Assassin (암살자, Lee Man-hee, 1969)

Lee Man-hee Assassin vertical

Lee Man-hee thought he’d made an “anti-communist” film in 1965, but apparently he was wrong. The Seven Female POWs was severely edited and retitled Returned Female Soldiers when eventually released, meanwhile Lee did some jail time for supposedly breaking the law in his sympathetic depiction of leftist soldiers. In 1969’s Assassin (암살자, Amsalija) he takes no chances. Set directly after the liberation, Assassin makes no attempt to deny that this was a cruel and chaotic time in which loyalties were to be questioned and honour mourned.

The hardline communists have a problem. One of their top generals, Nam (Park Am), is about to defect and ally with the ruling regime. They need to get rid of him in a hurry. Their plan is to hire an assassin and frame “the Right” before Nam can defect. The Assassin (Jang Dong-hui) they call on is the number one pro but some worry he’s too softhearted for what they have planned. Despite his cold hearted profession, the Assassin has been raising the daughter of a man he killed nine years ago as his own and will not take being dragged away from her at short notice kindly,

Though the communist agents turn up somewhat ominously – one hiding out and lending an umbrella to the Assassin’s little girl and the other inviting himself into the house, they do not directly threaten the Assassin or even offer him money when he tries to turn them down. He eventually decides to take the assignment only on hearing the target’s name and realising he would make a perfect addition to his hit list firstly because they have an old score to settle and secondly because the Assassin has long wanted to see the face of a man meeting his death bravely as he pulls the trigger.

Shooting in colour and with a more experimental mindset, Lee’s use of time is strange and bewildering. The entire enterprise takes place over one night yet much of the outdoor scenes are in daylight. He stages two monologues as a conversation by cutting between two different couples on boats – the Assassin recounting his childhood to a communist foot soldier, and Nam having a heart to heart with his lady love. Meanwhile, Lee also cuts back to the Assassin’s home where the innocent little girl is chatting playfully with another of the communist goons who has been sent to keep an eye on (and then perhaps eliminate) her while her father is out on the job.

Lee begins with a voice over stating that the film will expose the truth about communist violence, instantly locating its own political intentions. The communists are a bad bunch who have no honour, no loyalty, no compassion, and no interest in anything other than their own cause. The cause itself is thereby rendered irrelevant through their own hypocrisy. In order to get the job done, the communists have recruited a local boy to drive the boat and carry messages. They’ve promised him a place in a good school in Seoul. Needless to say they will not be honouring that promise. No one can know of this job – it’s supposed to be a rightest plot, and so all loose ends must be eliminated, including those currently members of the communist faction. 

The Assassin does not approve of this. His ideas are old fashioned and he believes in a kind of code even within the darkness of his own profession. The Assassin’s only joy is in his little girl – really the daughter of a man he murdered. This is both proof of his adherence to his code of honour and to his generally compassionate nature. Nam is much the same. He has his code too, though it has recently been ruptured by the intrusion of love. Before, he could have said anything but now he’s found love he’s happy to go and will bear his sentence with dignity. Strangely, neither Nam nor the Assassin pause to consider what will happen to the women in their lives when they are gone, even if it is these women and their relations with them that have humanised their otherwise calculating hearts.

The Assassin’s little girl remains completely unaware of her adopted father’s profession or of the danger posed by a man she doesn’t know sitting at her bedside fondling a gun. Her one request of her father is that he bring her back an apple with the leaves still on it – a symbol of her own innocence and naivety, but the apples he picks for her are later smashed to smithereens under a communist’s boot. The communist gets his own comeuppance (these communists do seem to be quite a dim bunch, gleefully felling their fellow officers yet never guessing they may be next), but Lee’s rather unsubtle message is clear as “the left” stomps all over any and all signs of love, compassion, innocence or beauty.

Unlike Lee’s other films this one ends with a heavy handed voice over but no “The End” – presumably the story of the struggle against communism is not yet finished. The story is an old one, men who live by the sword die by the sword – they know this and accept it almost as a religious rite. Both Nam and the Assassin know their place within this cycle and so they submit to it with bravery and stoicism whereas the strangely manic villain attempts to run from his fate but fails miserably. Lee experiments with time and form, perhaps attempting to move past the obvious propaganda element of the project but never manages to escape it. Still, The Assassin is oddly moving in its final moments even if tinged with cynicism and a sense of the world’s cruelty untempered by Lee’s generally forgiving melancholy.


