A Sister’s Garden (姉妹의 花園 / 자매의 화원, Shin Sang-ok, 1959)

In melodramas of the post-war era, the good suffer nobly but often find their goodness ill rewarded by an increasingly amoral society. Shin Sang-ok’s A Sister’s Garden (姉妹의 花園 / 자매의 화원, Jamaeui Hwawon) is, perhaps, a little different despite its rather mild critique of a society preparing to head into rampant capitalism, allowing a magnanimous entrepreneur to become the pure hearted saviour of an equally pure woman while her weak willed lover remains petulantly on the sidelines unable to defy outdated social codes to claim his right to happiness. 

In fact, this is in many ways Mr. Bang’s (Kim Seung-ho) story. It’s him we first meet getting off a swanky Korean Air plane signalling his position as a member of a new class of jet-setting elitists. He is, however, kindhearted which is why his first thought is to pay a visit to Dr. Nam (You Chun) who cured him of a serious illness. Unfortunately, Dr. Nam has now been laid low by the same illness himself. His business has suffered, he’s sold his clinic, taken a job at the hospital, and even mortgaged his house to a persistent loanshark. Unfortunately, all the stress has got to him and soon after Bang is able to meet with Dr. Nam he collapses and dies, breathing his last words to his assistant, Sun-cheol (Kim Seok-hun) who had been like a son to him, to the the effect that he has already arranged a marriage for eldest daughter Jeong-hui (Choi Eun-hee) to an artist named Dong-su (Nam Gung-won) and hopes that Sun-cheol will watch over his younger daughter Myeong-hui (Choe Ji-hui) and much younger son Chang-sik (Ahn Sung-ki). 

This last request will cause a series of problems among the young, the first of them being that it’s extraordinarily insensitive because Sun-cheol is himself in love with Jeong-hui who is also in love with him. Both of them are, however, good people which is why Sun-cheol wastes no time telling Jeong-hui about her father’s last words while she is minded to obey them even if her primary concern is the family finances seeing as she is now the sole provider for her siblings and there will be no more money coming in. With the loanshark still breathing down their necks, Jeong-hui is in danger of losing the family home. 

The other major problem is Myeong-hui who unlike her sister is a thoroughly modern woman, thoughtless and selfish in a childish sort of way. Unaware of the family’s financial situation, she hoped to use some of the money from selling the clinic to open a dress shop and is put out to realise there isn’t any because the clinic was only sold to pay off debts. Meanwhile, it’s also quite obvious that Dong-su, an equally naive son of a wealthy family, prefers Myeong-hui and almost certainly intends to marry her not her sister. Dong-su thinks he’s hot stuff in the art world and is going to make a lot of money selling paintings, which is optimistic whichever way you look at it. 

This awkward love square creates a series of problems of its own as Myeong-hui convinces herself that her sister is jealous of her relationship with Dong-su while also knowing that she has been silently in love with Sun-cheol for many years. Sun-cheol, for his part, feels himself indebted to the Nams and allows the debt to come between himself and true entrance to the family through marrying Jeong-hui. He saves their house through selling his own, but times being as they are Jeong-hui still needs to find a job which is another problem because she is an upper middle-class woman raised for marriage. She gave up school to keep house after her mother died and has no qualifications, even if qualifications could help a woman in need find a good job in 1950s Seoul. She asks Bang for help, and he offers her a frankly insulting opportunity as the head hostess at a sleazy bar he owns where businessmen go to have discreet fun without their wives. 

Jeong-hui wasn’t going to take it, but in the end she has little choice, allowing the married Myeong-hui and Dong-su to move into the house to look after Chang-sik while she lives at the bar. Sun-cheol, still afraid to speak his heart, is judgemental and filled with resentment, entirely unsupportive of Jeong-hui’s position or her proactive decision to try and change it even if changing it means hovering on the fringes of the sex trade. Myeong-hui also, perhaps because of her selfishness and naivety, fails to understand the sacrifices her sister has made on her behalf. Worried that Myeong-hui and Dong-su may have re-mortgaged the family home that she is actively debasing herself to save, Jeong-hui asks her sister to reassure her that the deed to the house is safe. Myeong-hui had been thinking of doing just that so she fires back cruelly that Jeong-hui has everything “easy” and can’t understand how hard it is for her, which is a strange thing to say given that Jeong-hui has become a bar girl solely to keep a roof over her sister’s head. 

Myeong-hui and Dong-su continue to make mistakes, Dong-su convincing his friend to embezzle money from his company to plough into the dress shop even though it’s a loan they can’t repay and threatens to get them all in hot water. Jeong-hui has to sort everything out again, but that puts her in further debt to Bang to whom she is already substantially indebted because he convinced her to take a loan to pay back Sun-cheol who didn’t even really want paying back. Uncharitably, Bang’s behaviour looks suspect. He makes a prim upperclass woman degrade herself by plunging her into the sleazy underbelly of a burgeoning economy and then burdens her with debt to be able to manipulate her better. Perhaps he gets a kick out of that, but soon feels guilty seeing someone who so obviously does not belong in one of his bars forced to drink with clients and play nice with the customers. On the other hand, perhaps there really were no better jobs available for a woman without qualifications and he only wanted to help. 

