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.

Holiday in Seoul (서울의 休日 / 서울의 휴일, Lee Yong-min, 1956)

Holiday in Seoul title cardUnlike many “golden age” directors, Lee Yong-min was not especially prolific and left behind him only 23 films when he abruptly disappeared without trace. Perhaps a fitting legacy for a director so strongly associated with the horror genre, but Lee had begun his career as a documentarian working for a Japanese company during the Colonial era. It’s Lee’s documentary background rather than his taste for genre which is most strongly in evidence in his second film, Holiday in Seoul (서울의 休日 / 서울의 휴일, Seoul-ui Hyuil), which, while containing a fair few genre elements, is an anarchic romantic comedy set entirely in a small residential area of the capital over the course one day – a public holiday, in which a series of couples are separated by accident or design on this very day which has been specifically set aside for them to spend together.

Lee opens with a series of location shots of various Seoul landmarks, elegantly composed and somewhat romanticised as if to recast the burgeoning city as a capital of love with all the promise and mystery of Roman Holiday’s Italy which even gets a brief namecheck later on. Again unconventionally, he then breaks into a lengthy POV shot with additional voice over from a narrator who locates a drunk snoozing on a bench and follows him home hoping something more interesting is happening over in the residential quarter. The narrator settles on the house opposite which belongs to a young couple recently married – she an obstetrician running a clinic out of the house, and he a hotshot reporter who’s just made a big splash with a story about a violent murder.

This is, however, a public holiday so work should be strictly off limits. Hee-won (Yang Mi-hee) has designed a packed itinerary, while her husband Jae-kwan (No Neung-geol) would rather have just lazed around at home, but as it turns out neither of them is going to get what they wanted. Minor disagreements about how to spend a rare day off aside, Hee-won and Jae-kwan are a happy young couple who have apparently married for love, are each professionally successful, and are living a comfortable middle-class life in a period of increasing economic prosperity. Their marriage is directly contrasted with the families around them which include that of the drunk we first met on the bench whose daughter Ok-i eventually descends on Hee-won for help in fear she may have fallen pregnant out of wedlock to a man who won’t take responsibility, and a middle-aged couple who have the opposite problem to that of Hee-won and Jae-kwan. Mr. Ju, a regular salaryman, is excited about spending the day with his wife but she skips out on him to go to the beauty parlour and spends most of the day with a wealthy friend and her opera loving toyboys on a well appointed yacht.

Nevertheless, marital bliss is indeed tested by the demands of the day. Though Jae-kwan had promised to go along with Hee-won’s carefully crafted plan, he gets a phone call he thinks is an important tip off about the murder case but is actually a trick set up by his colleagues who were hoping to get him to buy them a few drinks. Unfortunately, due to an odd coincidence, Jae-kwan thinks he witnesses a kidnapping that might be related to the killings and takes off in hot pursuit only to find himself dealing with another sad case of a woman brought low by love. While Hee-won is busy trying to help Ok-i sort out her predicament with both her sad/angry father and the boyfriend that’s thrown her over, Jae-kwan finds himself locked in a room with a poor young girl (Moon Jeong-suk) who is apparently also pregnant by a man who’s disappeared and has gone out of her mind with heartbreak, actively adopting the role of Ophelia and reciting potent lines from Hamlet while absolutely convinced that Jae-kwan is her long absent lover.

While the new freedoms of the post-Colonial era have enabled Hee-won not only to find love and an elected marriage but also a successful professional career as the head of her own clinic, other women have not been so lucky and have suffered doubly at the hands of men who feel bolder in their casual pursuits but also know they cannot be held to account for their actions in the same way they might have been before. Ok-i’s story does at least have a happy ending but is symptomatic of the times in which she lives as she recounts going for a job at a factory only to be molested by the foreman who thought she was a “prostitute” because he found out she had a boyfriend, while the boyfriend sort of thought the same in assuming she had been taken advantage of by the foreman. At least Ok-i has her father who might be have been enraged to begin with but later comes to her defence as does the warmhearted Hee-won, while Jae-kwan’s young woman is all alone save for her mother who is worried sick over her daughter’s mental health and has no real way to help her.

Hee-won is indeed a force for good. Despite her worry about her husband’s whereabouts (she ends up going drinking with his work buddies who, along with her other married female friends, have half convinced her he’s gone off with another woman), Hee-won comes to the aid of a crying little girl who’s desperately looking for help because her heavily pregnant mother is in a very bad way at home while dad went out a few days ago and hasn’t come back. Needless to say, Hee-won’s emergency dovetails into Jae-kwan’s dogged pursuit of crime which eventually sees him arrest a murderer after accidentally getting into a cab with him. The killer, perhaps annoyed about the previous article, makes a point of explaining to Jae-kwan that his job isn’t quite as morally upright as he’d like to believe. You can’t just go printing things in papers, he tells him, it ruins people’s lives. Jae-kwan thinks it’s murdering people that ruins lives so anything after that is fair game but his heartless rationality brings him into conflict with Hee-won when he wants to photograph and interview one of her patients who is seriously ill and might not survive if she finds out the unpleasant truth Jae-kwan wants to get her reaction to on camera. To Jae-kwan, people are just his “subjects”, mere materials for his essays, but to Hee-won they are literally flesh and blood – less fortunate than herself, they are her responsibility and she will do all she can to help them even at great personal cost.

