Love Me Once Again (미워도 다시 한번, Jung So-young, 1968)

love me once again posterBy the late 1960s, Korean society was caught in a moment of intense social change. Though under the oppressive authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee, the strict censorship regulations of the early 1970s had not yet taken effect and the 1962 Motion Picture Law which encouraged a shift towards commercial cinema intended for mass entertainment created a fertile ground for melodrama which itself enabled subtle commentary on modern society. The first in what would become a long running series with two sequels and a number of remakes stretching into the 1980s, Love Me Once Again (미워도 다시 한번, Miweodo Dasi Han Beon) is a prime example. A box office hit and pop culture phenomenon, Love Me Once Again is a somewhat unusual entry the melodrama canon in its broadly sympathetic treatment of adultery and attitude towards children born out of wedlock.

The film begins in the present as family patriarch Shin-ho (Shin Young-kyun) enjoys a pleasant family Sunday fishing with his son and picnicking with his wife (Jeon Gye-hyeon) and daughter but the scene is quickly interrupted by a servant who comes to fetch Shin-ho to greet an urgent visitor to the house. The visitor turns out to be an old friend of Shin-ho’s who has a distressing message for him – Hye-young (Moon Hee), a young woman with whom he had an affair eight years previously, is back in town and would like to meet.

Flashing back eight years, Hye-young is a young kindergarten teacher living in the lodging house where Shin-ho is staying while working away from home. The pair become friends and everyone seems to assume they are a couple, though Shin-ho insists Hye-young is just a friend. Nevertheless, he eventually begins an affair with her leading Hye-young to turn down a marriage arranged by her parents. Though Shin-ho discourages her to do this, Hye-young has no idea he is already married with two children and believes he will marry her at some point in the future. Shin-ho plans to tell Hye-young about his wife but can’t bring himself to do it, allowing her to find out in the worst possible way when his wife arrives with both kids in tow. Realising she’s been duped and feeling in the way, Hye-young takes off without warning leaving only a letter wishing Shin-ho well and letting him know that she is pregnant with his child and intends to raise it alone.

Hye-young is certainly a very “modern” forward thinking woman though she is also morally upright, only embarking on a relationship with Shin-ho because she believes he is the man she will spend her life with. Her family had arranged a marriage for her and express their frustration with Hye-young for not returning home immediately in a letter which also makes plain that they will suffer embarrassment if she refuses the marriage altogether – which she does. When she returns home pregnant with Shin-ho’s child, her brother (who seems to be the head of the family), throws her out. Hye-young’s mother seems more sympathetic, but is powerless to help. Hye-young will have to manage on her own without the assistance of friends or family.

Eight years on she has a lovely little boy, Young-shin (Kim Jung-hoon), whom she has raised alone in hardship but not unhappiness. Encouraged by her brother and seeing how Young-shin looks on enviously at other little boys playing with their fathers on the beach, Hye-young begins to wonder if it might not be better to have Shin-ho raise Young-shin alongside his other two children in a middle-class family home. As Shin-ho’s son he would have a life of material comfort, a paternal input, and be free of the stigma of being the illegitimate child of an unmarried single mother.

Though the situation is difficult, it is handled with calm and maturity on all sides, not least from Shin-ho’s wife who takes a while to think hard on the situation and then agrees to look after Young-shin but only as a full adoption. She asks that Hye-young refrain from writing to or seeing her son, leaving him entirely in the family’s care. Hye-young has made her decision and agrees that may be for the best, even declining the offer of written updates from Shin-ho’s best friend. Once Young-shin has become a part of Shin-ho’s family, his wife truly does her best to make him feel at home as the third of her children, treating him kindly and taking the older two to task for teasing their “baby brother”. The children however are not quite so accepting with Shin-ho’s eldest son particularly hostile, bullying little Young-shin mercilessly even though he has done nothing to provoke his anger other than try to be friends with him. Getting a new little brother is perhaps particularly hard for the children who now have to share everything with a virtual stranger, but despite the efforts of Shin-ho’s wife, she just can’t seem to make them accept him.

