The Old Potter (독짓는 늙은이, Choi Ha-won, 1969)

“The man of the house shouldn’t covet and touch what belongs to others even if he is starving to death” laments an old potter admonishing his well-meaning son but also commenting on the folly of his life. A melancholy tale of illusionary futures, Choi Ha-won’s The Old Potter (독짓는 늙은이, Dokjitneun Neulgeuni) is a deeply felt meditation on loneliness and regret as a wandering son finally comes “home” to look for himself in the ruins of his family which seems to have existed as briefly as a dream. 

The young man (Kim Hee-ra), apparently from a nearby village, is a wandering soul struck by the familiar sight of traditional pots which he has not seen in some years seeing as he has just returned from the war. Stepping into a house he finds it not quite as empty as he thought and strikes up a conversation with an elderly gentleman (Heo Jang-gang) who invites him to stay the night among a small community of beggars congregating around a disused kiln. The old man tells him that he comes here every 15th day to spend time with a late friend of his, Song (Hwang Hae), to whom he seems to feel some sort of debt. 

Back in the 1920s, Song, the old potter, joked that he was married to his pots, living a lonely life devoted to his craft. One winter he happened upon a young woman collapsed in the snow, rescuing her and nursing her back to health in his shack. The young woman, Ok-soo (Yoon Jeong-hee), does not exactly fall in love with him but is grateful and, it turns out, has nowhere else to go and so the pair marry. The potter becomes a father to a son, Dang-son, at the age of 61. For seven years, the family is perfectly happy. Old Song truly loves the young Ok-soo and takes good care of her. He is a kind man and patient father keen to pass on his skills to his young son. 

And then, a strong and handsome young man arrives. He is is Sok-hyun (Nam Gung-won), Ok-soo’s first love for whom she left her family, heading off to look for him but fainting in the snow where she was rescued by Song. When Song’s friend made fun of him for washing Ok-soo’s clothes in a nearby stream and prompted him to ask her to stay, he said he’d let her go if that was what she chose, and to that extent he’s true to his word. Having overheard the couple talking and realised their past relationship, he says nothing but silently hopes that Ok-soo will choose to stay with them. 

Ok-soo meanwhile is torn. Her old lover has returned, the man she’d been searching for, but he’s come at an inconvenient time when she is now a wife and a mother with a settled home. She is not unhappy with the potter who, though elderly, is kind and has always taken care of her and their son, but she’s drawn back towards passion and romance with Sok-hyun who is young and strong, able to split logs with a single blow. Song hears the sound of the axe echoing in his mind as a grim reminder that Sok-hyun is everything he is not – young and handsome and full of life. He can offer only the warmth of their home and the feeling of duty towards family as reasons for Ok-soo to stay, but knows in his heart that she will choose the love of her youth over the security they have built together. 

Song’s late life happiness is shattered like one of his imperfect pots. He cautions his son that one should not covet things which belong to others as if blaming himself for daring to “borrow” Ok-soo all these years when she “belonged” to someone else. He gives Dang-son another pottery lesson which is really life philosophy, explaining that it’s fire that makes the pot, not the man. A man is made by the fires he endures, and perhaps, Song starts to think, he should give in and allow Dang-son to be adopted by a noble family so that he might live an easier life as a gentleman rather than struggle here with him with no real hope for the future seeing as all his pots are cracked. 

Of course, as we already know, the sad young man who returned from the war is Dang-son, so perhaps Song’s choice did not buy him the easy life that he hoped it would. Meanwhile, the old man explains that Ok-soo later returned and bitterly regretted her choice, begging to be told where Dang-son had been taken, but the old man turned her away which is why he feels so guilty. “I deserve the severest punishment as a woman who deserted her husband and son” Ok-soo laments, having spent the last 20 years trying to atone for her decision to choose passion over her maternal responsibility. Song’s brief moment of happiness left him unable to return to his cold and lonely life as the master potter, his hopes shattered by life’s imperfections. Fire has shaped them all, but after it’s cooled all that remains is bitter regret for the frustrated desires of youth and a painful longing for forgiveness. 