Yet in the end the conflicts resolve themselves satisfactorily and the couples are each reunited in time to spend the last of the holiday gazing up at the moon glowing above the twinkling lights of Seoul. Having spent the day apart, each spouse emerges with a greater understanding of their partner (or in Mr. Ju’s case perhaps just a greater talent for (self)deception) and remains committed to working on their relationship. Mostly shooting on location, Lee’s camera is as sophisticated as they come shifting effortlessly from documentary-style naturalism to a silent movie aesthetic while maintaining a high level of cinematic wit throughout. Cheerfully romantic and carefree even considering its darker themes, Holiday in Seoul is an oddly anarchic romantic comedy though one with total faith in true connection and emotional honesty.


Holiday in Seoul is the first 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.

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.


 

Tuition (수업료 , Choi In-gyu & Bang Han-joon, 1940)

tuition largeLong thought lost, Tuition (수업료, Su-eop-ryo) is an unusual example of Korean film made during the Japanese colonial period. Released in 1940, the film depicts the lives of ordinary people facing hardship during difficult economic conditions though there is no reference made to the ongoing military situation. The story itself is inspired by a prize winning effort by a real life school boy who was doubtless experiencing something similar to the trials of Yeong-dal, however, directors Choi In-gyu and Bang Han-joon made several subversive changes to the script at the filming stage in an attempt to get around the censorship regulations.

Schoolboy Yeong-dal lives alone with his grandmother after his parents have left to try and make more money. The pair are struggling to get by already and the grandmother is so exhausted that she’s beginning to become too ill to continue working. Yeong-dal’s biggest preoccupation is the money for his school fees, they’re already a few months behind and besides it being embarrassing in front of his friends, he’s worried he’ll be kicked out altogether. They’ve also got the landlord breathing down their necks and the threat of eviction hanging over them too. When the worst comes to the worst, Yeong-dal sets off on a long and arduous journey walking to his aunt’s house in a distant village in the hope that she will lend him the money for his school fees.

The original script for Tuition was written entirely in Japanese as was common for the era. However, at the shooting stage, the directors put most of the dialogue back into Korean other than that which would naturally occur in Japanese. The kids are taught in Japanese at school – their Japanese tutor doesn’t even really understand Korean as can be seen when he decides to visit Yeong-dal’s home to see why he hasn’t been coming to class and struggles to converse with his grandmother. At home and in the streets everyone speaks Korean to each other, Japanese is reserved for official occasions only.

That said, the tuition the children are receiving is entirely geared to turning them into loyal Japanese citizens. They read about mainland Japanese history with an unusual amount of passion for school kids reciting from a text book, enjoying exciting stories of ancient battles somehow separated from the real political context of the time. Likewise, as Yeong-dal makes his arduous solo road trip, it’s a Japanese military song he sings to raise his spirits rather than a Korean folk tune or familiar lullaby.

Aside from the political ramifications, the reasons the film proved so popular at the time were more likely to do with the feel  good story of a small boy so committed to his studying, and to the honesty of being able to pay for it, that he’d walk miles and miles all alone solely for the promise of being able to ask a family member to borrow the money. Actually, his aunt seems to be extremely well off when he gets there and gives him a huge bag of rice as well as the tuition fees so one has to wonder why Yeong-dal and grandma haven’t upped sticks and gone to stay with her ages ago rather than endure this life of extreme hardship and near starvation. It is, however, a happy ending for little Yeong-dal who finds his perseverance and determination rewarded and not only that, his struggles have also inspired his schoolmates to start a charity collection to help other pupils who find themselves unable to pay the school fees.

Tuition isn’t particularly notable in terms of its directing style which remains relatively simple though typical of the time, but does offer an interesting window into the cinema of the late colonial period which has often been difficult to see. The film’s child’s eye view of economic hardship which is filled more with shame and worry than it is with fear, also make it an interesting addition to the world of depression era children’s cinema inviting comparisons with the films of Hiroshi Shimizu which appear to have influenced Tuition to some degree. Only recently rediscovered, Tuition is an invaluable resource for the history of Korean cinema but is also the heartwarming tale of an earnest little boy winning through despite almost insurmountable odds.


Tuition is the fifth film in the Korean Film Archives The Past Unearthed Project which is attempting to recover some of these lost and hidden films from the 1930s and 40s. Like the majority of releases from the Korean Film Archive, Tuition includes English subtitles and comes packaged in an elegant slipcase. The set also includes a beautifully designed booklet which resembles an old fashioned school excercise book and as usual also contains an English translation of the original Korean text. The DVD itself is region free!