Hurrah! For Freedom (自由万歲 / 자유만세, Choi In-kyu, 1946)

hurrah for freedom posterAttempts to foster a Korean film industry had often been frustrated during the colonial era throughout which aspiring filmmakers found themselves dependent on the Japanese film industry for financial and technological assistance while forced to produce increasingly overt Imperial propaganda under the ever tightening grip of the militarist colonial government. Hurrah! For Freedom (自由万歲 / 자유만세, Jayu Manse), the first film produced after the liberation, was then an aptly titled chance to start anew, create a new film language for a new young nation finally free of what some saw as decades of brutal oppression which made successive attempts to erase a national character.

Sadly, we cannot quite know exactly what director Choi In-kyu intended to create with this the first truly “Korean” film because so little of it survives intact, not because like much colonial cinema it was simply lost but because it bears witness to the next chapter in Korea’s unhappy 20th century history in undergoing severe editing during the oppressive era of Park Chung-hee’s military government who decided to remove scenes featuring popular pre-war actor Dok Eun-gi who, like many in his position, eventually defected to the North after the Korean war. As for Choi himself, he perhaps felt he had some atonement to do for having remained complicit with the Imperial machine. Following the completion of 1941’s Angels on the Street, he’d vowed to never to direct another pro-Japanese film but was eventually persuaded to return by the right-wing Han Hyung-mo (also the cinematographer on this film) and made a further three propaganda movies the last of them in 1945.

Nevertheless, Hurrah! For Freedom opens with a tribute to those brave Resistance fighters who gave their lives for liberty. Our hero is cell leader Choi Han-joong (Jeon Chang-geun – also the film’s scriptwriter) whose friend is killed while fleeing from Japanese police after being denounced by collaborator Nam-bu (Dok Eun-gi). Forced into hiding, Han-joong is lodged with a friendly nurse, Hye-ja (Hwang Ryuh-hee), who seems to have become fond of him though he remains distracted by his Resistance activities even if he does eventually notice the flowers that she bought him as a token of affection. While saving another comrade from the police and rescuing some explosives in the process, Han-joong ends up taking refuge in the flat of none other than Nam-bu’s main squeeze Mi-hyang (Yoo Kye-sun) who also develops a crush on him.

Though Nam-bu, an obvious bad guy antagonist, is sidelined by the demands of ‘70s censorship, the main thrust of the drama is conveyed by the melancholy figure of Mi-hyang who eventually becomes a symbol of betrayed, thwarted ambition and the relative impossibility of redemption for those who made “weak” choices during the colonial era (as you could perhaps accuse Choi himself along with the entire film industry of having done). Mi-hyang, having fallen for Han-joong’s passionate intensity, decides to betray Nam-bu by giving valuable information she has obtained from him to the Resistance, little knowing she has been weaponised in a plot laid by her vindictive former lover.

Nevertheless, her true love confession is rejected by Han-joong whose only lover is the revolution. Han-joong, reminding her that he is a man who could be killed at any moment flits between talking of his bright future and his dark end. He reassures Mi-hyang that, despite her past, she like everyone else has the right to start again but coldly insists that she does not have what it takes to join the cause and should return to her hometown and safety. Denied the right to be by his side in life, Mi-hyang affirms that she will be the one to tend Han-joong’s grave, suddenly returning this talk of new beginnings to the nihilistic struggle which seems to define Han-joong’s existence.

Nevertheless, in contrast with the defeated figure of Mi-hyang who must pay not only for her “weakness” in complicity with the colonial regime but also for her sexual transgression with an “enemy”, the saintly Hye-ja remains pure and brave – a brighter mirror for the gloomy Han-joong who seems surely destined to be her romantic hero as the pair of them fight earnestly for a freer future. Sadly, this is where we leave them – in media res as the film cuts out just at its most climactic moment as if affirming that this is a revolution very much in progress. Choi, shifting away from the realism that defined his earlier work, seems to be reaching for a new cinematic language with which to begin a new era free of colonial constraints. History, however, would defeat them all as this short period of hard won liberty would lead eventually to another conflict and another oppressive dictatorship. Choi himself went missing during the Korean War, presumably either killed or fled to the North. Nevertheless, what we can discern from the extant lessons of Hurrah! For Freedom is that there was perhaps more appetite for nuance than might have been expected even if sympathy for the collaborator does not quite extend to forgiveness.