The Old Potter is available on English subtitled DVD courtesy of the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a bilingual booklet featuring an essay by director Choi Ha-won on the making of the film as well as writing by film critic Kim Jong-won. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Tosuni: The Birth of Happiness (또순이, Park Sang-ho, 1963)

Korean Cinema had enjoyed a small window of freedom following the April Revolution that brought down the government of Rhee Syngman, but that window was closed all too soon by the Motion Picture Law brought in under Park Chung-hee which reformed the film industry and instituted an increasingly stringent censorship regime. Despite that, however, 1963 was something of a banner year which saw the release of such enduring classics as The Marines Who Never Returned, Bloodline, and Goryeojang. In comparison, Park Sang-ho’s Tosuni: The Birth of Happiness (또순이) seems like a much smaller film but was the fourth highest grossing that year, possibly because it was inspired by a hugely popular radio serial. Standing in direct contrast to contemporary melodrama, Tosuni puts a positive spin on go getting capitalistic individualism as its salt of the earth working class heroine defiantly makes her dream come true on her own despite the parade of useless men that attempt to drag her down. 

The cheerful Tosun (Do Kum-bong) is the daughter of Choi Jang-dae (Choi Nam-hyeon) who came from the North with nothing but the shirt on his back and now owns a bus company. A difficult, miserly old man, Jang-dae has a loathing for people who depend on others which is why he sends a young hopeful, Jae-gu (Lee Dae-yeop), packing when he turns up with a letter of recommendation and asks for a job as a temporary driver. Unbeknowst to Jang-dae, Tosun had already encountered Jae-gu on the bus where her father had sent her on an errand only to complain she’s not come back with as much money as he hoped. Tosun asks her father for a 50 won payment for her work but he refuses, leading to a blazing row during which Tosun points out that while both her parents were out working she was basically their housekeeper so he owes her around 15 years in back pay and is also in contravention of the child labour laws. Seeing as she was looking after them all these years, she feels she’s already well acquainted with the “independence” her father always seems so keen on. Eventually she storms out, vowing to become a success on her own. Jang-dae is annoyed to have lost the argument but also oddly proud, realising that he brought Tosun up right and impressed that she actually stood up to him and can obviously take care of herself. 

Tosun certainly is a very capable woman, working hard, taking every job going, and making money wherever she goes. Jae-gu, meanwhile, turns out to be something of a layabout, never really looking for a job but spending all his money drinking with the madam, Su-wol (Na Ae-sim), in a local cafe. Tosun carries on doing her own thing but also wants to help Jae-gu, not least because they pledged to try and achieve their dream of owning a modern motor car together. Jae-gu knows that Tosun is perfectly capable of getting the car on her own and is mildly put out by it, sore over wounded male pride despite her assurances that even if she’s the one who gets the money together he’s the one who’ll be driving. That’s perhaps why he’s so easily suckered by an obvious scam when he gets together with a friend who’s met a guy who needs to shift some tyres, but only after dark when there’s no one around. Tosun thinks it’s fishy, especially if they can’t take the tyres right away, but goes along with it to make Jae-gu feel better. 

Like Jae-gu, most of the other young men are also selfish and feckless, dependent on and exploitative of female labour to get them out of trouble. Tosun’s brother-in-law (Yang Il-min) is forever lying to his in-laws to get loans for spurious business opportunities which never work out, complaining that he can’t “slave away as a temporary driver forever” but taking no proactive steps to change his circumstances despite the responsibilities of being a husband and father. Jae-gu’s friend, meanwhile, takes the opportunity of his wife being in hospital waiting to give birth to their child to try it on with Tosun who manages to fend him off but has a major loss of confidence because of the shock of his betrayal. 

