Jagko (짝코, AKA Pursuit of Death, Im Kwon-taek, 1980)

Jagko posterDuring the dark days of the dictatorships, the “anti-communist film” was a mainstay of the Korean film industry. Though it wasn’t exactly possible to make a pro-communist film and that therefore any and all films were at least implicitly anti-communist, the authorities had been especially keen on films which took a hardline on anything remotely leftwing. By the late ‘70s however times were changing and a more nuanced view of recent history began to become possible. Im Kwon-taek is thought to be among the first directors whose work precipitated a shift from the “anti-communist” to the “division” film in which the tragedy of the division itself takes precedence over the demonisation of the North (though such views were perhaps not as uncommon as might be assumed in films from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s before the passing of the Motion Picture Law). Jagko’s (짝코) two haunted protagonists are both flawed men betrayed by their country and changing times realising they have wasted their youth on a cat and mouse game over an outdated ideological disagreement when the conflict that defined their lives was merely a proxy war fought by two super powers on Korean soil.

Song (Choi Yoon-seok), a former policeman, is picked up by a vagrancy patrol and taken to a “rehabilitation centre”. Despite the name the centre is more like a debtors’ prison and Song is now a prisoner of poverty who will not be allowed to leave unless redeemed by a family member (of which he has none or he might not be here). Nevertheless, the men are treated well, fed three meals a day, and only asked for a couple of hours of non-strenuous work with the rest of the time marked “free”. Once Song has begun to calm down, he makes a shocking discovery. He is convinced that a man lying ill a few beds over is none other than Jagko (Kim Hee-ra) – a former North Korean partisan and the man he holds responsible for ruining his life.

Im lets us in on the stories of both men via a series of flashbacks. Though he pretends not to know him, the other man, calling himself Kim, is indeed “Jagko” though his life has been just as miserable as Song’s. Back on Mount Jiri at the end of the Korean war, Song was a respected policeman – he left school at 12 and made a name for himself catching partisans. When he catches the legendary Jagko, wanted for a series of atrocities and terrorist acts, all Song can do is boast and talk of his imminent promotion after which he will enjoy a life of comfort. Unsurprisingly, Jagko is not exactly happy for him but allows his captor to prattle on in order to buy time for his escape. It is Song’s own arrogance which permits him to do so. Claiming to need the bathroom, Jagko offers Song a gold ring hidden in his shoe which Song scoffs at, but he does loosen his cuffs to facilitate Jagko’s relief at which point he manages to headbutt him and run away. Song is accused of taking bribes and dismissed. He is humiliated and loses his status, job, and family all in one go. Fixated on Jagko, Song gives up everything to chase him in order to turn him in to his former commander and have him clear his name by confirming that he was not bribed and did not sell out his country for gold.

Almost thirty years later both men are older than their years, broken and defeated. As one of the rehabilitation centre residents puts it, they’re all about to die – what does it matter now if someone was a communist or a partisan, what good could it possibly do to drag the past up all these years later? For Song it’s almost as if there is no “past”, the last few decades have been spent in a relentless pursuit of the man who holds the key to his good name. He wants to undo the folly of his hubris by overwriting it, but time has passed and what he’s lost cannot be reclaimed. Meanwhile, Jagko is not an ideologically crazed leftist, but a lonely old man who is now in poor health and has nothing but regrets. The two men bond in their mutual suffering and work together to escape, but the world they emerge into is not that of their youth. Song was disempowered when he entered the facility – they took his arrest rope away from him, but when he tackles the weakened Jagko to the ground and tries to call two policemen on patrol over to arrest him as an “escaped communist guerrilla” the young officers of the law have no idea what he’s talking about. Those words no longer mean anything. The bemused policemen conclude the old men must be escaped mental patients before spotting the rehabilitation centre uniform and jogging off to phone someone to come and take them back.

