lee frames his resistance romp as a Manchurian western. A mysterious golden Buddhist statue has more than just monetary value as it also contains a list of the names of resistance operatives which can be revealed with the use of a special chemical formula. Three men are after it – Cheol-su (Namkoong Won), an adventurer for hire who might or might not be working for the resistance; Tae-ho (Jang Dong-hwi), a petty gangster; and Dal-geon (Heo Jang-kang), a collaborator working with the Japanese. The men are each interested in the statue for selfish reasons – Cheol-su for his reputation, Tae-ho for the money, and Dal-geon for the prestige. None of them is interested in the resistance movement itself, the statue’s importance in relation to it, or anything really beyond themselves and their day-to-day lives.

Of course, as this is a patriotism epic, the men eventually come round to the greatness of Korea as their individual quests converge and they find themselves alongside the resistance surrounded by the Japanese. The Japanese are largely a bumbling bunch who remain unaware of the statue’s “real” power even whilst holding it, thinking only of its monetary value as a lump of gold or work of art they could export abroad for financial gain. Confronted and faced with failure, the leader of the Japanese is firstly humiliated by his defeat at the hands of the resistance but then decides to show them the greatness of the Japanese army by committing Harakiri right there on the spot. Stripping off the captain begins to get cold feet, suddenly struck by the enormity of the moment when one of his lieutenants draws his sword ready for the beheading. The Japanese captain then seems to come down with “a cold” and resolves to visit the medical tent instead.

The early drama revolves around the interplay of the three self-interested outsiders as they scheme and plot to make use of each other and get the statue for themselves. Of the three, Cheol-su emerges as the most “noble” even though his quest is mercenary enough – his name is his business and thus he wants the statue to fulfil his contract and maintain his sense of integrity as a gun for hire. Tae-ho is merely interested in financial gain with a mild desire for social revenge and the thrill of outsmarting a rival, but both men are filled with an intense distaste for men like Dal-geon who have “betrayed” the countrymen they too have refused to serve. That aside, Tae-ho and Dal-geon begin to form a weak alliance of the opportunistic as they bond in their mercenary intentions, while Cheol-su lingers on the outside as his quest ties him more closely with the independence movement. Eventually the trio realise they have to work together to get the statue, even if their ultimate intention is to double cross the others and keep it for themselves. They do however suddenly rediscover their patriotic spirit, resolving to give the statue to the people who need to most while they ride off into the sunset in search of other ways to serve their country.

Set in dusty Manchuria (where the resistance movement operated in exile), Break Up the Chain is part of the short-lived boom of Korean “westerns” which were popular in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Lee abandons his experimental ambitions and aims squarely for the populist, reaching only for post-modern irony in his boys own adventure story filled with feats of daring do and flight on horseback. Yet he comforts himself with that sense of irony, pulling away from the absurd adventures of our heroes to show the faces of men dying in snow reminding us that their flight from the horror of war was perhaps a rational one rather than an act of cowardice or a failure of patriotism. Nevertheless, Lee seems to be at odds with himself as he gives in (to a point) and presents a silly story of amoral chancers suddenly rediscovering their “Koreanness” in the barren wastelands of Manchuria but does so with a sense of bitterness which conspires to rob the tale of its childish sense of fun.


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

The Daughters of Kim’s Pharmacy (김약국의 딸들 / 金薬局의딸들, Yu Hyun-mok, 1963)

Daughters of Kim's Pharmacy poster“Literary Film” had become a kind of genre of its own in Korean cinema, both embracing and rejecting the nation’s taste for melodrama with differing degrees of artiness. Director Yu Hyun-mok, however, was not generally associated with the kind of affectation coupled intense sentimentality that sometimes marked the worst examples of the genre but with a unique brand of cinematic realism which attempted to address the social issues of the day whilst still getting past the censors who were hot on politics but increasingly lax on sex and violence. Nevertheless, The Daughters of Kim’s Pharmacy (김약국의 딸들, Kim yakgukjib daldeul) is a “literary film” adapted from a novel by Park Gyoung-li and set firmly in the recent past. Yu eventually gives in to the inherent melodrama of a small family battling a legacy of pain and destruction, but tellingly subverts it by discarding the tragic ending of the original novel for something that offers a degree of hope albeit in an all but hopeless world.

The film begins at the close of the Joseon Dynasty as a young man runs into another man’s house and desperately reaffirms his love for a woman who is now married to someone else while he is also married to woman from his village. The woman refuses to see him while he pleads with her, sobbing, but when her husband returns home unexpectedly he doubts his wife’s virtue. Threatening her and then chasing off the lover, the husband kills him by accident and is forced to flee while the woman takes poison and kills herself in her misery leaving her son, who will later become Kim the pharmacist, orphaned and alone, and the family forever “cursed” by her unquiet spirit.

18 years later Kim himself is forced into an arranged marriage which he wanders away from on the wedding day, leaving his aunts to wonder if he hasn’t been “possessed” by the vengeful spirit of his late mother. Despite the “curse” the marriage is successful in that it is not particularly unhappy and produces four daughters who are each of age when the story begins thirty years after Kim’s wedding.

The central heroine, Yong-bin (Um Aing-ran), is a “modern woman” of the colonial era, taking advantage of a shift forward into a progressive new world by leaving her tiny home village for university in Seoul. Though she longs to be free of the primitivism of her origins with its shamanistic rituals and patriarchal traditions, she is also of an elegant, conservative disposition and loves her parents deeply – something that provokes conflict in her desire for the comforts of home and the promise of away.