Ultimately, Bang turns out to be the good guy, falling in altruistic, selfless love with the innocent Jeong-hui who always does the right thing and acts with absolute integrity. Debt, once again messes everything up. Bang decides to propose to Jeong-hui, which practically speaking is a good option in the situation, but makes it clear that he is not forcing her and will continue to help and support her whatever she decides. But how is Jeong-hui to refuse someone who has been so “kind” to her without a sense of betrayal? Sun-cheol, meanwhile, is prevented from declaring his feelings because of the “debt” he feels he owes to the Nam family, not quite good enough for Jeong-hui but also the custodian of her father’s last words which were that she should marry Dong-su. Myeong-hui and Dong-su meanwhile think only of themselves, acting with selfish recklessness. Only when Jeong-hui comes through for Myeong-hui and tells her of Bang’s proposal does she begin to grow up and realise that her sister may throw away her own happiness for the sake of her family’s in marrying a rich old man out of a sense of hopelessness and obligation. 

Contrary to other melodramas, the solution is Bang’s and Bang’s alone. He makes the decision to release the youngsters from patriarchal control by essentially canceling out Dr. Nam’s last wishes by telling Jeong-hui that she should try to be happy with Sun-cheol while giving her the financial means to do so by gifting her the bar to run as her own, making her both business owner and career woman as well as wife. He absents himself in recognition that age has to give way to youth, pushing the youngsters to pursue personal happiness rather than serve outdated ideas of duty or filial obligation. Jeong-hui’s goodness wins out, but only because it was recognised by Bang who decides to set her free by cancelling not only her literal debt, but the entire idea of indebtedness in giving her permission to seek her own happiness rather than feeling obliged to prioritise that of others. 


A Sister’s Garden is the third of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Dongsimcho (동심초, Shin Sang-ok, 1959)

The Korea of 1959 was one of change, but the hardest thing to change is oneself and oftentimes the biggest obstacle to personal happiness is the fear of pursuing it. The pure hearted heroine of Shin Sang-ok’s Dongsimcho (동심초) describes herself as “a woman who thirsts for love, yet foolishly gives in to fear first”. A war widow, she’s fed up with society’s constant prejudice but too afraid of what they might think if she chose to choose love, embrace her desire, and marry again for no other reason than personal happiness. Yet for all that she’s a mother with a grown up daughter, she’s a woman too, and young, only 38, but nevertheless consigned to a life of loneliness because of a series of outdated social codes. 

When we first meet Suk-hee (Choi Eun-hee) she’s rushing to the station but arrives too late and can only watch the man she loves board a train through an iron gate that perpetually divides them. Her husband having died in the Korean War, Suk-hee once had a dress shop but was conned out of all her money and the business failed. The kind hearted brother of a friend, Sang-gyu (Kim Jin-gyu), helped her out. Through the course of his managing her affairs, they became close and fell in love, but Sang-gyu is now engaged to the boss’ daughter, Ok-ju (Do Keum-bong), and their romance seems more impossible than ever. 

Suk-hee never quite dares to hope that Sang-gyu might break off his engagement, decide against a bright middle-class future, and start again with her. She’s an old fashioned kind of woman. Despite the fact she once owned a dress shop, she only ever wears hanbok and lives in an improbably spacious Korean-style house alone with her college student daughter, Kyeong-hee (Um Aing-ran), and a maid. The debt that exists between herself and Sang-gyu is the force that both binds them and keeps them apart. The money rots their relationship, but neither of them want it to be repaid because then they’d have no more excuse to continue meeting. They are both perfectly aware of each other’s feelings but entirely unable to acknowledge them because in some sense they already know that their future is impossible. 

On discovering her mother’s “secret”, Kyeong-hee is mildly scandalised, confronted by the realisation that a mother is also a woman just as she is now. She worries about the moral ambiguities of her mother’s position and of what people might say, but quickly reconsiders, deciding to be happy for her and actively support her chances of a happier future. As a younger woman coming of age in the post-war era, Kyeong-hee feels freer to shake off social convention and strike out for personal happiness rather than being content to be miserable while upholding a series of social codes which lead only to additional suffering. 

Only slightly younger than Suk-hee, Sang-gyu is beginning to feel the same. His widowed older sister, Suk-hee’s friend, has turned to religion to escape her loneliness while staking all of her hopes on Sang-gyu’s economic success. It’s she who’s set him up with the marriage to Ok-ju and is pressuring him to accept it because it will assure her own future seeing as she is obviously not planning to defy convention and remarry. Sang-gyu, however, is filled with doubts. Eventually he tells his associate, Gi-cheol (Kim Seok-hoon), that he cannot go through with the marriage, adding that he doesn’t want advice or a warning he merely needed to tell someone. In a strange coincidence, Gi-cheol was once Kyeong-hee’s tutor, and has a surprisingly conservative attitude. Questioned by Ok-ju, he tells her to “act more lovingly” to cure Sang-gyu’s obvious lack of enthusiasm for their relationship, explaining that love doesn’t just happen but is a result of concerted effort. He tells Sang-gyu that he’s being childish and irresponsible and should think about “social ethics and morality”. In short, he should forget about the past and marry Ok-ju like a good boy. But Sang-gyu quite reasonably asks him who’s going to be responsible for what happens after that. If he marries Ok-ju now, he will merely be condemning her to a cold and loveless marriage filled with intense resentment in which the spectre of the woman he loved and lost will always stand between them. 