The old men’s quarrel is exposed as ridiculous. Jagko, less angry more soulful, remarks that men like he and Song are the most pitiful souls on Earth as he watches America sit down with Russia on the TV and realises he is merely a victim of ongoing global geopolitical manoeuvring. It’s no longer a question of left and right, both men are victims of their times, neither “good” nor “bad” but flawed and human. We do not know if Jagko did the things Song says he did but he has paid a heavy price all the same. Song, by contrast, has shifted all the blame for his fate onto Jagko, believing that if he can catch him he can somehow make it all right, but of course he can’t and is trapped in a spiral of denial in refusing to accept his own responsibility for the tragedies of his life. What is to blame is the folly of war and particularly of an internecine fraternal conflict which remains unresolved and may well be unresolvable unless an attempt is made to address the past with empathy and understanding in place of enmity and rancour.


Jagko is available on blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. The set includes subtitles in English, Japanese, and Korean with the audio commentary by Kim Dae-seung and editor of Cine21 Ju Sung-chul also subtitled in English. The audio commentaries from the DVD edition included with the Im Kwon-taek boxset, one by director Im Kwon-taek and film critic Huh Moon-yung, and the other by screenwriter Song Gil-han and film critic and director Kim Hong-joon, unfortunately do not carry over the English subtitles. The set also comes with a bi-lingual Korean/English booklet featuring an essay by film critic and professor Park Yuhee. Not currently available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel.

The Love Marriage (自由結婚 / 자유결혼, Lee Byung-il, 1958)

The love marriage posteA hot button issue at the centre of the tradition vs modernity debate – who knows best when it comes to love, a bevvy of relatives with lifetimes of experience behind them or the youngsters themselves still filled with youthful idealism? Then again, as the wise father of Lee Byung-il’s The Love Marriage (自由結婚 / 자유결혼, Ja-yugyeolhon) points out, perhaps both options are bad. An arranged marriage may not work out for a variety of reasons, and a love match may only result in heartbreak, but perhaps there is a third way after all – something which he intends to figure out through gentle manipulations of his lovelorn daughters and feisty conservative wife.

Inverting the normal pattern, Lee opens with the wedding. Dr. Ko’s (Choi Nam-Hyun) eldest daughter, Suk-hee (Choi Eun-hee), has scandalised her family by marrying for love, making a modern future in a modernising world. However, her new husband, Seung-il (Seong So-min), is pensive. He has something he feels he needs to get off his chest to start married life on the right foot. Seung-il confesses that he was once in love before, somehow believing this is a terrible secret which his new wife needs to know. Suk-hee is of course sympathetic and understanding, she never assumed herself to be marrying someone without a past. In an effort to console him she makes a confession of her own. She too was once in love with someone else – the older brother of a school friend who died tragically years ago never knowing of her deeply held affection. Despite his earlier plea, Seung-il is horrified, abruptly walks out on his new wife on their wedding night, and sails to America to make a new life for himself alone.

Flashforward four years and Suk-hee, humiliated, has retreated to her bedroom, seldom leaving the house and only then to walk along the paths she used to take with Seung-il when she does. Dr. Ko has two more daughters – Moon-hee (Lee Min-ja) and college student Myeong-hee (Jo Mi-ryeong), as well as a young son, Gwang-sik (Park Gwang-su), still in school. Ko’s wife, Mrs. Ahn (Seok Geum-seong), is convinced all Suk-hee’s problems are down to getting married for love – after all, Mrs. Ahn was always against it. To prevent the same thing happening again she plans to find good matches for her other two daughters, hoping to set Moon-hee up with the son of one of her best friends, Wan-seop (Lee Ryong), who has recently returned from studying abroad. Moon-hee, however, has taken a liking to the timid college student who has been tutoring Gwang-sik, Jun-cheol (Choe Hyeon). Meanwhile, Myeong-hee has also developed a fondness for Ko’s assistant, Yeong-su (Park Am).

The times are changing, but only to an extent. Mrs. Ahn doesn’t like it that they’re changing at all. The romantic destiny of her daughters was, perhaps, one of the few things over which she exercised complete control and control seems to be something she is reluctant to give up. Suk-hee’s decision to get married for love is a new one – a rejection of the oppressive pre-war system of total deference to one’s elders in favour of exercising her individual right to choice. Her choice, however, did not work out, in part at least because of some very old fashioned ideas embedded in the head of Seung-il who is unable to cope with the idea of his wife as a real flesh and blood woman rather than the idealised picture of passive femininity he had conjured for himself.