Shin-ho, feeling awkward and guilty, is not quite as committed as his wife is to making the new family work. He tries to treat Young-shin as his son, but never quite connects with or makes him feel at home. The major problem is that the family all insist Young-shin must forget about Hye-young and commit fully to his new family as they are committing to him but that’s a lot to ask for an eight year old boy who quite fairly misses his mother and does not understand why he is not allowed to see her. A crisis occurs when Shin-ho angrily confiscates a locket Hye-young had given Young-shin containing her photo as a memento, sending him off on a long journey trying to find a way back to his mother. Being only eight, Young-shin has no idea how to go about finding her bar knowing the name of the town where he used to live. Roaming around the city all alone calling his mother’s name, Young-shin stays out all night. Shin-ho and his wife are sick with worry, searching for him in the pouring rain, but when he finally returns drenched and miserable, Shin-ho treats him only with anger and not with tenderness.

Meanwhile, Hye-young is struggling to come to terms with her decision to “abandon” her son, having bad dreams that Young-shin is being mistreated or is miserable, missing her as much as she misses him. Obeying the family’s request to stay away, Hye-young cannot resist coming to visit and observing from far away, hoping to catch a glimpse of her son and find out if he is well and happy. Unfortunately she turns up just as he’s gone out looking for her and spots him cowering outside Shin-ho’s house, drenched in the rain. Afraid to go near him she urges him to go inside, calling out from the shadows only to be spotted by Shin-ho as she makes her escape.

Rather than wallow in misery, Jung does not refuse the inherent melodrama of the situation but addresses it realistically and with a degree of maturity and patience most real life situations can only aspire to. Hye-young believes that Shin-ho hates herself and her son and will never be able to accept them as members of his family, but even so he does appear to have developed at attachment to Young-shin and hopes that he can maintain contact with him even if it remains clear Young-shin cannot remain in their home. Shin-ho’s wife too makes a point of not blaming Young-shin for her husband’s mistake and displays compassion for Hye-young who meant her no harm and has incurred only suffering as a result of her involvement with Shin-ho. Where most melodramas would punish Hye-young for her transgressions, Jung is kinder to her, never condemning her for her “immoral” behaviour in sleeping with Shin-ho before marriage and making it clear that her decision to live independently as a single woman and raise Young-shin alone is not only valid but correct and to be supported. A controversial attitude for the Korea of 1968 but one which declares itself on the side of modernity rather than adherence to traditions which more often than not create more problems than they solve.


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

People in the Slum (꼬방동네 사람들, Bae Chang-ho, 1982)

People in the slum still 2The Korea of the early ‘80s was not an altogether happy place. One dictator fell in 1979, but hopes of returning to democracy were dashed when general Chun Doo-hwan staged a coup and instigated martial law, brutally suppressing a large scale democracy protest in Gwangju in 1980 (though the news of the incident was also suppressed at the time it took place). People in the Slums (꼬방동네 사람들, Kkobangdongne Salamdeul), adapted from the best selling novel by Lee Dong-cheol, is not an overtly political film but takes as its heroes those who have lost out in the nation’s bold forward march into the capitalist future. Opening with a voice over from the author himself, the film dedicates itself to “the memory of neighbours of bygone days”, remembering both the hardships but also the fierce sense of community and warmth to be found among those living at the bottom of the heap.

Myeong-suk (Kim Bo-yeon), a still young-ish woman with a young son, lives in a slum outside of the city with her second husband, Tae-sub (kim Hee-ra). Nicknamed “Black Glove” because of the glove she always wears on her right hand, Myeong-suk is about to open her own business – a small grocery store serving the local residents, but her happiness is tempered with anxiety. Tae-sub, despite his promises, steals money from Myeong-suk to go drinking and gambling, is occasionally violent, and does not get on with her son, Jun-il, who refers to him as Mr. Piggy. Jun-il is also a constant worry because he’s picked up a habit of stealing things and generally causing trouble around the neighbourhood. When Myeong-suk’s former husband and the father of Jun-il, Ju-seok (Ahn Sung-ki), catches sight of her by chance one day, the past threatens to eclipse the small hope of her future.