Kyeong-hee unexpectedly arrives part way through the conversation having followed Gi-cheol with whom she has perhaps also begun to fall in love despite the difference in their attitudes. She jumps in to defend Suk-hee, taking Sang-gyu’s side in berating Gi-cheol for insulting her mother, asking if he thinks a woman like her has no worth. Her mother is a woman too, and though she was originally confused and scandalised, after getting to know Sang-gyu and giving it some thought she’d like to give them her blessing though of course they don’t need it. Kyeong-hee is still young enough to fight for love, and the world in which she lives gives her the courage to believe it might be possible. 

The generation gap between herself and her mother, who it has to be remembered is only 38, cold not be more obvious. Suk-hee struggles against herself. She loves Sang-gyu, but the world tells her that it’s wrong and she must deny her feelings for the sake of social propriety. She can’t stand the way people look down on war widows, and she’s too afraid to give them any more ammunition. Given the relative mildness of the sanction on their relationship, in moral terms at least, it would be easy enough to read it as a metaphor for something else, especially with the repeatedly pregnant dialogue about the pain of not being permitted to marry the person that you love, that no one has the right to judge others for their personal lives, Sangyu’s sister’s aside about being “one of those people”, and finally Sang-gyu’s rather strange confession to Ok-ju that he “may have a personality disorder” in being unable to give up on his love for Suk-hee. It is definitely the case, however, that the gate that stands between them is a rigid an unforgiving society which denies love in fear of disrupting the social order.  

Suk-hee feels guilty not only for her feelings, but feeling as if she’s getting in the way of Sang-gyu’s bright and rightful future. Meanwhile, no one seems to give much thought to poor Ok-ju, used as a pawn by all while pinning for Sang-gyu despite her conviction that he’s in love with someone else and will never truly be with her. Even Gi-cheol implies it’s her own fault not being “loving” enough, while she is left with nothing but sympathy for Suk-hee as another woman forever separated from Sang-gyu because of what other people think. This world is not, it seems, entirely ready for love. Suk-hee makes the “right” choice by many people’s reckoning, one filled with nobility and self sacrifice, yet it’s a choice that becomes increasingly impossible to accept and stands only in stark condemnation of the society which convinced her that misery was virtue. 


Dongsimcho is the second of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

A College Woman’s Confession (어느 女大生의 告白 / 어느 여대생의 고백, Shin Sang-ok, 1958)

Five years after the end of the Korean War, South Korean society was both economically unstable and battling the increasingly authoritarian government of Rhee Syngman. Nevertheless, there was perhaps an aspiration for a brighter democratic future which many hoped would materialise after the protests which eventually brought down Rhee’s regime in 1960 but unfortunately led only to the even more repressive Park Chung-hee era. Released in the same year as Flower in Hell, Shin Sang-ok’s A College Woman’s Confession (어느 女大生의 告白 / 어느 여대생의 고백, Eoneu Yeodaesaengui Gobaek) is perhaps a reflection of that aspiration in its broadly humanist condemnation of an inherently unfair, rigidly patriarchal society which forces good people to act in ways which offend their sense of justice solely in order to survive. 

From a poor family, law student So-young (Choi Eun-hee) finds herself in dire straits after her grandmother who’d been supporting her and paying her tuition fees suddenly dies. She tries to find a part-time job that will let her carry on with her studies, but is either turned away or placed in difficult situations with men who abuse her trust. A sleazy boss interviewing her for a secretarial position pauses after hearing she’s a student after part-time work to suggest a “night job”, crudely leaning over as he offers her money to become his mistress. So-young slaps him across the face and leaves, but faces something much the same from the husband of her landlady who promises to stop pressuring her for the back rent in return for sexual favours. She turns him down too, but even though he backs off in fear she’ll tell his wife that he tried it on, his suddenly relaxed attitude only makes her landlady suspicious. 

At her wits end and about to quit school, So-young turns to her comparatively better off friend Hee-sook (Kim Sook-il) who dreams of becoming a novelist. Hee-sook brings up a diary she’s been reading that was found in some old furniture sold to her family’s store which recounts the sad life story of a girl who was seduced and betrayed by a man who left her to marry a wealthy woman. With too much time on her hands, Hee-sook has identified the man in the diary as prominent politician Choi Rim (Kim Seung-ho) and taken it upon herself to send him a letter telling him that he has a daughter named So-young from the love of his youth. Despite the fact that the diary says the woman’s baby died, Hee-sook suggests So-young pose as Choi’s long lost daughter so he’ll support her through the rest of uni. So-young is not convinced, but finds herself heading over to visit Choi after exhausting all her other options and being reluctant to go back to the boarding house without money. Choi absentmindedly turns her away, only to think better of it and send his secretary after her, but she ends up getting hit by a car trying to avoid yet another creepy old man who sees her in distress in the street and offers her money for sex. 