Love and marriage enter a conflict with each other. Ko and Mrs. Ahn have extremely different temperaments but seem to have built a happy and harmonious home for their four children, raising love between them as they go. Yet not all arranged marriages work out, especially when relatives might not have their children’s future happiness as a priority. Meanwhile, young people in love might not be best placed to make serious decisions about a long term future whilst caught in the throws of passion. Ko, otherwise sympathetic, has his doubts about Moon-hee and Jun-cheol, not because of Jun-cheol’s “weak” character which is his wife’s chief complaint, but because he worries that though they are in “love” they have not yet reached an understanding of each other. Rejecting both ideas – the hyperrationality of the “arranged” marriage, and the emotional volatility of the “love” match, Ko wonders if there isn’t a way to meet in the middle, that if the older generation could perhaps guide the youngsters towards a series of likely candidates they believe to be well suited, love might blossom in a place it can take root.

Ko, quiet yet wise and permanently amused, tries out his idea on his youngest daughter, Myeong-hee, who might be the most like him and also the most modern among her sisters. Spotting the obvious attraction between Myeong-hee and his assitant Yeong-su, Ko tries to set them up and then puts a wedge between them through using Wan-Seop who is at a loose end while Moon-hee pines after Jun-cheol and refuses to meet any other suitor. Wan-seop, despite Mrs. Ahn’s obvious esteem for him, is the very example of the new Korean man who tries to make a virtue of his modernity but only exposes his old fashioned conservatism. Caught in a small debate with Yeong-su and Myeong-hee, Wan-seop who has recently returned from study in America sings the praises of life overseas and declares himself a feminist – he hates the way women are treated in Korea which is why, when he’s married, he plans to 100% obey the housekeeper and not make waves in the domestic domain. Yeong-su, quite fairly, finds this ridiculous and even if his ideas are perhaps no more “progressive” he is at least transparent in his constant verbal sparring with the confident Myeong-hee.

For all its inherent comedy, love is still a painful business and parental rigidity has a potential dark side as we see in an attempted suicide brought about by heartbreak and frustration at not being listened to by parents who insist they know best. Yet in the end love conquers all. Ko’s gentle manipulations eventually work their magic, guiding each of his daughters towards their most hopeful path but leaving the decision to take it entirely up to them. Even Mrs. Ahn begins to see the beauty of young love rather than its destabilising qualities and cannot help being touched by the happiness each of the sisters seems to have found in their chosen men even if they’ve suffered quite a lot along the way. Love is never easy, but it doesn’t need to be so hard and it only takes a little bit of understanding to set it on its way.


The Love Marriage is the second of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Romantic Comedy Collection of the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream online from the Korean Film Archive‘s YouTube Channel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Holiday in Seoul is the first of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Romantic Comedy Collection of the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream online from the Korean Film Archive‘s YouTube Channel.

Break up the Chain (쇠사슬을 끊어라, Lee Man-hee, 1971)

Break Up the Chain poster1970 had been a difficult year for Lee Man-hee. A conflict on the set of The Goboi Bridge in which Lee intended to star against the advice of his regular team resulted in the end of his creative relationship with screenwriter Baek Gyeol and cinematographer Lee Suck-ki. Meanwhile, he’d also suffered a crisis in his personal life after parting ways with actress Moon Jeong-suk who had been both a lover and a muse. To top it all off he also had some financial problems and didn’t work at all for the year following Goboi Bridge’s release – a significant period of time in the high-speed world of early ‘70s Korean cinema in which it was not unheard of for a director to make as many as 10 films in one year. Break Up the Chain (쇠사슬을 끊어라, Shwisaseuleul Geunheola) was intended to be something of a “come back” but it finds Lee defeated, doing what he does best but also playing the game he never really wanted to play in succumbing to the patriotism epic (albeit a little tongue in cheek).