Life in the slums is not easy. There are few resources, few people are working and there are lots of children with no money to feed and clothe them. Fights are frequent but often unserious. The community pull together to support each other, turning out in force for the grand opening of Myeong-suk’s shop or the 60th birthday celebration of a fellow resident. Besides Myeong-suk, her second husband, and son, the slum is home to a collection of unusual characters from a widow who dresses in white and does strange dances to entertain the locals, to the pastor who does his best to help where he can. A poor drunken woman makes a fool of herself all over town, nursing a crush on the pastor but seemingly unable to move past her dependency on alcohol and whatever it is that caused it and landed her in the slum.

Myeong-suk’s early life would not have suggested her current trajectory, as Bae reveals in Ju-seok’s flashbacks of his courtship to the woman who would become his wife. Ju-seok, a pickpocket, spotted Myeong-suk on a bus and it was love at first sight. Eventually he married her but never revealed his illicit occupation until he was finally arrested. For the sake of his wife and child, Ju-seok attempts to go straight but his efforts are frustrated by bad luck, temptation, and unforgiving policemen. No matter how hard Ju-seok tries to be a decent, hardworking, family man, the economic instability of late ‘70s Korea will not allow him to do it.

Myeong-suk waits for him, but there comes a point she cannot wait anymore. Her second husband is no better than her first and, just like Ju-seok, is hiding something from her. Tae-sub is a bully and a bruiser who is only using Myeong-suk as a convenient place to hide. She cannot rely on him for affection, protection, or financial stability. Ju-seok, at least, did love Myeong-suk even if that love was the very thing which kept leading him back into a life of crime which then took him away from her. Once again love is a luxury the poor cannot afford .

Where the general atmosphere may seem destined for a tragedy for the resilient, suffering Myeong-suk, her damaged son, and reformed taxi-driver former husband, Bae gives them hope for a warmer, if not a better, future. As Myeong-suk prepares to leave the slum, the pastor, encircled by the residents, reads out a passage reminding the locals that a neighbour’s suffering is one’s own suffering while the drunken woman who previously hated children appears to have sobered up and happily hugs a child. Myeong-suk makes a selfless gesture of atonement and solidarity in giving the money from selling her shop to another single mother whose youngest three all have different fathers, perhaps indicating the difficulty of her life since the father of her eldest passed away. Tae-sub too reforms, decides to face the past he’s been running from and make amends for his former life, facilitating a possible reunion for the star-crossed lovers Myeong-suk and Ju-seok. The future suddenly looks brighter, but it remains uncertain and who knows if love and a taxi-driver’s salary will be enough to keep Ju-seok on the straight and narrow as a responsible husband and father in turbulent ‘80s Korea.


People in the Slum screens as part of the London Korean Film Festival 2017 which is hosting a mini Bae Chang-ho retrospective of three films at each of which the director will be present for a Q&A.

The film was also recently released on all regions blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. In addition to English subtitles on the main feature, the blu-ray also includes English subtitles for the commentary track by Bae Chang-ho and film critic Kim Sungwook, and comes with a bilingual booklet featuring essays by Jang Byung-won (programmer for Jeonju International Film Festival), Lee Yong-cheol (film critic), and Chris Berry (King’s College London).

You can also watch the entirety of the film legally and for free courtesy of the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

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)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Gagman (개그맨, Lee Myung-se, 1988)

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Is everything we see a waking dream or does it just appear that way? This question posed (or perhaps dreamed) by the protagonist of Lee Myung-se’s debut becomes a kind of key for unlocking much of what has gone before as Lee freewheels between fantasy and reality as his cast of movie obsessed dreamers attempt to inhabit their very own stretch of celluloid within the “real” world. Released in 1988, Gagman (개그맨) catches Korea in a moment of transition. Newly free of a lengthy dictatorship and back on the world stage after hosting the 1988 Olympics, the country was eager to promote itself as a modern liberal democracy. Hence, the arts were the first to feel the new freedom with young directors given the chance to create boundary pushing films and show just how far Korea could go. Lee was just one of these directors but Gagman is no political treatise (at least, not directly) preferring to experiment with form as a farcical exercise in meta comedy.