Of the other three daughters, each represents a particular kind of trap of the age. The oldest, Yong-sook (Lee Min-ja), has given birth to a child out of wedlock and lives alone independently raising her son in penury. Meanwhile third sister Yong-ran (Choi Ji-hee) is no longer a child but continues to loll around the house showing off her legs and posing provocatively. Her father is thinking of marrying her off to a local fisherman who has taken a liking to her, but the plan is scuppered when it is revealed that Yong-ran has been taking frequent nighttime excursions to the graveyard in the forest for secret trysts with one of the servants. When they are discovered, Kim chases the man away leaving Yong-ran publicly shamed and heartbroken. Eventually she is married off to someone befitting her social class only to discover that her new husband is impotent thanks to an opium addiction. She is routinely beaten and abused but can do nothing to escape her life of violence and terror. Yong-oak (Kang Mi-ae), the youngest sister, will eventually suffer a similar fate if one more usual, when she marries Yong-ran’s fisherman suitor only to find him rough and resentful as the fishing industry continues to fluctuate.

When Yong-bin’s mother (Hwang Jung-seun) meets her at the harbour on her return from Seoul she mentions the family curse by way of bemoaning their increasing ill fortunes. Yong-bin dismisses her mother’s concerns, preferring to think that its one’s own deeds that determine one’s future, but her mother sadly shakes her head and repeats that it’s all fated. Yong-bin’s modern way of thinking will increasingly come into conflict with her superstitious upbringing, but there’s no denying her family has had a run of bad luck – one which is only set to intensify as time moves on.

This is the central tragedy – the Kim family, trapped in the past, is unable to move beyond its “curse” and whether fated or not is set to destroy itself through outdated thinking. Though it is undoubtedly not the message the film is intended to convey, it’s impossible to ignore the degree of unhappiness which has been caused by the system of arranged marriages and the convention that true feelings must be suppressed in order to maintain ancient social codes. The Kims’ “curse” comes from the death of a woman scorned in love and betrayed by a prideful husband. If only she had been allowed to marry the man she chose, there would be no curse, no violence, no fear. As long as personal happiness is undervalued, there will be only suffering and misery for all but most particularly for the young women of Korea.

Yong-bin, an urban sophisticate, knows this more than most. Her father thinks he ought to marry her off first so he can marry off Yong-ran whose precociousness is beginning to alarm him. Yong-bin, however, wants to finish her education before submitting herself to a lifetime of servitude as someone’s wife and later mother. Her father has his eye on a match – the son of a usurious loanshark who is also a Japanese collaborator. Luckily, Yong-bin likes the man her father has chosen and sees only a romantic fantasy in marrying a childhood friend despite a warning from another mutual acquaintance that Hong-sub is a timid yet ambitious man – a dangerous combination which is unlikely to yield much happiness. She is going to get her heartbroken in more ways than one, her illusions of innocent romantic destiny shattered and her heart wounded by a spiritual as well as physical betrayal by the feckless Hong-sub who turns out to be not the man she thought he was but the one she was warned about.

Yet there is something in Yong-bin’s modernism that cannot be denied. This being the colonial era, the influence of the Japanese is felt even in this tiny village. Kim has sold the family pharmacy because of the influx of Western medicine coming in through Japan. He invested heavily in fishing, but the Japanese are ruining that too through invading local waters and overfishing them. Yet Kim still thinks of himself as a feudal lord with a real duty towards the people of his village. When his boat is ruined in a shipwreck and many sailors killed, he feels he must compensate the victims’ families who are now without the means to support themselves. This leaves him open to exploitation by Hong-sub’s usurious father who is in big with the Japanese who are, to an extent, the route cause of all these problems. Hong-sub’s father laughs when Kim declares his need of extra cash to support those who’ve suffered because of his failed fishing venture, thinking his sense of duty merely stupid but also seeing that it’s another hook for him to exploit that brings him closer to his goal of harnessing Kim’s ancestral estate with its large amount of farmland and property.

The Japanese play into a small sub-plot in which Yong-bin’s cousin (Shin Seong-il) is engaged in the resistance movement and eventually leaves for a covert mission in Japan. Before he leaves he introduces Yong-bin to a friend, Kang-geuk, who has been arrested and is being carted off to Japan for trial but has apparently fallen in love with her based only on his friend’s stories and a photograph. She’s back to a romantic fantasy once again and gravitating towards the spectre of arranged marriage which the film has already done such a great job of discrediting. It is, however, the perfect symbiosis of the film’s themes allowing Yong-bin to embrace both sides of herself. Meeting again after the liberation and a succession of terrible tragedies for the Kim family, Kang-geuk responds to Yong-bin’s intention to leave her hometown forever by asking her to name a place which is not tinged by loss and tragedy, and of course she can’t. Suddenly, her village doesn’t seem so bad anymore.

The “curse” is broken in being acknowledged and Yong-bin exercises her freedom to choose, consenting to a marriage, and making a decision to stay rather than being forced to leave. Yu’s comparatively hopeful ending in which Yong-bin nevertheless places herself back within a patriarchal value system stands in sharp contrast to that of the novel in which the Kim family’s failure to reconcile themselves to modernity provokes their downfall, but there is only so much hope in this hopeless world and Yong-bin, like her surviving sisters, will continue to suffer in an existence which offers little else to Korea’s oppressed women, remaining complicit in her own misery.   


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.

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.