Riffing off Sergio Leone, Lee frames his resistance romp as a Manchurian western. A mysterious golden Buddhist statue has more than just monetary value as it also contains a list of the names of resistance operatives which can be revealed with the use of a special chemical formula. Three men are after it – Cheol-su (Namkoong Won), an adventurer for hire who might or might not be working for the resistance; Tae-ho (Jang Dong-hwi), a petty gangster; and Dal-geon (Heo Jang-kang), a collaborator working with the Japanese. The men are each interested in the statue for selfish reasons – Cheol-su for his reputation, Tae-ho for the money, and Dal-geon for the prestige. None of them is interested in the resistance movement itself, the statue’s importance in relation to it, or anything really beyond themselves and their day-to-day lives.

Of course, as this is a patriotism epic, the men eventually come round to the greatness of Korea as their individual quests converge and they find themselves alongside the resistance surrounded by the Japanese. The Japanese are largely a bumbling bunch who remain unaware of the statue’s “real” power even whilst holding it, thinking only of its monetary value as a lump of gold or work of art they could export abroad for financial gain. Confronted and faced with failure, the leader of the Japanese is firstly humiliated by his defeat at the hands of the resistance but then decides to show them the greatness of the Japanese army by committing Harakiri right there on the spot. Stripping off the captain begins to get cold feet, suddenly struck by the enormity of the moment when one of his lieutenants draws his sword ready for the beheading. The Japanese captain then seems to come down with “a cold” and resolves to visit the medical tent instead.

The early drama revolves around the interplay of the three self-interested outsiders as they scheme and plot to make use of each other and get the statue for themselves. Of the three, Cheol-su emerges as the most “noble” even though his quest is mercenary enough – his name is his business and thus he wants the statue to fulfil his contract and maintain his sense of integrity as a gun for hire. Tae-ho is merely interested in financial gain with a mild desire for social revenge and the thrill of outsmarting a rival, but both men are filled with an intense distaste for men like Dal-geon who have “betrayed” the countrymen they too have refused to serve. That aside, Tae-ho and Dal-geon begin to form a weak alliance of the opportunistic as they bond in their mercenary intentions, while Cheol-su lingers on the outside as his quest ties him more closely with the independence movement. Eventually the trio realise they have to work together to get the statue, even if their ultimate intention is to double cross the others and keep it for themselves. They do however suddenly rediscover their patriotic spirit, resolving to give the statue to the people who need to most while they ride off into the sunset in search of other ways to serve their country.

Set in dusty Manchuria (where the resistance movement operated in exile), Break Up the Chain is part of the short-lived boom of Korean “westerns” which were popular in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Lee abandons his experimental ambitions and aims squarely for the populist, reaching only for post-modern irony in his boys own adventure story filled with feats of daring do and flight on horseback. Yet he comforts himself with that sense of irony, pulling away from the absurd adventures of our heroes to show the faces of men dying in snow reminding us that their flight from the horror of war was perhaps a rational one rather than an act of cowardice or a failure of patriotism. Nevertheless, Lee seems to be at odds with himself as he gives in (to a point) and presents a silly story of amoral chancers suddenly rediscovering their “Koreanness” in the barren wastelands of Manchuria but does so with a sense of bitterness which conspires to rob the tale of its childish sense of fun.


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

Black Republic (그들도 우리처럼, Park Kwang-su, 1990)

Black Republic still 1In the Korea of 1990, a revolution had been fought, won, and then betrayed by its people. Successfully petitioning for democracy, the newly minted Korean electorate went ahead and voted for the chosen successor of the dictator they’d just spent so long trying to oust. Change comes slow, but it comes even if not quite the way you wanted it. Park Kwang-su’s first film Chilsu and Mansu, released in 1988 and set in the contemporary Seoul running to catch up to its Olympic aspirations, had made its own quiet protest about a hypocritical society’s rising social inequality. His follow up, Black Republic (그들도 우리처럼, Keduldo Urichurum), takes a journey back in time while keeping one foot in the present to show us a nation engulfed by a darkness that crushes love, dreams, and possibility all while dangling the shining hope of a better future that seems impossibly far away.