Cinema obsessed comedian Lee Jong-sae (Ahn Sung-ki) wants nothing more than to make the next great Korean movie which every one of the 40 million Koreans will fall in love with. Consequently he’s blagged his way onto the film set of a top director to whom he’s already sent his “prize-winning” script. Eventually thrown out, Jong-sae does not lose heart but promises the lead role in his movie to his equally film obsessed barber Moon Do-suk (Bae Chang-ho) whom he sends out on “research” missions walking into banks and asking about security. A fortuitous meeting with a feisty young woman in a cinema, Oh Sun-young (Hwang Cine), provides a another impetus for Jong-sae’s filmmaking dreams and so when he unexpectedly gets his hands on a gun after an encounter with a deserting soldier things just got real in a very unexpected way.

Lee signals his intent early on with a static camera shot focusing on the barber, Do-suk, as he waxes on about Kirk Douglas in the Vikings whilst simultaneously remarking on the fall in quality of his beloved dog meat. Do-suk feels that when it comes right down to it, Korean mutts are the best – not these scrawny poodles that cheap restaurant owners are substituting for the real thing. His comment might easily go for himself and Jong-sae, two scrappy working class Korean guys trying to make it in a walled off industry, but interestingly enough bar a mention of Sorrow Even Up in Heaven, Lee’s references are to European and American cinema rather than that of his homeland.

The most obvious of these lies in the central gag – that the gagman has a “funny” face. Ahn Sung-ki is saddled with a Charlie Chaplin moustache throughout the film (with the added bonus that it of course looks like a Hitler moustache to European/American viewers) and plays Jong-sae as someone who’s constantly doing a Chaplin impression with his strange walks and silent cinema plaintive looks. Ahn even begins layering his performance so that we get Charlie Chaplin impersonating Brando in the Godfather to recite the melancholy monologue which seems to open Jong-sae’s unfilmable script. For Jong-sae his existence is cinema, the life he lives is unreal or surreal always with an added dose of narrative in the ongoing story of his rise to greatness as the most famous Korean filmmaker of them all.

Fantasist as he is, Jong-sae has a way of pulling other people into his unrealisable dreams including the barber Do-suk and a young woman who unexpectedly starts canoodling with him in a cinema in an attempt to avoid some other creepy guys. Oh Sun-young is almost a mirror image of Jong-sae in her pragmatic realism though she too is looking at the stars and willing to engage in fantasy to get there. It is she who first suggests that the “research” they’ve been doing might have a more practical application and she is also the one to maintain a calm approach to their eventual need for escape but, even if she always has one foot in reality, Sun-young cannot escape the gravitational pull of Jong-sae’s strange dreamverse. Do-suk, by contrast, is a willing convert – just as obsessed with cinema and comics as Jong-sae, his desperation to be a part of the movies and unwavering faith in his friend lead him to give up everything in service of art even going so far as to get painful eye surgery to increase his box office potential (apparently a meta dig at a Korean celebrity who did something similar).

In keeping with the Chaplin theme Lee’s humorous universe is defined by slapstick and absurdity, his dialogue needlessly theatrical and mannered with a melodramatic seriousness. Nevertheless Lee makes the most of his canvas as the film goes on behind Jong-sae while he enters one of his reveries as in one particularly amusing scene in which he attempts to declare his love to Sun-young without noticing that she’s long wandered off and been replaced by Do-suk. Despite the cartoonish, comedic tone the atmosphere is a melancholy one reflecting the final destination of Jong-sae’s film project but also of his continuing inability to integrate the two distinct universes into one concrete whole which could be termed “reality”. In this Lee returns to that first question but this time he asks us as cinema lovers which world it is we live in, and which it is that is the more “real”.


Gagman is available on region free blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive but you can also watch the whole thing legally and for free via their YouTube channel!