Hurrah! For Freedom was screened as part of the Early Korean Cinema: Lost Films from the Japanese Colonial Period season currently running at BFI Southbank. Also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

The Hand of Fate (運命의 손 / 운명의 손, Han Hyung-mo, 1954)

Hand of fate poster 2The kinds of directors who tend to garner retrospectives and reappraisals are perhaps those who lean closer to our own ideological biases. Even in the tightening censorship of the 1960s, Korean directors like Kim Soo-yong and Lee Man-hee were able to subtly undercut the prevailing conservatism of their times. Director Han Hyung-mo, by contrast, was a committed rightist whose films express a distinct intolerance towards liberalism, women’s rights, and the Communist North. Han, like many directors of his generation, studied filmmaking in Japan near the end of the Colonial era and began his career as a cinematographer. His first film, Breaking the Wall released in 1949, is sometimes described as the first Korean anti-communist film. Returning to narrative filmmaking after serving as a documentarian during the Korean War, Han’s Hand of Fate (運命의 손 / 운명의 손, Unmyeong-ui Son, AKA Hand of Destiny) released in 1954 is not perhaps as rabidly anti-communist as might be expected but makes clear that there can be no redemption for an ideologically compromised woman.

Jung-ae (Yu In-ja), a North Korean spy posing as a bar girl in the South, enjoys a life of comparative freedom and luxury but remains committed to her mission. When the police bring a wounded student, Yong-chul (Lee Hyang), to her door one day as a possible suspect in a robbery she’d previously reported to them, she takes pity on the man and tells the police to let him go. She brings him into her apartment, treats his wounds, and feeds him. For some reason she develops an attraction for the melancholy student and so when she spots Yong-chul working on a construction site, Jung-ae takes him out on the town, buys him a new suit and shoes, and eventually begins a relationship with him. Professional habits die hard, however, and so when she rifles through his wallet she is disturbed to find his military intelligence ID card and discover he is really a spy catcher.

Released in 1954, Hand of Fate is a product of the immediate post-war era and is in fact one of the very few surviving films from that year. Nevertheless, it takes its cues very much from international cinema and particularly from American and European noir and spy films in its fatalistic trajectories and uncharacteristically murky worldview. Though Han includes mild anti-communist sentiment in Jung-ae’s eventual disillusionment with the “Communist Party’s hackneyed methods”, the fact that she is a spy for the North is almost incidental for much of the film, the conflict being not that she is a Communist and therefore evil but on a much simpler level that she is required to straddle a difficult ideological divide. Of course, the force that shakes her loyalty is love and in this Han reaffirms her womanliness in simultaneously making emotion both her weakness and the best weapon against the rigidity of Communism. Then again, rightists aren’t so keen on emotion either and so romance must fail.

Both Jung-ae and Yong-chul come to the conclusion that their only mistake was falling in love – not so much with an “enemy” but across an impossible border presented by the 38th Parallel. The futility of the love is laid firmly at the feet of a destructive division imposed by outside powers which painfully separates two parts of one whole. “We love each other, why can’t we be together?” Yong-chul asks, still unaware that Jung-ae is the female spy he’s been looking for. “You’re so close to me now”, Jung-ae adds later, “Why have we been so far apart?”, lamenting that the wall which has kept them at a distance from one another has been largely illusionary and has now been destroyed if only in terms of personal ideology. Rather than the demonisation of the North which would define the anti-communist film, it is the pain of the division which is the real enemy though in contrast to other similarly themed films, Han suggests a clean break might be the best solution rather than holding out hope for reunification.

