The Sea Knows (玄海灘은 알고 있다 / 현해탄은 알고 있다, Kim Ki-young, 1961)

The Sea Knows posterThe Korea of 1961 was a land in flux. The corrupt regime of Rhee Syngman had been brought to its knees following mass protests regarding the rigged 1960 elections but hopes for a new democracy were cut short when military General Park Chung-hee staged a coup, later declaring himself president for life and continuing his authoritarian rule until he was assassinated by one of his own subordinates. Kim Ki-young’s The Sea Knows (玄海灘은 알고 있다 / 현해탄은 알고 있다, Hyeonhaetaneun Algoitta) arrived perhaps at just the right time, ducking under the radar before the Motion Picture Law of 1962 would forever change the industry and if not prevent at least frustrate any attempt to discuss the controversial themes at the heart of Kim’s drama. The Sea Knows is, like much of Kim’s work, a tale of power and desire only this time on a wider scale as he examines the complicated relationship between Korea and Japan as mediated through romantic melodrama.

We open in 1944. Korean student Aro-un (Kim Wun-ha) has been conscripted into the Japanese army following an incident in which he embarrassed a high-ranking official (something which has made him a local hero at home). Despite the fact that Korea has been inducted into the Japanese empire and Koreans are now sons of the emperor too, the regular Japanese troops are not exactly grateful for service of their brethren from across the sea. Koreans are a pain, they decry. They’re always going on about justice and fairness. They won’t just shut up and take their lumps like regular Japanese soldiers. The “50 year tradition” of the Japanese army is to break the will of new recruits through violence, strip them of their individuality, and reduce them to a finely tuned hive mind.

Needless to say, Aro-un is not eager to comply. There’s a strong strain of homoeroticism in the strangely camp banter between the higher-ups. At the first inspection the commanding officer takes a good look at Aro-un, decides he resembles a “cute puppy” and recommends he come to his room to get some “biscuits”. Meanwhile a particularly sadistic NCO, Mori (Lee Ye-chun), pinches the chest of Aro-run’s judo champion friend Inoue (Lee Sang-sa) and decides he’ll not be an easy target – unlike the short and wiry Aro-un who is too righteous to know what’s good for him. Mori, an insecure and under qualified NCO, makes use of men like Aro-un to entrench his own position through the “50 year tradition” of military discipline. The humiliations mount until Aro-un is forced to lick Mori’s excrement encrusted boots in punishment for having failed to polish them to his satisfaction.

Yet, unlike in the majority of Korean films dealing with war and occupation, the Japanese are not universally bad – there are many just like Aro-un who are uncomfortable with the militarist line and are doing what they can to resist, albeit often passively. Aro-un’s university friend, Nakamura (Kim Jin-kyu), is just such a man, turning down the possibilities of promotion to avoid endorsing the regime while acknowledging that there is little more he can do to free himself from it. It’s through Nakamura that Aro-un meets his own source of salvation in the unlikely figure of a young Japanese woman – Nakamura’s sister Hideko (Gong Midori). Hideko originally betrays the common prejudice against Koreans in claiming that the perpetrators of a nearby robbery were most likely Korean seeing as Koreans can’t get jobs and therefore have no other options than to steal, though in retrospect perhaps her assertions were a more logical comment on poverty and entrenched oppression than they were on racial stereotyping.

Hideko is, as Aro-un later points out, a very unusual Japanese woman. A free spirit, she finds herself drawn to Aro-un and is committed to pursuing a course of true feeling over that laid down by the codes of her society, choosing his sensitivity over the brutalisation of her militarist nation. War, Aro-un muses philosophically, is about the manipulation of the present. Love is about the foundation of a future. Yet there is also something dark and imbalanced even in their otherwise pure romance as each finds themselves becoming a symbol of suffering and violence. Aro-un is drawn to Hideko’s unexpected warmth as she sheds tears for his suffering on hearing of his various degradations, seeing no difference in the tears of a Japanese woman and those of his Korean mother who each felt his pain as their own, but Hideko’s insistence on hearing of his latest humiliations almost takes on a sadistic quality as the pair become bound by suffering as much as by innocent connection.