Assassin is the fourth and final film in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet. Also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

A Day Off (휴일, Lee Man-hee, 1968)

vlcsnap-2017-08-09-23h50m27s782Prolific as he was, Lee Man-hee had his fair share of troubles with the censors throughout Korea’s turbulent 1960s, most famously with his arrest for breaking anti-communism laws with The Seven Female POWs which was later heavily edited and released as Returned Female Soldiers (perhaps a neat nod back to Lee’s mega hit, The Marines who Never Returned). Before that, however, Lee’s poetic meditation of the difficulties of being young in the increasingly heartless capital, A Day Off (휴일, Hyuil), was banned altogether for painting an all too gloomy picture of modern life and love. Though modern Korean cinema has gained itself a reputation for gloominess, that of the gloomy years was still expected to be, in some way, “inspirational”. Refusing to end on a happier note, Lee shelved the film leaving it unseen until rediscovered for a retrospective in 2005.

The elliptical narrative begins with Huh Wook (Shin Seong-il), trapped by another listless Sunday and remembering a girl he used to spend them with, Ji-youn (Jeon Ji-youn). Huh Wook and Ji-youn can only meet on Sundays, they count down the hours until they can be together again but then when the day closes they almost wish they’d never met at all. Neither of them have any money – Huh Wook can’t even afford a cup of coffee, let alone a wife. The relationship reaches a crisis point when Ji-youn, whose constitution is weak, becomes pregnant.

Huh Wook and Ji-youn’s conversation is raw and painful, filled with half spoken thoughts and an unwillingness to confront the depth of their despair. The couple half discuss their predicament with the assumption that they are talking about a child they cannot afford to have and an abortion they cannot pay for but it turns out the operation that Ji-youn means may be for an unrelated illness. When they finally see a doctor he advises that Ji-youn have an abortion because her health is so poor that she would likely not survive a pregnancy.

This is a city which is rapidly expanding, living conditions and opportunities should be improving but for the left behind like Huh Wook and ji-youn Sunday is all they have to live for, and so they can hardly stand it. Their situation is so hopeless, so filled with despair that there is nothing at all waiting for them but a perpetual cycle of work and release. While Ji-youn is in hospital, Huh Wook wastes time at a bar where he gets chatting to another woman. They talk, they drink, they spend the night together in a derelict building before Huh Wook is woken by church bells and remembers poor Ji-youn lying in hospital, fighting for her life.

Huh Wook is the more romantic but also the least willing to confront the situation. He criticises Ji-youn for her silence but she fires back at him with a description of an idealised life she knows they can’t have – a nice house, flowers in the garden, and yes, children. An ordinary dream but one she knows will never be a reality. Huh Wook leaves her alone to try and borrow money, wasting one of their precious Sundays. His friends have all found different kinds of release – the first is a womaniser but flat refuses Huh Wook money he assumes is for an abortion, the second is a drunk who advises him to have the baby and spend the money on drink, and the third is a wealthy man with a live-in maid. Huh Wook never gets round to asking him for the money but steals it from his jacket while he’s in the bath. 

Released in 1968, A Day Off has echoes of Antonioni in its beautifully empty cinematography and bleak view of human connection in an increasingly modern world. Huh Wook and Ji-youn appear to have a deep and genuine connection but their existence is so fraught with financial and social difficulties that the future is always an impossibility and, in a sense, already the past. Huh Wook wanders alone. Beaten up by the friend he stole the money from, he’s tired, bloody, and worn out. Yet all he feels is relief. All his hope is gone and now he’s free of its burden, left with nothing other than the false promise of a new dawn on the unforgiving streets of Seoul.


A Day Off is the third in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet. Also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Black Hair (검은 머리, Lee Man-hee, 1964)

Black Hair 1964 posterFilm noir can be the most contradictory of genres. A moralistic world filled with immortality, fatalism mixed with existential angst, and a rage against society which is always tinged with a resignation to living on its margins. Genre in Korean cinema has always been a little more fluid than elsewhere and Lee Man-hee’s seminal crime thriller Black Hair (검은 머리, Geomeun Meori) is also a melodrama – the story of a self loathing man committed to his own arbitrary codes, and a woman he expects to pay the price for them.

In a brief prologue that has little to do with the ongoing narrative, ruthless gangster Dong-il (Jang Dong-hui) extorts a corrupt CEO by blackmailing him over some illicit smuggling. Meanwhile, across town, the gangster’s wife, Yeon-sil (Moon Jeong-suk), meets with a man, Man-ho (Chae Rang), in a hotel room. She’s come to pay him off, hoping it will be for the last time but Manh-ho, an opium addict, knows he’s onto an endless cash cow and refuses to put an end to their “arrangement”. Sometime ago, Man-ho raped Yeon-sil and has been blackmailing her for money and sexual favours ever since. Yeon-sil threatens to tell her husband and the police and suffer the consequences, but Man-ho knows she won’t. Dong-il’s gang have a strict rule about adultery and if Yeon-sil trusted him enough to believe he would believe her about the rape, she would have told him already.