Tosun’s mother hadn’t wanted her to move out not only because that means she’s alone in the house with the difficult Jang-dae, but because being an “independent” woman was somewhat unheard of and she’s worried her daughter will lose her virtue, or at least be assumed to be a loose woman, after leaving home before marriage. Tosun might be a little naive and extremely good hearted, she keeps unwisely lending money to people who obviously aren’t going to pay her back, but as she keeps pointing out she didn’t move out for fun she wants her independence. That’s one reason she keeps Jae-gu at arms length even though she’s fallen in love with him despite her constant exasperation. 

Tosun is in many ways the embodiment of a capitalistic work ethic, proving that you really can make it if you just knuckle down. The car represents both independence itself and a sense of modernity, as demonstrated by the excited commotion among Tosun’s friends and neighbours when she finally gets one and arrives to take her parents for a drive. Even the brother-in-law suddenly realises he might be better off working for Jang-dae rather than living a feckless existence of constant and humiliating failures trying to get rich quick. That’s the problem with the younger men, apparently, they want everything right away, like Jae-gu and his tyre deal, and aren’t really prepared to work at it. Tosun sorted the tyre problem in her own cooly handled fashion, outwitting the unscrupulous vendor but doing it without malice and only showing him she won’t be had. Is the motor car and everything it represents the birth of happiness? Maybe not, but it doesn’t hurt, and Tosun unlike her father seems to have retained her good heart, setting off into an admittedly consumerist but hopefully comfortable future, a back seat driver but behind her own wheel. 


Tosuni: The Birth of Happiness is available on English subtitled DVD from the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a digital restoration before/after comparison and stills gallery plus a bilingual booklet featuring essays by Kim Jong-won (film critic & professor), and Park Yu-hee (film critic & research professor). It is also available stream online 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.

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.

A Female Boss (女社長 / 여사장, Han Hyung-mo, 1959)

Female Boss posterRomantic comedies, most essentially, are made to reflect the anxieties of their times. They are not, and never have been, at the forefront of progressive thought and are, generally speaking, intended to reinforce typical notions of social conservatism. Even so, the messages of Han Hyung-mo’s A Female Boss (女社長 / 여사장, Yeosajang) are extremely jarring for the modern viewer though they proved popular enough at the time and most audiences were apparently able to find something funny in the crushing victory of the patriarchy.

Joanna (Jo Mi-ryeong) is the editor of a magazine entitled “The Modern Woman” and apparently successful enough to live a life of selfish entitlement. She has a message board above her desk which reads “women are superior to men” and most of her senior employees are also female. However, she is also extremely jaded when it comes to love and has instituted an office wide ban on romance. Despite her previous successes, Joanna’s magazine has hit a rough patch and has been on hiatus for the last three editions. Urged on by a relative, she’s currently engaged in a form of long form flirting with the easily flattered “Golf Pants”, or Mr. Oh (Joo Sun-tae) to call him by his more dignified name, whom she intends to manipulate into propping up The Modern Woman.

Meanwhile, selfishly hogging a public telephone brings her into contact with Yong-ho (Lee Su-ryeon) who angrily kicks her little dog Mario in an effort to get her to hang up. What Yong-ho doesn’t know is that the job interview he wanted to chase a recommendation for is with Joanna’s company. Joanna, infuriated by Yong-ho’s manly insolence, decides to give him the job but only so that she can make his life a misery as a form of revenge. However, despite her “feminist” leanings, Joanna falls for Yong-ho’s brash masculinity and begins a campaign of sexual harassment that threatens to implode both her personal and professional lives.

“Joanna” has obviously taken a Western name and the title of her magazine, “The Modern Woman” is also a clue as to her “progressive” attitude towards women’s liberation. Within the context of the film, these are not “good” things to pursue or “right” opinions to hold. Joanna’s women first policy is largely held up for ridicule – not only is her magazine in trouble, but her employees are portrayed as harridans who only exist to belittle and undermine their male colleagues whose jobs they have, by implication, usurped. Joanna is not married and has no interest in men until she meets Yong-ho and is overcome by his masculine confidence and conservative attitude towards the separation of the sexes, effectively inhabiting the role of the sleazy CEO salivating over the new girl only this time it’s a new boy whose “gentlemanly” resistance to Joanna’s atypically assertive romantic pursuit only makes her want him more while also upholding his moral rectitude.