Kim’s central tenet is a bold one for the increasingly volatile world of 1961, making a case for borderless connection over nationalistic chest thumping and championing the resilience of the human spirit as well as the enduring power of love as a counter to the horrors of war. War is, in another of Aro-un’s philosophical musings, just something that happens to you and makes enemies of those who might have been friends. Making extensive use of stock footage and model shots, Kim plunges Aro-un into a fiery hell from which only love and will can save him. An unexpectedly nuanced but no less harrowing tale of wartime brutalisation and spiritual resistance, The Sea Knows is an impassioned plea for humanity in an inhumane age in which there are no heroes and no villains, only victims and resistors caught in a vast web of power and madness.


The Sea Knows was screened as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Korean Film Nights 2018: Rebels with a Cause series. You can also watch it online for free courtesy of the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel. The existing print is, however, incomplete and badly damaged – four sequences in which there is picture but no sound or sound but no picture are missing / unsubtitled in the online version but are present in the restoration.

Night Journey (야행 / 夜行, Kim Soo-yong, 1977)

Night Journey posterIncreasing economic prosperity dangles tantalising rewards for the young and ambitious, but for women trapped by outdated social codes the pleasures of success are largely off limits. Director Kim Soo-yong was well known for literary adaptations and Night Journey (야행 / 夜行, Yahaeng) is, like Mist, inspired by a Kim Seung-ok novel but Kim makes a point of shifting the focus, telling the story not just of a jaded bank clerk but also of the effects of living under an authoritarian regime which demands (superficial) conformity, insists on productivity, and slowly destroys the souls of all those caught in its perilous march forwards into the corporate future.

Lee Hyeon-ju (Yoon Jeong-hee) is a woman of a certain age, unmarried, and working as a teller in a bank in Seoul. One of two “old maids” in the office, Hyeon-ju is shocked to find out that her fellow bachelorette from the adjacent desk is about to marry Mr. Choi – the couple had kept their relationship a secret but now that the engagement is public, Miss Oh will be quitting her job the day before the wedding. Alongside the joy such news surely brings, everyone seems to be making a point of being “sensitive” around Hyeon-ju, worried she will be hurt or embarrassed to learn of another woman getting married while she remains single and alone. Hyeon-ju seems more annoyed by the attempts at sympathy than anything else, but accepts her boss’ offer of a few days vacation even if she seems aware it’s mostly to get her out of the way and avoid any potential awkwardness.

Awkwardness is not something that’s going to go away though because Hyeon-ju is leading a double life in which she is actually living with bank clerk Mr. Park (Shin Seong-il) who manages the desk behind her but doesn’t want anyone at work to know about their relationship. Hyeon-ju goes home early to make dinner, but Park plays the after work drinking game, rolling in drunk and collecting the sleeping Hyeon-ju off the couch to deposit on the bed where he climbs on top of her and sates himself before rolling over in a drunken snooze. The relationship between the pair is, effectively, that of a bored middle-aged couple only they do not have the security of a marriage certificate and live in constant uncertainty.

When Hyeon-ju returns home from her brief trip back to the town where she grew up, Park does not say that he missed her, just that things have been very “inconvenient” with her away. “Convenient” is something Hyeon-ju worries defines Park’s feelings towards her, that he regards her as a part of the furniture, as something merely to serve his own desires. A rare evening at home together finds them enjoying a boxing match on TV which later leads to an amorous moment on the floor but just as he did before, Park gives up half way through to go back to the boxing, almost forgetting Hyeon-ju is even there. The other marriage at work prompts Hyeon-ju to wonder if it isn’t time they too made things official, but Park lazily brushes the question off, claiming to find marriage and all that sort of thing very boring. Spying on her partner at work, Hyeon-ju perhaps worries he plans to dump her for a match more advantageous to his career while she remains trapped in her dead-end bank teller job with a marriage her only realistic path to a successful middle age.