Tae-hun (Moon Sung-keun), a student protestor wanted by the police, heads into the mountains under an assumed name hoping to get a job in a mine. However, this is a period of intense economic volatility and the mining industry is collapsing. When his attempts to find work as a miner fail, Tae-hun (going under the name Gi-yeong) overhears a conversation in a cafe and manages to get a job in a local briquette factory.

Park opens in darkness as Tae-hun makes a phone call to his mother in which he never speaks and she reassures him that everything will be OK while the sound of a train gradually gathers in the background. When Tae-hun arrives at his destination, he finds himself in a barren, blackened land where everything is quite literally falling apart. The mines are closing and the landscape, desolate as it is, is peppered with derelict buildings and the modest, makeshift homes of the rural poor at the constant mercy of their greedy masters. As a newcomer, Tae-hun is not privy to the town’s secrets, but quickly comes to understand that though he may have escaped Seoul, the struggle is inescapable, because the struggle is Korea. The owner of the briquette factory is also some kind of loanshark involved in a suspiciously close arrangement with the local mine owner who is in the middle of a labour dispute with the miners who are petitioning for fair pay and better conditions. Haunted by the memories of his protest days, Tae-hun finds himself looking on at another candlelight procession calling for workers rights but rendered impotent, forced to remain silent or risk attracting the attention of the police.

Meanwhile, Tae-hun’s silence sees him unwittingly pulled into the orbit of those he would usually oppose. Seong-cheol (Park Joong-hoon), the illegitimate son of the factory boss, takes his own sense of crushing impossibility out on the entire town. Technically the “vice-president” of the factory, Seong-cheol is a sometime enforcer for his father’s greedy loan sharking business and thinks nothing of striding in and helping himself to the petty cash to spend on women and booze while gazing at the photo of his long absent mother. An invitation to dine with Seong-cheol and pals brings Tae-hun into contact with melancholy sex worker Yeong-sook (Shim Hye-Jin) who begins to fall for him when he skips out on her after Seong-cheol has pulled one of his usual tricks in giving her away in an attempt to buy friendship through influence.

Like Tae-hun, Yeong-sook is also trapped, running, and living under an assumed identity. Through her exposure to Tae-hun who is, after all, so different from the other men in the mountains, she begins to rediscover a sense of hope and possibility. Yeong-sook quits the illegal part of her job as a “coffee girl” and deepens her bond with Tae-hun through nursing him after he is arrested and beaten by the police who seem to harbour an innate suspicion towards him despite little evidence, but their love will require another act of faith and flight and the world in which they live may not let them to escape.

Everyone here is trapped, lying to themselves or others, wishing things were different than they are but has long since given up the hope they ever could be. While Tae-hun attempts to ride out the storm by burying his head in the coal dust, feeling it fill his lungs, struggling to breathe, Seong-cheol opposes his order with chaos, laying waste to half the town in a self destructive venting of his rage and resentment towards his selfish, unfeeling father, and a society he feels has already rejected him. Impossibility and hopelessness are the defining qualities of this world of corruption and exploitation in which there can be no escape or salvation, only crushing futility. Park closes with an ironic coda of swapped fates and tragic promise which places Tae-hun right where he was when we first met him, defeated by hope but still in motion, if for an uncertain direction.


Black Republic was screened as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Korean Film Nights 2018: Rebels With a Cause screening series. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

The DMZ (비무장지대 / 非武裝地帶, Park Sang-ho, 1965)

DMZ 1965 posterTalking about the “reunification” of Korea could be a risky business in the increasingly censorious 1960s. Directors had been jailed for less, and the anti-Communism drama was fast becoming a staple genre in the rapidly expanding film industry. Director Park Sang-ho had been at the forefront of Korea’s burgeoning International cinematic success when his 1963 film A Happy Businesswoman had been selected for the Tokyo film festival. Whilst there to present the film (which picked up a best actress award for Do Keum-bong), Park was met with consternation by foreign delegates who assumed he was Japanese and could show them around Tokyo. On learning he was Korean all they wanted to know about was the Demilitarised Zone and the village that was trapped inside it – Panmunjeom. Park had no answers for them. He’d never been to Panmunjeom and knew nothing about it, but he was surprised and concerned that an obscure little village and an ongoing political dispute had come to dominate the thinking surrounding his country with Panmunjeom emerging as a grim tourist destination for those interested in experiencing the “thrill” of life in a dormant war zone.