Yong-ho’s original problem with Joanna also stems from her sense of entitlement – something he is personally offended by, not just by her lack of feminine deference but in her callous flaunting of her economic superiority. Making use of the public phone to conduct her business, Joanna feeds luxury cakes to her little dog, Mario. Given than many of the other people in the queue can barely afford rice to feed their families let alone luxury foreign pastries, idly feeding one to a pet dog right in front of them is an extremely insensitive act though it’s hardly poor Mario’s fault and Yong-ho’s kick is firmly aimed at Joanna. Confronting him later, Yong-ho sees nothing wrong in his violence towards an innocent dog but even more worryingly Joanna starts to complain about damage to her “property” rather than a genuine worry that Yong-ho had caused physical pain to a creature she “loved”.

What Female Boss sets out to do is to paint the very idea of a female business leader as a ridiculous nonsense, an unwelcome subversion of the proper order which must be rectified before the whole thing comes crashing down. This does perhaps reflect a male anxiety of the growing agency of women in the post-war world where they are no longer resigned to being shuffled into arranged marriages and thence into motherhood with no other possibilities or paths to fulfilment. Worried that women won’t go back in their boxes again, men reassert their masculinity to put them back in their place. Thus, at the end of Female Boss, Joanna is made to realise the “error” of her ways by ceding her business interests to Yong-ho (by her own volition) who becomes the magazine’s editor while she, now his wife, stays home to cook fish and knit baby clothes. The other senior women are demoted and the older man they’d constantly found fault with put in their place, intent on revenge. Yong-ho does, however, promote another woman he’d become friends with to a more senior position, a woman with a young child no less, proving that perhaps it’s not all about gender, but also makes sure to take down Joanna’s sign and replace it with one which reads “men are superior to women” which is quite something to see above the editor’s desk at a magazine still calling itself The Modern Woman.

That is not to say Han doesn’t also stick the boot in to hollow masculinity as seen in the dismal collection of men who turn up to interview for Yong-ho’s position. Running from the independently wealthy who apparently just want to meet women, to scary looking silent types, and in a notably subversive touch an ultra nationalist just demobbed from the army who breaks into an impassioned patriotic rant about how everyone should be bravely dying for the nation, these are a sorry collection of modern Korean men whom, Han seems to imply, have been emasculated by female empowerment. Poor Mr. Kim, a middle-aged man with 12 children, is apparently so incompetent at his job as to be constantly threatened with termination, only to regain his “rightful” place under the new Yong-ho regime, suddenly standing a little taller now all those “nasty women” have been robbed of their power to “oppress” him.

Unlike many other romantic comedies of the time, Female Boss’ humour is subtler and meaner, had entirely at the expense of its “ridiculous” heroine. Han does however make sure to add in a fair few club scenes and musical numbers to lighten the mood while Joanna makes her way through predatory, unwomanly, unkorean, modern girl to hanbok wearing housewife all in a few easy steps. Female Boss is distinctly unfunny to anyone born into a society where the idea of sexual equality, if not the reality, is at least regarded as an ideal but it does perhaps betray the anxieties of a society still in flux, afraid of both the future and the past.


A Female Boss is the third of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Romantic Comedy Collection of the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream online from the Korean Film Archive‘s 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.

The Seashore Village (갯마을, Kim Soo-yong, 1965)

The Seashore village posterKorean cinema of the 1960s was a tightly controlled affair. The authoritarian government of Park Chung-hee had instituted the Motion Picture Law of 1962 which insisted on a studio system with stars under contract and a turnover of at least 15 films a year. The law intended to increase the amount of films produced for mass consumption, giving free reign to the melodrama and thereby accidentally undermining its more censorious aims. Nevertheless, The Seashore Village (갯마을, Gaenma-eul), adapted from a novel by Oh Yeong-su and part of the “literature film” genre for which director Kim Soo-yong would remain famous, goes much further than one would reasonably expect given the conservative nature of Korean filmmaking across the ages. A story of village life with all of its various superstitions and primitive practices, Kim’s film is a daring exploration of female sexuality and the collective power of women away from men.

