The Devil’s Stairway (마의 계단 / 魔의 階段, Lee Man-hee, 1964)

devils-staircase-poster.jpgBy 1964, Korea’s economic situation was beginning to improve and for many there seemed to be a bright light shining in the distance, a fixed point to which they could aspire and felt was in their grasp if they could only catch a lucky break. Throughout Lee Man-hee’s relatively short career (the director sadly passed away at the young age of only 45 – apparently a casualty of his fondness for drink and intensive work habit which accounts for his high output), his protagonists struggle with a conflict between the desire for the new kind of “success” their society promises them, and a feeling that they can never truly obtain it. Ambitious surgeon Dr. Hyeon (Kim Jin-kyu) attempts to climb The Devil’s Stairway (마의 계단 / 魔의 階段, Maui Gyedan, AKA The Evil Stairs) by abandoning the compassion that ought to define his profession for coldhearted pragmatism but discovers that the path has its price while his victims are not quite so passive as he’d assumed them to be.

When we first meet Dr. Hyeon he’s lounging around in bed while his female companion, Nurse Nam (Moon Jeong-suk), dresses and prepares to leave. Somewhat coldly, Hyeon tells her to exit via the back stairs and avoid being seen by the security guard on her way. Irritated, Nam leaves and the pair go back to work at the hospital the next morning pretending there’s nothing more between them than the relationship between a nurse and a chief surgeon. This situation might have continued indefinitely were it not for the fact that Jeong-ja (Bang Sung-ja), the daughter of the hospital’s head doctor, has taken a liking to Hyeon and seeing as her father has no sons to take over when he retires, an arranged marriage is in the offing. Dr. Hyeon, who is ambitious and emotionally cold, considers accepting the offer but Nurse Nam is unwilling to let him go, especially as she is pregnant with his child. When she threatens to spill the beans about their illicit relationship, he decides to kill her by dosing her up with sedatives and throwing her body in the pool behind the hospital to make it look like she drowned herself in heartbreak and shame, but Nurse Nam refuses to go quietly.

The titular “Devil’s Stairway” is a literal staircase from the hospital floor to the head doctor’s office. There has recently been accident in which the bannister was broken and a woman was killed. The banister is repeatedly mended throughout the film but represents a point of fracture in the spiritual path to success. Nurse Nam is another early casualty when she and Hyeon argue in the middle of the stairs and the recently mended bannister breaks as he struggles with her. Despite the minimal drop to the floor, Nam is left with serious injuries requiring surgery, loses her baby, and gains a conviction that Hyeon bears her ill will. Her position is extremely difficult – the accident has exposed the fact that she had conceived a child outside of wedlock and though she has not yet disclosed the name of the father, Hyeon fears that she will destroy his bright future either by speaking out or through forcing him to marry her to avoid social disgrace.

Hyeon gives in to darker instincts. He tells Nam that his heart is hers, perhaps intending to carry on an arrangement even after he’s decided to accept the marriage proposal, but excuses himself for stringing her along by reminding her of his lack of financial stability and comparatively low social status. We are reminded later that he is old be unmarried and, even stranger, is assumed to be a “virgin” – a solitary, perhaps dull, bachelor not known for mixing with women. This again signals his coldhearted ambition – he waits and he calculates. He wants a hospital of his own and knows his only way to get one is to marry into it, and so he does even if it means sacrificing “love” and emotional happiness for the cold comforts of conventional success and the false acclamation of social status.

Hyeon thinks he’s got away with it, but his crime haunts him. Going slowly out of his mind, Hyeon sees Nam everywhere, placing a strain on his relationship with his new wife who grows wary of his increasing violence and bad temper. His madness culminates in a tense surgery scene in which everyone around him has Nam’s face and he finds himself surrounded by his crime, forced to confess himself as a murderer in order to free himself of her ghost. Yet, things are not quite as they seem and it is not he alone who finds his grand plan floundering.

Hyeon posits his poverty as a reason for his crime, but it’s his greed which guides him towards the Devil’s Stairway. He could have married Nam, had his child, and led an ordinary middle-class life of relative comfort perhaps even opening his own clinic in good time, but he chose the quick fix in marrying for money and (literally) throwing over the woman he claimed to love to ease his feelings of insecurity and resentment at his position in the social order. His murder is cowardly but, as Nam points out, the law may protect him while there are precious few looking out for her, a betrayed woman, pregnant outside of marriage, and without a family to press her case.

As he did in the same year’s Black Hair, Lee co-opts the murkiness of the film noir, sending its sense of betrayed morality into the realms of the gothic with an ever increasing atmosphere of supernatural dread. The pond seems to emanate evil while the stairs beckon ominously, the wind rattles the doors open without warning and the rain pours down outside adding to the claustrophobic gloom of the creepy old hospital as if attempting to embody the evil that lies at its centre. Drawing heavily from Les Diaboliques, Lee declares no winners in his tale of fractured morality and emotional betrayal, painting it as a symptom of a confused era in which all emerge tarnished from a struggle to gain some kind of personal agency in an otherwise oppressive environment. Taut to the last, The Devil’s Stairway is a forgotten masterpiece of psychological horror and a mild condemnation of a society’s slide into national paranoia and greedy consumerism at the cost of true human feeling.