Hyeon-ju craves satisfaction – some real connection with Park that makes her feel alive, needed, wanted, and seen as a distinct individual. Returning to her hometown she reverts to her teenage self – putting on her high school uniform and taking her little sister down to the beach to ride her bike just as she had done. It is however not all happy memories – Hyeon-ju was drummed out of town as a hussy, the entire community know and remember her sordid past and if she were to consider an arranged marriage back home she could not expect to marry very well. Nevertheless, a now widowed son of a wealthy family takes an interest but Hyeon-ju is disappointed to realise that despite his bad boy exterior and fancy motorbike, her suitor is a small-town boy after all with a bashful attitude to love and sex which stands in contrast to Heyon-ju’s own passionate, seemingly free nature.

Freedom, however, is something she seems to have little of. We catch her catching sight of a man being handcuffed as she stands atop a busy bridge and we assume she recognises it as a echo of her own oppression but in actuality she fetishes the act of being manacled, almost compelled to place herself in a position of relative powerlessness. Later, on the same bridge, she’s dragged off by a rough man who apparently takes her to a nearby hotel and assaults her while her attempts to resist read more like playing along. Later she goes back to the same bridge, perhaps hoping to see the man again, violent acts of passion seemingly the only ones that wake her from her restlessness.

Fed up with Park, she roams the city streets alone – something respectable women rarely do as she proves when an attempt to enjoy a solo drink arouses the interest of an entire room filled with drunk salarymen in which she is the only female. Drunk men in the street attempt to pick her up and again she seems to enjoy deflecting them, often with little more than a glare though she is mildly surprised when one of them turns out to be the recently married Choi who reveals to her that he is disappointed with married life after discovering Miss Oh was not a virgin during their honeymoon.

The separation of the sexes seems to dictate that men spend the majority of their lives in the deliberately homosocial world of work with its frequent after-hours drinking sessions, while women (excluded) are left with little to occupy their time outside of becoming wives and mothers. Hyeon-ju seems to want something more, but her nighttime catwalk affords her only the mild sensation of pleasure in attracting attention solely so she can exercise the power to reject it.

Yet her attitude to men and sex is perhaps also due to having experienced betrayal and manipulation at a young age. The reason for her expulsion from her hometown was an illicit affair with her middle-aged teacher whose deflowering of her on that same beach on which she rode her bike seems to have occurred with a degree of violence which she continues to crave in all her subsequent couplings. The teacher, with whom she seems to have shared some kind of wedding ritual, was killed in Vietnam, ruining both her reputation and her future prospects through a relationship that was certainly unethical but she alone has payed the price for. He lies in the military cemetery opposite her apartment where she makes awkward, flirtatious eye contact with the soldier on guard each time she walks past.

Hyeon-ju’s hometown ruminations and odyssey through nighttime Seoul only serve to ram home to her how impotent she has been in her dull yet ordinary city life. Seoul may seem like a bustling metropolis of burgeoning modernity but it’s still full of the same tired old ideas where men are men and women are not much of anything. She fantasises about going on a crime spree with a rough looking guy from a cafe but ends up paying for his coffee before becoming the only grownup in an arcade among a group of kids in an attempt to dissolve some of her frustration. Eventually getting what she thought it was she wanted, Hyeon-ju has come too far not realise she doesn’t want it anymore. Literally railroaded into conventionality, she makes the staggering decision to just get off the train altogether, leaving her lover only the cryptic message that the holiday is now over.


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

It’s Not Her Sin (그 여자의 죄가 아니다 , Shin Sang-ok, 1959)

it's not her sinIt’s Not Her Sin (그 여자의 죄가 아니다, Geu yeoja-ui joega anida) is, in contrast to its title, nowhere near as dark or salacious as the harsher end of female melodramas coming out of Hollywood in the 1950s. It’s not exactly clear to which of the central heroines the title refers, nor is it clear which “sin” it seeks to deny, but neither of the two women in question are “bad” even if they have each transgressed in some way. Drawing inspiration from the murkiness of a film noir world, Shin Sang-ok adapts the popular novel by Austrian author Gina Kaus by way of a previous French adaptation, Conflit. Shin sets his tale in contemporary Korea, caught in a moment of transition as the nation, still rebuilding after a prolonged period of war and instability, prepares to move onto the global stage while social attitudes are also in shift, but only up to a point.