Meanwhile, the pair work at cross purposes in misattributing the suffering of the other to culturally defined, gender-specific stigmas. Yong-chul assumes Jung-ae’s misery is down to being a “fallen woman”, that as a sex worker she worries she has lost the right to love him (he is keen to assure her that she hasn’t and there’s nothing wrong her life choices – a liberality that stands in contrast to the film’s subtle condemnation of Jung-ae on just this fact as a woman who uses her body as a tool of war), when really she is caught in an impossible position in having fallen in love with a man she will probably have to kill. Before discovering his real occupation, Jung-ae assumed Yong-chul’s misery was down to his poverty. She feels the manual job he takes to support himself through college is beneath him, indulging in a stigma towards blue collar workers which seems odd for a committed communist, and wants to “save” him by restoring him to his rightful social class with her money which she earned in a way she fears he may think immoral.

Despite Han’s fierce conservatism, Hand of Fate features the first on screen kiss in Korean cinema history but where it is undoubtedly romantic, it is also dark and fatalist. In keeping with the title and the noirish atmosphere, the narrative trajectory leads only to tragedy in which the division will be maintained with the South in the ascendent. Jung-ae’s ideological fracturing leaves her with nowhere to turn, while Han’s overly conservative viewpoint will not allow her to find peace or resolution not only because of her Communist roots but because of being an “immoral” and “vulgar” woman as she describes herself early on. Described as “An epoch-marking, ambitious work in the history of Korean Cinema”, Hand of Fate is indeed a bold experiment, opening with a tense, dialogue free sequence of spy craft and danger even if it later overdoes the expressionism with climactic thunderstorms and overly literal bombs (not to mention the constant hand imagery), offering a dark and noirish vision of a divided future in which the pain and suffering caused by the division will continue with the only “hope” that the wall will eventually become a fading scar.


The Hand of Fate is available on English subtitled DVD courtesy of the Korean Film Archive which also includes a special documentary, a video essay by film scholar Kim Jong-won, and an interview with art director Non In-taek, as well as a bilingual booklet featuring a brief commentary on the film and an essay by the Korean Film Archive’s Jo Jun-hyung. Also available to view via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Brief clip (dialogue free)

The Bell Tower (종각 / 鐘閣, Yang Ju-nam, 1958)

bell tower newspaper 1Yang Ju-nam directed only five films and spent the bulk of his career, which began in the mid-1930s, working as an editor. Making his directorial debut with Sweet Dream in 1936, Yang would not return to the director’s chair for 21 years, releasing Exorcism of Bae-Baeng-Yi in 1957. In 1958, however, he completed two more, The Bell Tower (종각 / 鐘閣, Jonggak, AKA The Bell Tower: Missing Another Dawn) following on from A Mother’s Love. Adapted from the novel by Kang Ro-hyang, The Bell Tower is a small scale affair starring two actors who would become giants of golden age cinema in a melancholy chamber piece charting the tragic history of mid-century Korea through the life stories of a bell maker and a lonely orphan.

The scene opens with a voice over from Yeong-sil (Moon Jeon-suk) who tells us that she has been staying in this temple for sentimental reasons seeing as she loves the sound of its bell and was once told that her father was a bell maker. Her story quickly gives way to that of the bell maker himself, Seok-sung (Heo Jang-gang), now very elderly and in poor health, who recounts his own sad life story in answer to her question about the bell. As a young man, Seok-sung had been in love with a young woman, Ok-bun, and planned to marry. After she died suddenly, he became a bell maker in honour of a promise he made her but met tragedy again when his mentor died, only latterly finding happiness with a widow who bore him a child only to lose them too.

Of course, we are conditioned to assume that Seok-sung must be Yeong-sil’s long lost father – after all, that’s how these stories go, but Yang keeps wrong footing us, not least through the triple casting of Moon Jeong-suk who plays each of the women Seok-sung meets throughout his life including the tragic Ok-bun, dead of appendicitis at only 19 and around 40 years previously. Then again, our perception of events is that of an old man’s memories – perhaps none of these women truly resembled Yeong-sil and Seok-sung has simply read her into his story as he leads her through the course of his life which eventually led him to creating his masterwork in the beautiful bell which now hangs in the temple.