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

The Guests of the Last Train (막차로 온 손님들 / 막車로 온 손님들, Yu Hyun-mok, 1967)

guests who came by train 2Despite ongoing social and political oppression, the Korea of the 1960s was an upwardly mobile world in which increasing economic prosperity and global ambition was beginning to offer the promise of financial stability and a life of comfort to millions of young men and women, albeit at a price. Yu Hyun-mok, often thought of as among the most intellectual of “golden age” film directors, was a relatively infrequent visitor to the “literary film” but Guests of the Last Train (막차로 온 손님들 / 막車로 온 손님들, Makcharo on Sonnimdeul, AKA Guests Who Arrived on the Last Train), adapted from a novel by Hong Seong-won, is perhaps comfortably in line with his career long concerns in its focus on those who for one reason or another have been running to catch the rapidly departing train of modernity, pulling themselves on board just it prepares to pull away. A disparate tale of three men and their respective love interests, Yu’s film once again rejects the consumerism of the modern society in its cold and lonely search for soulless acquisition and finds comfort only in the fragile connections between the lost and hopeless.

The film opens behind a train station where a young woman, Bo-yong (Bo-yong), staggers and stumbles, grasping for something to hold on to but hardly able to stand. Eventually a man, Dong-min (Lee Soon-jae), turns up and tries to hail a taxi. Noticing the distressed woman, he manages to get her into a car and when she tells him she has nowhere to go, takes her home with him. Dong-min is currently off work with an illness which turns out to be terminal lung cancer and has only a few months left to live as a second opinion from his doctor friend, Kyeong-Seok (Seong Hoon), makes clear. Kyeong-seok is also facing a problem with a female patient, Se-jeong (Nam Jeong-im), suffering a nervous complaint after losing her wealthy husband and subsequently being hounded by her relatives over the inheritance. When Se-jeong leaves the hospital the pair end up having an affair but the money continues to present a problem – neither of them want the hassle of dealing with it. Meanwhile, Dong-min and Kyeong-seok reunite with another old friend, Choong-hyeon (Kim Seong-ok), who has just returned from Japan apparently having become fabulously wealthy. Choong-hyeon has pretensions of becoming an avant-garde artist, but is unable to get over his ex-wife who has left him to become a famous actress.

Each of the three men is in someway arrested, unable to move past something towards the future rapidly rolling away from them like a train leaving the station. Dong-min’s depression and listlessness is understandable given that he’s facing a terminal illness and knows that he has already reached the end of the line. Yet his ennui began long before. Kyeong-seok, describing his friend to a colleague, disapprovingly remarks that he used to be a mild-mannered bank teller but left to become a freelance translator and journalist. Unable to put up with the stringent, high pressure world of work Dong-min removed himself from it to try and grasp his freedom only to remain dissatisfied and eventually defeated by a cruel and arbitrary illness. Even so he retains his human feeling as demonstrated by his decision to help Bo-yong rather than leave a vulnerable woman alone to suffer on the streets. Staring blankly at the calendar on his wall, avoiding tearing off the sheets which serve as an all too obvious symbol of his limited time, he falls slowly in love with the woman who remains at his side whilst knowing that his existence is futile and doomed only to tragedy.

Kyeong-seok, by contrast, is merely disaffected. Dragged into a relationship with Se-jeong originally unwillingly, what he resists is responsibility. He wants to help her, but he does not want to get involved with her complicated familial and financial problems. As so often in Yu’s films, money is the root of all evil, presenting barriers between people where there should be none. Neither Kyeong-seok or Se-jeong are very interested in the money for its own sake, they want only simple lives of adequate comfort and emotional fulfilment – something which the hassle of dealing with other people’s money hungry machinations will actively destroy.

Money has also, in a sense, destroyed Choong-hyeon’s hopes though more through his misplaced faith in its ability to buy him back what he’s lost. His relationship with his wife is clearly over, she has chosen something else which is her right and privilege, but Choong-hyeon can not accept it and continues to look for her in all he does. Attempting to become an “artist” himself, he uses his money to get himself a show featuring his avant-garde pop art creations but neither of his friends rate his work or is careful enough about his feelings to avoid criticising it. Choong-hyeon spirals out of control, becoming dangerously obsessed with a schoolgirl he somehow wants to imagine as his wife. Dong-min and Kyeong-seok suspect that he will kill himself, but by this point they aren’t sure if they should care. What would they be saving him for? There is no possible salvation – no one can save anyone else, and no one can save themselves. Each is an individual and can offer no excuses. Love and friendship are but scant comfort in a cold and lonely world.

Meanwhile, the women continue to suffer in silence. Yu chooses to focus on his trio of male misfits rather than the pair of unlucky women whose story lies at the centre of the narrative. Se-jeong married an older man for apparently legitimate reasons but the marriage was unsuccessful and also ruined her friendship with her husband’s daughter who, unsurprisingly, turns out to be Bo-yong. Looking for love and not money, Se-jeong is only holding on to her inheritance in the hope of someday reconciling with Bo-yong and handing it all to her. Meanwhile, Bo-yong has been on the run from her former life. Once an air stewardess, Bo-yong dropped off the radar when a former fiancé planted drugs in her suitcase and got her sent to prison. Like Se-jeong she is looking for support and companionship and finds it in the kind if melancholy Dong-min, vowing to stay by his side even if she knows their time it limited. The two women are eventually “reunited” at a wedding, but the crowd keeps them apart, breaking into factions fighting over the inheritance that neither Se-jeon or Bo-yong actually want.

Yu declines to tell us whether the women are eventually able to meet and repair their friendship, but he does make clear that both have rejected the superficial comforts of wealth in asking for a small and simple life with their respective partners. In this he offers both hope and despair. The couples are rejecting the new future their nation has planned for them, yearning for small comforts and an end to their loneliness and struggling to find it in an increasingly alienated world. Bo-yong, at least, steps forward to grasp her chance at happiness however small it maybe, waiting for the train and seeing red lights change to green only when her gesture of sincerity is finally accepted.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Yu Hyun-mok boxset. Not currently available to stream online.