Creepy men are indeed everywhere. Even the wily Hee-sook finds herself bothered by an unpleasant man in a cafe who repeatedly pesters her even after she makes a point of ignoring him and pointedly switches seats. He doesn’t give up even after So-young arrives, abruptly offering to buy both women dinner, after which Hee-sook ushers So-young out declaring that this cafe is too “weird” to stay in any longer. Men are, it seems, content to exploit the desperation of vulnerable women for their own satisfaction. As So-young puts it in trying to defend another woman after she’s successfully become a lawyer, “vulgar men see women only as objects to satisfy their sexual desires”. 

This feeds back in to the sin the otherwise kindhearted Choi is trying to expiate. He made a choice in his youth, sometime in the colonial era, to abandon a woman he claimed to love to make a dynastic match. Though it’s not clear whether or not he knew there was a child, he seems to harbour a deep sense of guilt over his decision to essentially use two women in different ways. Faced with the “resurfacing” of So-young, he immediately explains everything to his wife (Yoo Gye-seon) but tries to pass it off as “all in the past” while earnestly asking her to help him make amends by accepting So-young into their home in place of the daughter they apparently lost. She fires back at him that it must be very convenient for men who can forget about things that are “all in the past” while women have to live the rest of their lives with the harm that they cause. Choi doesn’t argue with her, but nor does he ask for forgiveness, only understanding. Mrs. Choi answers that she ought to tell him no in revenge for the all the wrongs he’s done her (this appears not to be a terribly happy marriage), but agrees that it’s not So-young’s fault and so of course she can come because “it’s the right thing to do as a human being”. 

Mrs. Choi, however, remains suspicious, unconvinced by So-young’s story but also by her distance from her. That could of course be explained by embarrassment in being the child of the “other woman”, but Mrs. Choi is right to sense guilt in her reserve as she becomes ever more conflicted about the necessity of deceiving people who have been nothing but kind to her. It’s this sense of guilt which is intensified after she becomes a lawyer and achieves her dream of helping other disadvantaged women by defending a single-mother, much like the woman from the diary, who was seduced and betrayed by a man whom she later killed in a crime of passion. In her passionate defence of the extremely repentant Soon-hee (Hwang Jung-seun) is who is around the same age as she is, So-young reflects on the relative similarities between them and that the only reason they are standing in their respective positions is circumstance. 

“The purpose of the law is not only punishment but to awaken goodness in all our hearts” So-young reminds the judges, determined to offer “an earnest plea on behalf of desperate women”. Soon-hee admits her guilt and asks for no leniency, but is brought to tears as So-young outlines the social factors which explain why she found herself stabbing the man who had caused her so much suffering and then got on with his life without giving her a second thought. Her only transgression being sex before marriage, Soon-hee did everything else right but was condemned to a life of poverty and forced to consider sex work in order to buy medicine for her sickly baby. As a pure hearted woman, she can’t go through with it and considers robbery instead (apparently a “lesser” crime) only to bump into an old friend but be too ashamed to ask her for help. 

Earlier on, after her graduation ceremony, So-young had explained her ambitions to help women and children in poverty to Choi’s kindly secretary Sang-ho (Choi Hyeon) who has obviously taken a liking to her. He’s broadly supportive, but reminds her that if she wants to improve society perhaps she should think about fostering greater social change through political action (as he is perhaps doing), but she shakes her head and points out that he’s never known what it is to be hungry or desperate and that there are people who need the kind of help that only she can give them, such as women like Soon-hee. Yet in defending another woman she’s reminded only of her own “sin” in having wilfully deceived Choi and his wife, burdened by the need to keep her secret and convinced the only thing she can do is to confess all. 

Yet Mrs. Choi proves unexpectedly supportive, explaining that she’s known all along that So-young lied and has come to love her as a daughter anyway. She can see how happy she makes Choi who is proud and excited to have such an amazing young woman in his life, and finding out the truth would only break his heart. So-young’s confession would be for herself alone, to ease her own conscience, while the burden of carrying this secret is perhaps the price of her happiness. In an odd way, So-young has repaired their marriage, and with her success in the courts has perhaps completed the integration of their family with the implication that Sang-ho may later join it too. Fiercely condemning the evils of a patriarchal society, A College Woman’s Confession suggests that the literal truth might not be as important as the emotional, and that a rigid morality serves no one, while offering the vision of a brighter, more equal society founded on compassion and understanding rather than cold authoritarian paternalism. 


A College Woman’s Confession is the first of three films included in the Korean Film Archive’s Shin Sang-ok’s Melodramas from the 1950s box set. It is also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Ieodo (異魚島 / 이어도, Kim Ki-young, 1977)

Ieoh Island restoration posterIn the hyper-masculine and intensely patriarchal atmosphere of Korea under Park Chung-hee, Kim Ki-young spins a tale of male obsolescence in the mysterious Ieodo (異魚島 / 이어도, AKA Ieoh Island). The eponymous island, apparently a kind of paradise home to the lonely ghosts of fishermen lost at sea, becomes a symbol of the impossible life drive of its impotent protagonists who find themselves taken by the island before their time while the community of women asserts its primacy in rendering men “redundant” through finding new ways to procreate.