An opening voice over introduces us to a melancholy fishing village where the life is hard and the people resigned to loss. The boats depart to great fanfare, but just as they are leaving someone remarks that he’s had a bad dream – bad dreams are one of many bad omens for sailors. New wife Hae-sun (Ko Eun-ah) doesn’t wait to watch her husband disappear over the horizon, she takes to the clifftop shrine of the Dragon King and prays for his safe return.

Her prayers are unanswered. A typhoon strikes and Hae-sun’s husband, along with another sailor, is killed. So young a widow, Hae-sun becomes an awkward problem for the villagers. Sang-su (Shin Young-kyun), a shady drifter, begins making subtle overtures which eventually turn into outright harassment and attempted rape. Hae-sun likes the family she married into and wants to stay true to her husband’s memory, but the forces of nature conspire against her.

While Hae-sun is a classically “good” woman who rejects the advances of Sang-su, the other village wives feel rather differently. Everyone except Hae-sun’s widowed mother-in-law (Hwang Jung-seun) knows about Sang-su’s obvious desire for Hae-sun but they see nothing wrong in it. Rather than the conservative atmosphere of the middle-class urban melodrama in which bodies of surrounding middle-aged women act as enforcers of moral discipline, these literal fishwives are of an earthier disposition. Many of them have been widowed with husbands lost at sea – the way they see it, you’d best take your pleasures where you can and there’s nothing wrong with a quick roll in the hay if it eases frustration and aids productivity. They laugh at Hae-sun’s prudery and marvel at her ability to carry on as normal after losing her husband not because of the grief, but because of the lack of intimacy.

It might be 1965 outside of the village, but the old ways still rule here even if they’re on their way out. In the old days, women did not remarry – a serious problem in a small village with few men around to replace those lost at sea. Hence, women have learned to live alone, supporting each other in place of men and often forced to do without them. In a surprising development, Kim flirts with the taboo of lesbianism – something which is addressed half-jokingly by the gossipy widows but eventually gives way to a literal roll in the hay with half the village women looking on in hilarity rather than horror. The women joke about living together but lesbianism does seem to be presented as an imperfect solution to their present problem in the lack of satisfaction available to them due to the absence of men. Far from a taboo, sexual desire is a normal part of life in the village – something ranked alongside eating and sleeping and no more or less embarrassing than any other bodily function. The widows crave men and are unafraid to say so even if some of them are content to make do with each other in resignation to their awkward status as older single women.

Hae-sun is in a slightly better position given that remarriage is apparently no longer so much of a taboo. Unfortunately that presents a problem for her as all she wants to do is stay with her family just as she is. She doesn’t like Sang-su and his increasingly aggressive behaviour towards her is unlikely to change that but nevertheless she eventually finds herself given to him almost against her will. Despite becoming a wife once again, Hae-sun’s beauty continues to curse her by causing problems between men wherever she sets foot. The problems, however, are definitively on the male side – men long to possess her, with violence if necessary, and ruin themselves in their immoral pursuit of a “pure” woman. The village widows rejoice in their earthy pleasures, finding comfort and release in each other but the male impulse, by contrast, is always towards conquest and control, domination rather than mutual support.

Life in the village is hard and often sad, but the women are happy and optimistic. They live the lives that are given to them, and do the best they can with what they have. The very antithesis of the lurch towards modernity, the simple life of the villagers harks back to something purer and more honest without the pretension of urban civility and apparently free from the political concerns of the day. Bold in its outlook, The Seashore Village is a surprisingly progressive effort from the Korea of 1965, subverting its “primitive” setting to present a positive picture of female power and sexuality.


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.