Two women argue on the steps of the Office of Foreign Affairs. One dresses in traditional Hanbok and the other Western clothing. The traditionally dressed woman, Seong-hi (Ju Jeung-ryu), is desperate to stop the other woman, Yeong-suk (Choi Eun-hee) from going inside and doing something that will apparently “ruin” her. Yeong-suk does not listen. She turns her back on Seong-hi and climbs the stairs. They argue argue again and a gun falls out of Seong-hi’s bag. Losing her mind in panic, Seong-hi shoots Yeong-suk, thinking only of stopping her getting any further with her mysterious mission.

A conversation with the prosecutor reveals that Seong-hi is married to a respected diplomat and so the case is of national, rather than just personal, interest. The case will hit the papers, and it will run because it’s also very messy. Yeong-suk is Seong-hi’s adopted sister. So, what has happened between these three people – Yeong-suk, Seong-hi, and the respected diplomat Baek? The prosecutor thinks he’s got it all worked out though his theory really is the stuff of cheap melodrama. He thinks Seong-hi has probably been having an affair with Yeong-suk’s boyfriend, Yeong-suk found out and planned to tell her husband, Seong-hi panics and shoots. That does not, however, explain why the recovering Yeong-suk has forgiven Seong-hi unconditionally and does not want to pursue prosecution, or why the two women embrace each other warmly when the prosecutor engineers a meeting.

The relationship between the two women is close and filled with mutual respect and affection – there really is only one thing which could come between them and it isn’t a man. The secret, such as it is, is an obvious one and a frequent theme of maternal melodramas. The prosecutor, who seems to regard evidence as an optional extra, accidentally stumbles over a clue when he probes Baek about the status of his marriage. The couple have been married eight years and have only one son, which the prosecutor finds odd even given that Baek has spent much of the marriage living abroad. He imagines this as a possible indication that the marriage is unhappy, that Seong-hi is lonely, and that she might, then, have been engaging in illicit affairs which may result in blackmail and eventually murder.

All very fanciful, but the truth is more ordinary. Both Seong-hi and Yeong-suk are prisoners and victims of their social standing and responsibilities. Seong-hi is constrained in her marriage, her difficulty conceiving a child has affected her self esteem and faith in her husband. Yeong-suk, by contrast finds herself in a difficult position after being betrayed in love, misused and let down by an unscrupulous man. Her “muddy” past leads her to fear that she may not deserve a happy life with her new love, and that he too may leave if she reveals her own secret to him. The two women are left with no one else to rely on but each other and are then bound by the additional burden of a secret which they must protect at all costs, only to see their relationship placed under greater strain by its result.

Unlike many a Korean melodrama, It’s not Her Sin has a broadly happy, if bittersweet, conclusion in which the friendship between the two women is restored but also broken as one is forever exiled from her own family. In keeping with the title Shin refuses to condemn either woman, sympathising with their plight as they’re manipulated by circumstances beyond their control and oppressed by a very male world which forces them into making their illicit bargain in the first place. Beautifully played by leads Choi Eun-hee and Ju Jeung-ryu, It’s not Her Sin is, like all good melodramas, a chronicle of its times in its depiction of female friendship as the last bastion of defence against an unfair world.


Screened at the Korean Cultural Centre London. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Sorrow Even Up in Heaven (저 하늘에도 슬픔이, Kim Soo-yong, 1965)

It’s a sorry enough tale to hear that many silent classics no longer exist, regarded only as disposable entertainment and only latterly collected into archives and preserved as valuable film history, but in the case of South Korea even mid and late 20th century films are unavailable thanks to the country’s turbulent political history. Though often listed among the greats of 1960s Korean cinema, Sorrow Even Up in Heaven (저 하늘에도 슬픔이, Jeo Haneuledo Seulpeumi) was presumed lost until a Mandarin subtitled print was discovered in an archive in Taiwan. Now given a full restoration by the Korean Film Archive, Kim’s tale of societal indifference to childhood poverty has finally been returned to its rightful place in cinema history but, as Kim’s own attempt to remake the film 20 years later bears out, how much has really changed?