The hero, Hyun Seon-woo (Kim Jeong-cheol), is an executive at a tourism company who is struggling to conceive a child with his wife and undergoing the early stages of IVF treatment. Alarmed to realise that his wife could have a child without him thanks to his frozen sperm, he throws himself into his work, planning for a new hotel development to be called “Ieodo” after the mythical fisherman’s paradise. Organising a publicity stunt in which journalists and industry guests are asked to board a boat to an unknown destination backfires spectacularly when a reporter, Chun Nam-seok (Choi Yoon-seok), becomes extremely upset and insists on turning the boat around on learning they will be heading towards the mythical island. Nam-seok accuses of the hoteliers of appropriating local culture, while even the boat’s captain expresses dismay at the thought of breaking such a strong taboo. Seon-woo offers to settle the matter with a drinking contest, eventually passing out during which time Nam-seok “falls” off the boat, leaving him the prime suspect in the man’s death. Convinced that Nam-seok must have taken his own life, he determines to investigate the case himself with the help of Nam-seok’s editor (Park Am).

Seon-woo’s quest takes him to the nearby island where Nam-seok was born, Parang – a place inhabited solely by women which all men must leave on having a child. Parang is a place where tradition reigns and superstition is prevalent. Guided to the local shamaness (Park Jeong-ja) by a timid widow, Seon-woo and the editor are told that Nam-seok’s family were under an ancestral curse in which all the men of previous generations were eventually taken by the “Water Ghost” of Ieodo, including Nam-seok’s own father. After his mother died of grief, Nam-seok tried to escape, but now, the villagers seem to believe, he too has returned to embrace his fate proving that the Water Ghost will always take what is hers by right.

In order to get around the lack of menfolk, the women practice what a friend of Nam-seok’s calls “both the most primitive and the most modern” form of marriage in which they copulate with men of their choosing during a candlelight ritual. Having sworn off having children himself, at least on the island owing to the curse, Nam-seok takes up with the wealthy widow Mrs. Park (Kwon Mi-hye) who finances his unusual business venture – an abalone farm designed to bring prosperity back to the island where the traditional diving business has begun to flounder thanks to the corruption of the modern world.

The fish in the ocean are dying because of industrial pollution – itself a problem produced by the thoughtless capitalism of the Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian regime and its relentless drive forward into economic dynamism at all costs. Watching his seed fall on stony ground (literally and figuratively), Nam-seok becomes enlightened to environmentalism, bemoaning that the ancestors of humanity cared for the planet for thousands of years only for recent generations to destroy it. It’s the end of the world, he says, everything is rotting. Which might, after a fashion, explain why everyone seems to be finding it so difficult so have children.

Nam-seok’s attempts to artificially breed abalone link straight back to Seon-woo’s inability to father a child with his wife whom, we are told in the very beginning, eventually died without ever giving birth. We’re told that sperm survives its host, that the sperm of a man who froze to death on the mountains was found to be perfectly viable once defrosted and that, therefore, Seon-woo himself is a largely irrelevant presence in his his wife’s ongoing quest to have a child. The island women too who do things the “traditional” way, had also stumbled on a way to conceive children in the absence of men, or at least in the absence of “living” men in realising that sperm could often be harvested from the dead and applied by means of ritual.

Kim returns to his favourite themes of sex and death as two literally become one. “All fears disappear when men and women unite”, the mysterious barmaid (Lee Hwa-si) tells an increasingly confused Seon-woo who has come to embody for her the soul of the lost Nam-seok whom she believes to be her spiritual husband. “Everything is only momentary”, he answers her, “eternity is a word which deceives us”. Seon-woo admires “the incredible energy of women who risk their lives to have children”, but if the island is to survive it can only be in the absence of his destructive male energy. Like countless men before him, he must leave, not for the paradise of Ieodo, but for the rapidly declining modern society, while a woman remains behind alone – the sole guardian of a child who is also, of course, the future.


Ieodo was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival. It is also available on English subtitled blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a complete script (Korean only) bilingual booklet, commentary by critic & director Chung Sung-ill, commentary featuring critic Kim Young-jin and director Oh Seung-uk (not subtitled), an interview with actress Lee Hwa-si, and clips of Lee Hwa-si with Jeong Beom-sik, and Park Jeong-ja with Lee Yoon-ho (no subtitles).

A Coachman (馬夫 / 마부, Kang Dae-jin, 1961)

A coachman poster 1The Korea of 1961 was one of societal flux, mired in post-war poverty but striving towards a brighter economic future. The rising tides of affluence had given birth to a new middle-class with the old feudal attitudes while others were largely left behind on the shores of prosperity. Kang Dae-jin’s A Coachman (馬夫 /마부, Mabu), the first Korean film to win a major international award with the Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival, finds itself at just this juncture as an old man pulling a horse and cart is forced to face up the automobile age while worrying what is to become of his family in the perilous modern society.