Tellingly, Heo also turns up in Yeong-sil’s eventual flashback as we come to learn how it was she came to be staying in the temple. Her story and Seok-sung’s occupy differing temporal spaces, seemingly cleaved in two by historical circumstance. Seok-sung is man of Joseon whose long life story takes him into the age of occupation but his troubles are all those of an old world and not the new, until, that is the present day. Yeong-sil is a child of the colonial era whose life has been lived in the shadow of imperial violence though it is men of her own nation who seem to have betrayed her. A lonely orphan she made her way to the city but was tricked by a people trafficker who sold her to a mine as a sex slave. Falling in love with an indentured miner (Chan Min-ho), she managed to escape when the trafficker decided to sell her on a Japanese comfort woman station in China, but lives her life as a fugitive in fear of discovery, hiding from those who would misuse her but longing for her lover to return and a new life to start.

For Seok-sung the bell seems to toll mournfully as if in memory of things past, while for Yeong-sil it rings of determination, as if urging her not to give up rebelling against her fate. Yet the bell itself is doomed by the times of its creation. Now finding itself in the middle of a failing war, the bell is just hollow metal and soon to be melted down for military use. Having poured his heart, soul, suffering, and familial legacy into its creation, Seok-sung can hardly bear to see it put to such a sordid purpose. He would rather destroy his bell or take it with him than allow it to be sullied in such a way, but he is old and his gesture of rebellion futile.

Contrary to expectation, Yang ends on an ambivalent note as if anticipating a kind of limbo in which the present struggles to break free of the past but is, in essence, still waiting for something to begin rather than resolving to begin it. Beautifully framed and told almost entirely in flashback, The Bell Tower is a strangely melancholic meditation on post-war malaise and temporal dissonance as a dislocated father and daughter ponder on past and future while pulling at the threads of their miscommunication.


Available on DVD from the Korean Film Archive accompanied by a bilingual booklet featuring essays by film critics Kim Jong-won and Chung Sung-il, plus a documentary on the career of direct Yang Ju-nam. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

The Midnight Sun (0시(영시) / 0時, Lee Man-hee, 1972)

midnight sun posterIn Korean cinema, the police are a problematic presence. Often corrupt, violent, self-interested, and incompetent, even when the cops are the good guys it’s generally because they’re badder than the bad. 1972’s The Midnight Sun (0시(영시) / 0時, 0 Shi), however contains a rare example of a virtuous policeman whose fierce commitment to ethical values perhaps runs too far in endangering his role as a husband and father.

Police captain Jang Jung-han (Heo Jang-gang) has been charged with tracking down a couple of delinquents who’ve been going round committing robberies on a motorcycle they stole from the son of a high ranking police officer. Meanwhile, his son, Kyuseok, has made friends with a boy from the country, Dol Lim, who’s looking for his sister. Feeling sorry for the boy who’s all on his own, Jang takes him in until Kyuseok manages to get him a job as a greeter outside a local restaurant. Complications arise when Lee Min-soo (Mun Oh-jang), a felon previously arrested by Jang, is released and signals his intention to get revenge on Jang whom he blames for the death of his son while he was inside.

Jang is in all ways a model police officer who is good at his job and pursues all of his investigations with the utmost professionalism. His work is, however, not always compatible with being a regular family man. An early scene sees him greeted by his young son, up early on a part-time job delivering newspapers on his flashy pushbike, who reminds him he’s not been home in a couple of days. Kyuseok has been given a message from both his aunt and his mum to make sure his dad remembers to come home early – Jang has completely forgotten that it’s his wife’s birthday (and not for the first time).

Though she has long made her peace with being a policeman’s wife, Mrs. Jang (Yoon Jeong-hee) has her share of troubles with a husband whose safety is not assured while he is often absent from home for extended periods of time. Jang’s salary is also comparatively low and the family have a very modest quality of life with little chance of any kind of advancement. For all of these reasons, she counsels her sister, Hye-rung (Kim Chang-sook), not to get into a relationship with Jang’s junior officer, Park (Shin Seong-il). Hye-ryung, unmarried, lives with the Jangs and works as a tour guide on a tourist bus. Rather than advocating marriage, Mrs. Jang thinks her sister should look into becoming an air hostess, hinting at new possibilities outside of the home for the next generation of Korean women. Despite her sister’s advice, however, Hye-ryung purses a tentative, spiky romance with Park even if somewhat irritated that he only takes her out for noodles rather than something fancier. A policeman’s salary only stretches so far, after all.