Another goon hides behind a screen, snapping photos of Yeon-sil and Man-ho which he later passes on to Dong-il. The boss is shocked and shaken. He knows he has to enforce the rules he himself set down for the gang, but he never expected them to cost him his wife. Eventually Dong-il orders an underling to slash Yeon-sil’s face with a broken bottle, after which she is exiled from the gang. Anyone who tries to repair her scars or help her in any other way will be treated as an enemy.

At this point the narrative splits as Yeon-sil is cast down into a sleazy underworld, living with her blackmailer who pimps her out as a common streetwalker and then steals all her money to spend on drugs and booze. She pines for her husband whom she has been prevented from seeing, longing to at least explain why she did what she did and ensure he knows that her heart has always been with him. Dong-il, by contrast, is going to pieces – his gang no longer respect him, he feels guilty about the way he treated his wife, and he has no idea where to go from here.

Unlike other films of the era or film noir in general, Lee’s world view is non-judgemental in its treatment of the respective paths of Yeon-sil and Dong-il. Yeon-sil is left with no choice than to enter into a life of casual prostitution and the film forgives her for this – the fault is that of Dong-il and Man-ho rather than her own. Having been horribly scarred, she wears her hair longer on one side to hide her disfigurement but is constantly reminded of her emotional damage through its physical manifestation and the reactions it often elicits. Picking up a client in the street, she’s threatened with violence and cruel words for having “deceived” him when he catches sight of her disfigured face. A passing taxi driver witnesses the attack and challenges the man so Yeon-sil can escape. The cabbie then hires her and they spend the night together in a nearby brothel. He surprises Yeon-sil by being entirely unfazed about her facial scarring, offering to help her get it treated if that’s what she wants, and making it clear he would like to spend more time with her off the clock.

Yeon-sil’s life is completely controlled by her triangular relationship to the three men – her unforgiving husband Dong-il, the cruel and venal Man-ho, and the good and decent cab driver. After meeting the cabbie, Yeon-sil tries to see Dong-il again but his boys stop her. They say they’ll take her to see him, but really they’re planning quite another destination. Luckily, in a staggering coincidence, they’re spotted by the taxi driver who once again saves Yeon-sil, taking her home to stay with him and proposing they embark on a more formal relationship.

This is more of a problem than it seems for Dong-il’s guys who now fear their boss will find out they tried to kill his wife in an effort to wake him up from his ongoing existential malaise. The rules of the gang are tough and clear – adultery is not permissible, no woman is allowed to leave, no exceptions are to be made. Dong-il, however, is beginning to rethink the code he himself designed. A conversation with his childhood nanny throws up a number of interesting questions. She blames herself for giving Dong-il “evil” milk which has led to his spiritual corruption, though Dong-il later tells Yeon-sil that he did not choose evil so much evil chose him. He created these “evil” gang rules, but failed to live up to them in continuing to feel attached to Yeon-sil – he feels he must punish himself for the “sin” of being unable to forget her and abide by his own honour system which he now feels to be pointless and arbitrary. Effectively issuing himself a death sentence, Dong-il changes tack confirming that he has, in a sense, chosen evil even if it was a “choice” of refusing to resist the path set down for him. Suddenly realising the emotion he felt for Yeon-sil was love, he is struck by a terrible feeling of loneliness. 

As in much of Lee’s work, Yeon-sil and Dong-il are trapped by their own society and belief systems and finally perhaps by feeling. Yeong-sil is frequently captured behind bars or caught in a window, imprisoned within the frame as she tries to reconcile herself to her precarious position, daring to hope for a new, decent life with the good hearted taxi driver while also mourning her love for Dong-il and living with the humiliation caused to her by Man-ho. Lee’s structure is sometimes unclear as he introduces a fairly pointless subplot about the taxi driver’s modern woman little sister who has moved out to be independent but works in a hostess bar, inhabiting the same sleazy world as Yeon-sil and Dong-il, only more innocently, but never does much with it beyond contrasting the lives of the two women who occupy slightly different generations and have very different options open to them. There’s a fatalism and inevitability in the way Yeong-sil and Dong-il live their lives to which the taxi driver and his sister do not quite subscribe but Lee breaks with the genre’s trademark pessimism to offer the glimmer of a bittersweet ending and the chance of a new beginning for the much abused Yeon-sil now freed of her dark associations.


Black Hair is the second in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet. (Not currently available to stream online)