Ageing patriarch Chun-sam (Kim Seung-ho) has been guiding a horse and cart since his father died in Manchuria when he was 14. Technically speaking, he is not the owner of his horse, Dragon, but operates it on behalf of the owner, the mistress of an upper middle-class salaryman. As business is slow, she is always threatening to sell the horses which would leave Chun-sam and the other coachmen without a means to support themselves. Meanwhile, Chun-sam’s four children whom he raised alone after his wife passed away at a young age are each looking for different ways out of their impoverished existence. Chun-sam married off his eldest daughter Ok-nyeo (Jo Mi-ryeong) who is deaf and mute to a man he saved during the Korean War but he is abusive and treats her like a servant while openly inviting his mistress into their home. Oldest son Su-eop (Shin Young-kyun) is currently studying to retake the bar exam for the third time, middle daughter Ok-hee (Um Aing-ran) has begun dating a shady salaryman, and youngest boy Soo-up has become a high school delinquent.

Kang opens with an exciting sequence following Soo-up who has attempted to steal a bicycle as he tries to escape from its owner chasing him. Returning home covered in mud, slowing to a walk and putting his student’s cap back on to avoid suspicion, he makes his way from the modern houses of the new city back through traditional Korean homes towards his rather makeshift family abode which they share with the horse stabled in a side room. Chun-sam is obviously not a wealthy man, but the family bear their struggles with fortitude, perhaps to some extent avoiding each other but rarely arguing directly. Even the news that Ok-hee has once again quit her latest job, working in a cafe, in record time is greeted with exasperated acceptance rather than anger or resentment.

Ok-hee quit the cafe to fall in with her ultramodern friend Mi-ja (Choi Ji Hee) who has arranged a double date with a pair of sleazy executives, telling them that Ok-hee is a university graduate and daughter of a wealthy CEO. Intensely ashamed of her working class background as a mere coachman’s daughter, Ok-hee tries to catapult herself into the middle classes by weaponising her sex appeal, too proud to take the long way round through honest work. She rejects the attentions of family friend Chung-soo (Hwang Hae) who is good and kind because he is only a driver, taking little notice of his earnest warning that nothing good ever comes of hanging around with shady types like her boyfriend. He keeps trying to persuade her to take a job in a nearby factory, but she still thinks she’s above that kind of life and is convinced she can get the executive to marry her.

Chang-soo’s interest is of course romantic, but the advice he gives her is honest and altruistic. Unlike his unsavoury money lender father, Chang-soo is a salt of the earth type, but good men are hard to find and trying to escape poverty through marriage is a road fraught with danger as Ok-nyeo discovers. Chun-sam thought he’d done the right thing in marrying her off, believing a match would be hard to come by because of her disability and worrying she’d be left alone with no-one to look after her, but she is forced to endure mistreatment and humiliation at the hands of her husband. Ok-nyeo repeatedly returns to her family home, only able to show them the bruises to explain what’s happening, but Chun-sam always sends her back unable to break with the old patriarchal rules which insist that once married she must forever remain this man’s wife.

Chun-sam faces a similar dilemma of his own when he strikes up a tentative relationship with the kindly maid at his boss’ mansion who often heats up rice wine for him and goes out of her way to give him little treats. The odious moneylender is also after Suwon (Hwang Jung-seun) who is considered “old” to be unmarried at 37, but she favours Chun-sam because, as she says, she has always known him to be a “good man”. The “courtship”, if you could call it that, is innocent in the extreme with Suwon largely taking the lead while Chun-sam lags bashfully behind, childishly excited but also embarrassed because he cannot afford a wife and would be ashamed to ask her to share his life of poverty.

Looked down on by everyone, Chun-sam is forced to go cap in hand to his employer where he is made to “know his place” and reminded he is “just a coachman” with no right to talk back. When Hwang, the boss’ lover, injures Chun-sam through reckless driving, Su-eop becomes fed up with persistent feudalism and intends to have a polite word but is quickly shut down, reminded that he is nothing more than coachman’s son and told that his dreams of becoming a lawyer are not only unrealistic but an offence to the social order.

Su-eop alone takes the conventional route out of poverty in pursuing education and a steady government job, but is repeatedly told that he’s getting above himself and should be content with becoming a coachman like his dad, despite the fact that being a coachman is already close to an obsolete profession given the increasing affordability of the motorcar. He alternates between guilt and despair, wondering if he’s being irresponsible in pinning all his hopes on the bar exam and worrying that he’s not doing enough to support the family.

Yet Chun-sam, forced to consider his own obsolescence, is keen for him to succeed, not only because the family needs him to make a success of himself but because he wants his son to have a better kind of life than he had taking full advantage of the possibilities of the new society. Though their lives are hard, Chun-sam and his family remain kind and honest (even Ok-hee and Suo-up eventually conclude that hard work is the way after all), bonding with others of the same mindset like the maid Suwon who eventually quits her job in protest, and Chang-soo who rejects his father’s underhanded venality for simple human decency. United by friendly solidarity, the family is repaired and resolves to live on as a tiny unit of cheerful resistance against the feudalistic greed and selfishness of the modern society.