Jang’s loyalties are strained when his cases begin to overlap. Lee Min-soo has returned from his prison sentence to find his wife has left him for another man and his son has died. Lee only turned to crime because his son was ill and he needed money for medical treatment, but Jang wouldn’t listen to his mitigating circumstances and arrested him anyway. While he was inside his boy died and Lee holds Jang responsible. In revenge, he kidnaps Kyuseok but rather than drop everything to look for his son, Jang continues to work on the delinquent case and reminds his colleagues to split their workloads. He regards his son’s predicament as “personal” and refuses to dedicate extra resources or take men and time away from other matters for his own benefit. Jang’s coolness further strains his relationship with his wife who can’t understand why he isn’t trying harder to find their son. Yet in Jang’s officious mind, to do so would be wrong and a betrayal of his duty as a police officer.

Lee eventually decides to give up on his revenge and let Kyuseok go after bonding with the boy and being swayed by his cheerful innocence. Kyuseok forgives his kidnapper and wants his dad to do the same. Jang too is a compassionate soul – he is eventually able to help Dol Lim find his sister though, unfortunately, also has to arrest her. Like Lee, Dol’s sister is also forced into a reconsideration of her life of crime after seeing her brother. Arrested by Jang, she resolves to atone, swaps her bright red mini skirt for modest attire, and ties her hair up in a more innocent style. She even manages to convert her boyfriend to the same cause and the pair decide to get married once they’ve paid their debts to society. Wanting to help Dol, Jang does his best to get the pair as a light a sentence as possible while ensuring justice is served both on a legal and on a human level.

Mixing the crime genre with family drama, Lee Man-hee continues his tendency towards experimentation but with a more hopeful outlook, allowing for a happier ending in which family bonds are restored and crimes forgiven rather than punished. Rather than the frustration and inertia which often traps Lee’s conflicted heroes, Jang and his family are able to free themselves from their various prisons through nothing more than compassion and goodness. Sponsored by the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, Midnight Sun is an oddly cheerful piece of pro-police propaganda in which the stigmatised face of authoritarian rule is given a humanising makeover even while remaining steadfast and selfless in the pursuit of justice.


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.

When the Buckwheat Blooms (메밀꽃 필 무렵, Lee Seong-gu, 1967)

When the Buckwheat Flowers Bloom posterLife’s little ironies conspire against an ordinary pedlar in Lee Seong-gu’s adaptation of the Lee Hyo-seok short story When the Buckwheat Blooms (메밀꽃 필 무렵, Memilkkot Pil Muryeop). Set in the colonial period, the film tracks the long sad story of an unlucky man and his impossible love as he finds himself continually pushed to the edges of a world which is already disappearing. Yet as bad as things are for the heartbroken pedlar, they’re far worse for his long lost lady who finds herself continually handed from one man to another, abused, and exploited with no possibility of escape.

The story begins with three pedlars – Heo (Park No-sik) who hawks fabric, Jo (Kim Hee-gab) who sells paper, and Yun (Heo Jang-gang) who peddles “medicine”. Heo gets into an altercation with another, younger man, Dong-i (Lee Soon-jae), who he accuses of cutting in on his business. Unable to let the matter drop, Heo starts arguing with Dong-i again at an inn at which point he departs and leaves the old men to it. Heading back on the road, Heo entertains his friends with a familiar story – the one about his night in the buckwheat fields with his one true love.

Flashing back almost 20 years, the pedlars are all young men and only Jo is already married with a pregnant wife (Do Geum-bong) he takes with him on the road. In the marketplace one day, Heo catches sight of Bun-i (Kim Ji-mi), a noblewoman fallen on hard times whose father apparently plans to sell her to pay for his gambling debts. Crestfallen, Heo goes back to his business but catches sight of Bun-i once again and “enjoys” a spot of not exactly consensual sex in the middle of a beautiful buckwheat field. Heo asks Bun-i to wait for him, insisting that he will find the money to buy her from her father before he sells her to someone less nice. After trying several madcap schemes to get the requisite funds (including wrestling to win a bull), Heo sells his beloved donkey but is too late – Bun-i’s dad left in a hurry and sold her off somewhere or other but no one knows where. Heo sets off on a five year quest to find her but remains perpetually too late, only a little way behind but always arriving just after Bun-i and the son which is presumably Heo’s have been sold on to their next “owners.”