On return to Korea he knew he had to make a film about the DMZ, but the subject was a difficult, perhaps taboo one which had to be approached carefully. Park’s first cut which was released in theatres ran to 90 minutes and conformed more obviously to the standard commercial cinema of the time. In a radical move, the director then decided to re-edit it with the intention of submitting to foreign film festivals. Cutting most of the scenes with well known actors, Park retained only the stock footage which bookends the film (apparently enough to qualify the remainder as a “documentary” rather than narrative feature), and the central drama focussing on two small children desperately wandering the ruined landscape alone in search of their mothers.

The younger of the two, Yong-ha (Ju Min-a) – a five year old girl, falls into a lake and is rescued by an 8-year-old boy (Lee Yeong-gwan) she originally mistakes for a grown man because of the ragged military uniform and soldier’s helmet he is wearing. The unnamed little boy tells Yong-ha he had a little sister with her name, and there are enough coincidences in their back stories to make one wonder if they really might be related, but in any case the boy “becomes” Yong-ha’s big brother and agrees to protect her while they each look for their long lost mothers.

As the pair are only children, they do not really know that they’re in the “DMZ” or what the DMZ is, they only know they are alone and surrounded by danger. Skeletons and decomposing bodies are a frequent sight, as are abandoned tanks, overturned trucks, broken trains, and rusty equipment. There are no other people, and nature has begun to reclaim the land – wild dogs and foxes are potential perils, while Yong-ha later finds herself separated from her brother after chasing a cute rabbit into a woodland grove and then being unable to find her way back.

The allegory becomes clearer as the children engage in absurd games exposing the arbitrary and destructive nature of the division itself. Walking up to the line, the boy gleefully jumps over to show Yong-ha how meaningless it is. Yong-ha, enjoying the game, thinks “division” seems fun and they should try it out for themselves. Her brother agrees, marking his territory and then insisting that they turn their backs on each other and refuse to speak. He keeps this up for quite a while until Yong-ha becomes distressed, at which point he jumps up and smashes the makeshift division marker to pieces so he can once again embrace his sister.

Nevertheless the anticommunist sentiments are present in the form of a cruel and callous North Korean spy who tries to kidnap the children and take them away with him. To add to the spirit of adventure, the boy sings a nationalist song which honours those who have given their lives to “liberate” the country from “oppression”, while a propaganda broadcast tries to do something similar whilst the children are playing division by offering a message of solidarity to those in the North who might like to come South. Dangerous as the situation is, the children’s innocent naivety eventually leads to a small diplomatic incident when they unwittingly pick up a landmine to use as a firestone but are frightened away by the approach of soldiers just before it explodes, leading both sides to claim the act as one of provocation by the other.

Park takes the dangerous step of shooting directly within the real DMZ with all of its eeriness as a place abandoned by humanity and filled with man made dangers. The children attempt to survive in it alone – foraging for food, using the wood from crosses put up as grave markers to start fires, and looking after each other in the absence of adults. They play when they can, swimming, pretending to commandeer tanks and steal trains, pilfering left behind supplies and always talking about their families and how best to find them. The theatrical version, as was expected at the time, apparently has a more positive ending but Park refuses to soft-pedal the disproportionate suffering experienced by children in time of war, even whilst adding a pointed statement to the end advancing the cause of Korean brotherhood and calling for an end to the unfair and arbitrary separation of a people which feels itself to be of one blood. Unusual for the time but ending on a note of hope (if however bleak), DMZ is part anti-communist propaganda, part unification treatise, and most of all the story of two unlucky orphans created by a war and a diplomatic stalemate who find themselves alone in no-man’s land with no safe refuge in sight.


The DMZ (비무장지대 / 非武裝地帶, Bi-mu-jang Ji-dae) is available on DVD with English subtitles courtesy of the Korean Film Archive. The set also includes an English subtitled documentary about the career of director Park Sang-ho as well as a 32-page bilingual booklet. Not currently available to stream online.

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.