A Coachman was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Goryeojang (고려장, Kim Ki-young, 1963)

Goryeojang hanging bannerWhat happens to the marginalised in times of trouble? Nothing good, might be the answer. To exist outside of the group, to be in some way other, is to be rendered vulnerable but there can also be a kind of strength in involuntary independence. Like the Japanese Ballad of Narayama, Kim Ki-young’s Goryeojang (고려장) envisages a world in which the old are expected to sacrifice themselves for the young, but unlike either Keisuke Kinoshita or the later Shohei Imamura, Kim struggles to find nobility in adherence to such a cruel and inhuman tradition.

Kim opens with a contemporary TV panel discussion on overpopulation (a key concern of the day) which strays uncomfortably into comparison with vermin, leading one expert to contribute that when short of food rats eat each other in order to survive so perhaps people should too. Moving swiftly on, the host turns to a historian who explains that in the distant past during times of war or famine, there was a tradition of abandoning the over-70s on mountains to reduce the burden on the rest of society.

Kim then shifts to the main narrative which takes place in the feudal “Goryeo” era. During a time of scarcity, a lord married four times already scorns the local shamaness to marry a young and beautiful widow with a young son. The shamaness claims that the lord’s 10 sons from his previous marriages are to blame for the failure of the relationship and vows revenge on the entire family. Meanwhile, new wife Keum (Ju Jeung-ryu) struggles to adjust herself to the household and is warned that none of the previous wives managed to endure it very long. Though the lord accepts her son Guryong as his own and tries to integrate him with his 10 new brothers, the boys fiercely reject him, especially when they hear about the shamaness’ curse which states that he is destined to kill them at some unspecified point in the future. The abuse culminates in an attempt to assassinate Guryong with a snake bite. He survives but is left with a lame leg. Keum realises she cannot stay in the lord’s house, and so he gives her a small plot of land and some money to support herself and her son.

20 years pass, during which time Guryong (Kim Jin-kyu) has managed to make a life for himself but the brothers are still obsessed with getting back the land that was given to him. When they find out that Guryong has amassed enough resources to consider marrying despite the fact that he is disabled and therefore considered undesirable, their rage intensifies. Guryong meanwhile has been trying to keep to himself, but is brokenhearted in unrequited love for a woman, Gannan (Kim Bo-ae), who rejects him because of his disability. He is eventually married off to a woman who is mute, considered a socially acceptable match for both, but the brothers kidnap and rape her in an attempt to extort Guryong for the deeds to the land. Unable to tell anyone what’s happened, she murders her attacker. Faced again with cruel tradition, Guryong does not resist. 

After that, he goes back to minding his own business, but there are customs he will not follow including that of abandoning his mother on the mountain. 15 years later, drought and famine strike again. Keum worries that she is the cause and Guryong’s refusal to take her to the mountain has angered the gods. As supplies dwindle, the brothers make the most of their feudal powers, restricting access to the local well which is technically on their land, exchanging water for potatoes which are the only available source of food. Guryong, meanwhile, has spent the last few years quietly working away and has quite a sizeable crop of his own which makes him a rather wealthy and powerful figure, once again irritating the brothers. It’s at this point that a starving Gannan, now the mother of nine children, reappears and is forced to throw herself on Guryong’s mercy.

Marginalised because of his disability and fatherless status, Guryong has had to learn to survive alone and has prospered because of it, yet others regard him as a potential drain on their resources, an ill omen or harbinger of doom forever associated with the shamaness’ curse. With little to eat, people are forced to put their prejudices to one side but do so superficially. Gannan’s husband, dying of hunger, urges her to seduce Guryong and if possible marry him before he dies so that she won’t have to obey the custom of waiting three years in mourning before marrying again. Gannan is minded to sell her body, if that’s what it takes, but still reluctant to sell it to Guryong. In another case of socially acceptable partnering, she eventually sells one of her children to Keum to raise as a ward – Yeon, who is “imperfect” because of her pockmarked face.

Like Guryong, Yeon is brave and defiant, in some senses emboldened by her difference. She volunteers to go to Guryong because her siblings bully her over her face, but thinks nothing of cheerfully mocking Guryong’s limp or of talking back while playing the part of a servile daughter-in-law. She does, however, remain loyal to Gannan, stealing potatoes to sneak back to her family. The arrangement fails only when Keum decides it’s time to absent herself, that her presence is preventing Guryong uniting with Gannan and her children, but Guryong refuses to swap a mother for a wife and angrily rejects Gannan, beating her and the child believing them to have orchestrated a plot to get rid of Keum.

With the brothers hoarding food and Guryong keeping well out of it, the only solution proposed by the villagers involves the human sacrifice of a child. Guryong struggles to believe that they would really go that far, but finds himself again in the firing line when the brothers frame him for a murder and leave him at the mercy of the shamaness and her sacred tree. Spared only on the condition that he give in and take Keum to the mountain where she will pray for rain, he is forced into complicity with the cruelty of his times but his rage on his return knows no bounds. Realising he has been betrayed once again, he fulfils the shamaness’ prophecy, but is shaken by the words of one of the 10 as he attempts to stay his violence, insisting that they are not bad people and must embrace each other as brothers. He blames everything on the shamaness and her curse, which is of course a matter of a woman scorned. Guryong doesn’t quite buy that, the brothers were cruel to him because they could be even if the root cause was their father’s moral transgressions in his many marriages. He does, however, awaken to the inherent corruption of the world in which he lives embodied by the tyrannical authority of the shamaness and “Divine Spirit” manifested as the tree from which transgressors are hanged.