11 year old Yun-bok has been forced out of his home and into a makeshift hovel near the river thanks to his gambling addicted invalid father’s inability to look after his four now destitute children. Yun-bok likes to narrate his life as a kind of letter to his absent mother who seems to have abandoned the family for unclear reasons possibly related to her husband’s drinking and gambling problem. Attending school as normal in an attempt to work hard and get an education so he can take care of the family in an adult world, Yun-bok, along with his younger sister Sun-na, spends his free time selling sticks of gum in the streets to try and earn enough money to feed everyone before his father drinks and gambles it all away.

Despite his obviously difficult circumstances, Yun-bok remains steadfast in his desire to stick by his family and take care of his siblings. Berated by the teacher for arriving late, Yun-bok finds an ally in a schoolmate who just wants to help even though many of the others shun him because of his raggedy clothes and lice infested hair. Eventually a teacher notices Yun-bok’s distress and urges him to write his struggles in a diary – which he does much as he’d been narrating his days in his imagined conversations with his mother. Moved by Yun-bok’s heartending descriptions of his life on the starvation line, the teacher manages to get the diaries to the newspapers who begin publishing them as a public interest column but just when it looks as if things maybe looking up for the family, Yun-bok loses heart and hops a freight train to look for Sun-na who has run away from home after an argument.

Korea in the 1960s was a difficult place, still bearing the scars of both WWII and the Korean War not to mention the resultant political turmoil. Nevertheless, by 1965 things had begun to pick up as seen in the flip side to Yun-bok’s sorry state of affairs – the various bars and drinking establishments he manages to work his way into in order to sell a few more sticks of gum. These places are filled with the sound of popular music where affluent young couples dance The Twist and salarymen in dark suits cement their business relationships over drinks. For some, everything is going fine but a concerted effort is being made to unsee the kind of unpleasantness which lurks below growing economic prosperity as manifested by 11 year old boys somehow responsible for the maintenance of a family of five.

As one teacher puts it, you can’t break the mirror because you don’t like what you see. Though there are some willing to help Yun-bok (at least to an extent) including his school friend who comes from a well to do family only too glad to set some food aside for Yun-bok and his siblings, out in the real world he finds only other desperate people willing to stoop to theft and violence against a child for nothing more than a few pennies. Many of these episodes are distressing as Yun-bok has his shoeshine kit stolen by an older boy or is violently beaten by a grown man at the harbour but the most serious occurs in the city when he is accused of pickpocketing by some louts who kidnap him and strip him naked for otherwise unclear reasons.

Though Sorrow Even Up in Heaven has a broadly positive ending as Yun-bok’s circumstances seem set to improve thanks to his accidental fame, Kim is quick to point out that there are many Yun-boks out there who can’t all become media sensations. Like many child heroes of classic Korean cinema, Yun-bok remains morally good – the idea of theft occurs to him but he remembers his teacher saying that everything will work out as long as his heart is pure, and his only transgression lies in spending a few pennies on himself to get something to eat and thereby work harder for his family (and for this he pays a heavy price). Even so his circumstances are portrayed in a naturalistic rather than melodramatic fashion neatly undercutting the inherent sentimentality of the material. Though Kim’s approach is closer to neorealism in the early scenes, he mixes in touches of magical realism with the ghostly appearances of Yun-bok’s mother which, alongside impressive montage and superimposition sequences, lend Yun-bok’s story an elevated cinematic quality. Remade several times over the last forty years, Sorrow Even up in Heaven remains sadly timeless in its depiction of an earnest young boy who knows only kindness and honesty even while those around him remain wilfully indifferent or actively cruel in the face of his continued suffering.