When the Buckwheat Blooms is very much Heo’s “depressing” (as he later describes it) life story. We see Bun-i on the periphery of his flashback, but he never finds her and so does not know of all she’s suffered since they parted, nor even that she has a child. Much of his melancholia is born of being old and of being poor. It is clear that his life has been ruined through poverty and lack of prospects – no one chooses to be a pedlar (as the pedlars keep pointing out), it’s what you do when you can’t do anything else. An itinerant existence has deprived each of them of a traditional family life. Jo had a wife in the flashback, but she and her children now live in a permanent home which Jo only rarely visits. Meanwhile Yun’s wife left him after the first time he took off for the road, unable to bear the loneliness and lack of stability involved in being a pedlar’s wife. Heo had remained single because of his lack of financial stability, but meeting Bun-i gave him hope for a different kind of life. He planned to give up peddling and set up as a farmer but, of course, it was not to be.

If that weren’t all the times are changing. The pedlars’ business is disrupted by the arrival of a band of fiddlers, but they haven’t just come to make merry – they’re advertising the “future”. They come to sing the virtues of the newfangled “department store” which is apparently a “foreign” invention and stocks “everything” – it has everything the market has and more, only cheaper and better quality. Dong-i, a young man, plans to give up peddling and try his luck in the gold mine, but there’s precious little hope for old men like Heo who have spent their lives living hand to mouth day by day and are now ill-equipped for anything else.

Heo is, at least, an “honest” man – he drinks but not to excess, and is frugal rather than throwing his money away on sex or gambling. Nevertheless, it’s hard to get away from his quasi-rape of Bun-i as she tries to run from him in the forest. The violence of the initial encounter undermines the romance of Heo’s ongoing tale as he hunts down his missing woman, apparently wanting to save her by buying her back from whoever it is “owns” her at the current time.

Told from Heo’s perspective, Bun-i’s feelings do not much factor in to his narrative but her life has been just as miserable as his, if not more so. A once noble lady, she suffers the humiliation of being “sold” by her father, and then sold on numerous times to other men each of whom abuse and mistreat her. By this time she also has a young son on whose behalf she resolves to suffer, even as her various “husbands” threaten to separate them. Bun-i has no freedom or possibility of escape. She is as chained as Heo’s donkey and treated with far less kindness.

Yet it is Heo to whom the central tragedy to ascribed – he yearns, searches, is frustrated and then forced to give up on his dreams while continuing to harbour enough of a spark of hope as to prevent him from moving forward with his life. He is condemned to grow old walking in circles burdened by an unrealisable dream. Once again shooting entirely on location, Lee aims for a more “sophisticated” aesthetic than many of his contemporaries, co-opting a shooting style much closer to European or Japanese film than is usual in ‘60s Korean cinema. A melancholy tale with an ironic, perhaps “happy” ending, Lee’s sad story of missed opportunities and ruined hopes is an oddly apt one for the post-war world but one which finds its share of cheerfulness even in abject misery.


When the Buckwheat Blooms is the second film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon (일월 / 日月, Lee Seong-gu, 1967)

Sun and Moon posterOld habits die hard in Lee Seong-gu’s Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon (일월 / 日月). The feudal past refuses to ease its icy grip even in the new “democratic” era in which freedom and prosperity are promised to all. Lee Seong-gu, closely associated with the Western Modernist movement, flexes his Literary Film muscles with an adaptation of Hwang Sun-won’s novel. Mixing a standard melodrama narrative with an exploration of “outdated” social prejudices and the gradually fracturing psyche of a man who learns a “dark secret” regarding his personal family history, Lee isolates the individual within a changing society as an ordinary man finds himself unable to move forward despite his own desire to be free of the superstitious past.