Kim never closes his framing sequence, the dark humour of the contemporary opening merely an introduction, but obliquely references the April Revolution of 1960 as Guryong takes an axe to the tree and frees himself from the shamaness’ control. According to Guryong, the tree kept the small evil out, but let the big one in. Taking the children by the hand, he leaves. “If there is someone to teach us, we can grow anything”, he tells them, it’s time to plant some seeds. Claiming his own freedom and rejecting his marginalisation, he steps forward into a better world out of the mountain’s shadow and free from the terrible tyranny of “tradition”. 


Goryeojang was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival. The new 4K restoration will also be released on blu-ray by the Korean Film Archive on 14th November.

Burning Mountain (山불 / 산불, Kim Soo-yong, 1967)

Burning Mountain still 1In his 1965 film The Seashore Village, Kim Soo-yong had presented a broadly positive vision of a community of women who had learned to survive without men by supporting each other. 1967’s Burning Mountain (山불 / 산불, Sanbul, AKA Flame in the Valley) revisits a similar theme but with much less positivity. This time around, the women have been deprived of their men not because of nature’s cruelty, but because of man-made corruption. Set during the Korean War, Burning Mountain finds a collection of wounded, lonely women condemned by patriarchal social codes and hemmed in by political strife not of their making struggling against their baser instincts as they determine to survive in an often hostile environment.

A small village near Jirisan has lost all of its men. Pressed by communist guerrillas for food, the lone women are hungry and afraid. Consequently, they are often at each other’s throats and united only in a shared futility of waiting for men they are almost certain will never return, either because the war has taken them or they have taken the opportunity to seek a better kind of life. The drama begins when Jum-rye (Ju Jeung-ryu) discovers a communist deserter, Kyu-bok (Shin Young-kyun), hiding in the bamboo grove and is seduced by him, satisfying her long repressed desire and escaping her loneliness through a transient bond with a captive man.

Unlike the fishwives of The Seashore Village, the women of Burning Mountain are a more conservative bunch though they too are largely unafraid to talk plainly of their unanswered desire in the absence of men. Rather than embracing each other as the fishwives had, the mountain women allow their sexual frustrations to make them bitter and irritable, forever at each other’s throats and unable to let go of past grievances. They dwell on the possibility of escape, but do not believe it to be real. One of the younger, unmarried women, talks of going to the city to find work as a maid but is confronted by a world of checkpoints and soldiers which restricts both her movement and her freedom in ways she is ill-equipped to understand.

The village stands as a tiny enclave, caught between North and South, part of both and neither as if lost in some eternal netherland. The bamboo grove represents the innocent natural freedoms which have been taken from the villagers by civilisation and by later by the folly of men and war. It’s in the bamboo grove that Jum-rye first encounters Kyu-bok in a meeting which begins as rape but ends in seduction as Jum-rye surrenders herself to a rough stranger in desperation and loneliness. The affair continues and relations between herself and the other women improve until Sawol (Do Kum-bong), a woman with whom she’d been on bad terms because their absent husbands had been on different sides, discovers Kyu-bok’s existence and blackmails the pair into allowing her to make sexual use of him in order to ease her own frustration.

Roles interestingly reversed, Kyu-bok takes exception to his new status as a kept man, resenting the feeling that he is nothing more than a pet, breeding stock kept to scratch an itch. Nevertheless, he stays while the women, increasingly conflicted, urge him to turn himself in to the authorities sure that if he explains himself they will not treat him harshly. Already emasculated in having been forced into the mountains against his will, Kyu-bok remains impotent in all ways other than the sexual, pleading with Jum-rye that she let him stay in the bamboo grove “until the world gets better”.

Sadly, the world shows little sign of doing that, though thanks to their shared transgression a strange kind of camaraderie arises between former enemies Jum-rye and Sawol, now disposed towards female solidarity having eased their own frustrations. They want to trap Kyu-bok and keep him for themselves, but at the same time they dwell on the idea of the unseen woman waiting somewhere for him just as they are waiting for their menfolk and know they cannot have him for long. Where the constant refrains of “we are all the same” had rung somewhat hollow, they ring true now in the two women’s commitment to a woman they don’t know who is, in some senses, their rival.

Yet, the liminal space of the bamboo grove cannot be allowed to stand in the increasingly straitened future. Already subversive in his frank depiction of female desire, Kim subtly undercuts the austerity of the times in making accidental villains of the South Korean army who arrive to burn the bamboo grove down to smoke out the guerrilla fighters, taking from these women the symbol of their freedom in the natural pleasure of the forest. The cowardly communist, while fulfilling the demands of the censors’ board, is both passive victim of his times and a representative of the frustrated masculinity which has caused them in the first place. The corruption of the war has come to the bamboo grove and set light to the last vestiges of hope in taking from these already impoverished women their very source of life. A sorry tale of despair and futility, Burning Mountain spins a tale of weak men and resilient women whose solidarity is bought through a mutual satisfaction cruelly ended by an austere and unforgiving regime.


Burning Mountain is available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.