Lee opens with a scene more in keeping with a romantic comedy. Aspiring architect In-cheol (Shin Seong-il) meets drama student Na-mi (Nam Jeong-im) at an upscale ski resort and is instantly smitten. After spending time with her, In-cheol goes home and visits a childhood friend, Da-hye (Moon Hee). Da-hye is quite obviously in love with In-cheol – a fact of which he is obviously unaware or just completely insensitive since his purpose in coming is to tell her about Na-mi. Despite her personal pain, Da-hye is a good friend and gives In-cheol the appropriate advice regarding his romantic endeavour, reminding him that many of his previous relationships have failed because he was too diffident and he let them drift away.

Meanwhile, In-cheol is called into his father’s study to meet his dad’s new business contact who, it happens, wants a house designed. In a piece of near dynastic finagling, In-cheol gets a new job and, surprise surprise, the house turns out to be for Na-mi who is the daughter of the bank manager In-cheol’s dad wants a loan from. Everything is working out just fine, but then In-cheol’s brother – the Mayor of Gwanju (Jang Min-ho), turns up in a state of agitation and tells them he’s being blackmailed. Someone has discovered their dark family secret – In-cheol’s dad ran away from his family because they were butchers, a near “untouchable” class even in the Korean society of 1967. In-cheol thinks this is all very silly, who cares about things like that anymore? But on another level the discovery profoundly disturbs him in what it says about him as a person and about the society in which he lives.

It does seem ridiculous to stigmatise such commonplace occupation in a supposedly modern society, but In-cheol can’t seem to move past it. He pays a visit to a slaughter house which is just as awful as he’d expected it to be as he watches a once powerful cow twitching helplessly on the floor while other workers dismember the corpses of animals, pulling out entrails and severing heads ready for keener butchery. Still, In-cheol reminds himself it’s just a job and resolves to meet his cousin, but his cousin, insisting that he has no relatives, won’t talk to him. In-cheol takes this for rudeness or rejection, but really his cousin is attempting to protect him. In having internalised the constant abuse he suffers – even once being arrested by the police when a murder took place nearby solely because he is a butcher and had no alibi, In-cheol’s cousin avoids contact with those outside of his group and does not want to taint him with the butcher brush. Yet In-cheol keeps pushing, only for his cousin to roundly tell him to leave it alone unless he has the courage to accept his butcher blood fully for all it is.

The problems are manifold. In-cheol’s father’s first engagement was broken when the bride found out he came from a butcher family, while his wife (who married him without knowing) became a religious obsessive after learning of her husband’s origins. In-cheol’s marriage prospects are almost certainly off the table if anyone finds out, but even if someone agrees to marry him knowing the truth should he really invite them to do so knowing that they (and their children) will share his shame?

Unable to speak, unable to move forward or back, In-cheol spirals into a depressive cycle of inertia and suffering. Da-hye tries to talk to Na-mi to get him to wake up, but Na-mi tells her she’s not much bothered about In-cheol’s mental state and has only been messing around. Nevertheless, she finally draws closer to him as means both of assuming the leading role in her relationship, and as a way of annoying her father whilst potentially getting herself involved in a small scale scandal. Meanwhile, Da-hye who had pointed out that In-cheol’s problem was his passivity, ironically reveals that she too has been waiting for him to wake up and realise her feelings for him, only now realising she has probably missed her chance. The melodramatic device of the love triangle becomes a symbol of In-cheol’s ongoing psychological fracturing as he finds himself caught between two women and realising he can choose neither of them because his “ancestral curse” has effectively disqualified him from living in the modern world.

Using innovative editing techniques, Lee dramatises the tragedy of an isolated generation, supposedly living in a “modern” society but unable to escape the outdated social codes of the past. Rather than attempt to free themselves from irrational and superstitious ways of thinking, they choose self-exile and willingly accept their unhappiness in an otherwise altruistic intention of preventing the spread of a contagion. Melancholy yet urgent, Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon uses the ridiculous survival of an ancient prejudice to lay bare a dark secret at the centre of its own society but finds only tragedy without sense of an escape.


Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon is the first film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. (Not currently available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel).