Seven People in the Cellar (지하실의 7인 / 地下室의 七人, Lee Seong-gu, 1969)

Seven People in the Cellar posterThe “literary film” was beginning to fall out of favour by 1969. The collapse of the quota system introduced under the 1962 Motion Picture Law, the exclusion of literary film from the “Domestic Films of Excellence” programme (which encouraged producers to produce high quality Korean films to qualify for distributing more lucrative foreign ones), and the rise of television all conspired to produce a shift towards the populist. Lee Seong-gu had made his name with a series of literary adaptations which enabled him to experiment with form in the comparatively more elevated “arthouse” arena but with horizons shrinking even he found himself with nowhere left turn. Seven People in the Cellar (지하실의 7인 / 地下室의 七人 *, Jihasil-ui Chil-in) is Lee’s last “literary film” and is adapted from a stage play by Yun Jo-byeong who was apparently unhappy with Lee’s adaptation in its abandonment of his carefully constructed ideological balance in favour of adhering to the typical rhetoric of the “anti-communist” film.

Set towards the end of the Korean War, Seven in People in the Cellar presents itself as a conflict between the godless and hypocritical forces of communism and the good and righteous Catholic Church. Accordingly, our hero is a priest, Father Ahn (Heo Jang-gang), who has just returned to his church after being forced to flee by the encroaching “puppet army”. Accompanied by a nun, Lucia (Yun So-ra), and a new curate, Brother Jeong (Lee Soon-jae), Father Ahn is glad to be reunited with his flock but there are dark spectres even here – Maria (Yoon Jeong-hee), a young woman Ahn was forced to leave behind when he fled, runs away from the priest on catching sight of him, apparently out of shame. Meanwhile, while Ahn was away, three rogue Communists began squatting in his cellar waiting for the “reinforcements” which are supposedly going to retake the town. Taking Sister Lucia hostage, the Communists force Ahn to feed them while keeping their existence a secret. To Jeong’s consternation, Ahn agrees but out of Christian virtues rather than fear – he feels the Communists too are lost children of God and have been sent to him so that he may guide them back towards the light.

Not a natural fit for the world of the anti-communist film, Lee does his best to undermine the prevalent ideology even if he must in the end come down hard with Ahn’s essential moral goodness. Thus, Communists aside, the conflict becomes one of age and youth, male and female, as much as between “right” and “wrong” or “North” and “South”. Jeong, youthful and hotheaded, lacks Ahn’s Christian compassion – he bristles when Ahn immediately sets about feeding the starving villagers with their own rations, and disagrees with his decision to harbour the Communists even while knowing that Lucia’s life is at stake if they refuse. Twice he tries to kill the communist “enemy”, threatened by their ideological opposition to his own cause – once when he enters the cellar and misinterprets an altercation between Lucia and sympathetic soldier Park (Park Geun-hyeong), and secondly when the troop’s female commander, Ok (Kim Hye-jeong), attempts to seduce him.

Sexuality becomes spiritual battleground with Christian chastity winning out over Communist free love. Ok, as unsympathetic a communist as it’s possible to be, is sexually liberated and provocative. She suggestively loosens her shirt and fondles her breast in front of a confused junior officer, later taking him into the forest and more or less ordering him to make love to her (which he, eventually, does). However, it is to her simply a matter of a need satisfied. Ok describes the moment she has just shared with her comrade as no different than sharing a meal. She was “hungry”, she ate. When she’s hungry again she will eat again but there’s no more to it than that and there is no emotional or spiritual component in her act of “lovemaking”, only the elimination of a nagging hunger. 

Ok’s transgressive and “amoral” sexuality is contrasted with that of the abused Maria who was tortured and later raped by the Communists’ commanding officer. Forced to betray a nun, she was robbed not only of her innocence but also of her faith. Maria is the “pure woman” corrupted by Communist cruelty. Her chastity was removed from her by force, and she sees no other option than to continue to ruin herself in atonement for her “sin”. Unable to live with the consequences of her actions, she sees no way out other than madness or martyrdom.

The fact that Maria’s torturer is another woman, and such an atypical woman at that, is another facet of the Communist’s animalistic inhumanity. As in The General’s Mustache, the Communists are seen to use innocent children as bargaining chips when ordinary torture fails, even this time killing one to prevent him telling the village about their hiding place. Yet the height of their cruelty is perhaps in their indifference to each other – Park, touched by Sister Lucia’s refusal to leave when he tried to let her go fearing that he would face reprisals, announces his intention to defect to the South and is shot dead by his commander in cold and brutal fashion. Park’s defection is a minor “win” for Ahn who sought restore the Communists’ sense of humanity and bring their souls to God, but it’s also born of misogynistic pique in his intense resentment of the “bossy” Ok who turns out to be an undercover officer from HQ on a special mission to spy against him.

With the one redeemed Communist dead, all that remains is for the others is to slowly destroy themselves. Ahn, cool and composed in absolute faith, waits patiently certain that the friendly South Korean soldiers will shortly liberate them. A hero priest, Ahn is the saintly opposite of the Communists’ cruelty in his compassionate determination to save them even at the risk of his own life. Lee keeps the tension high, creating siege drama that feels real and human in contrast with the often didactic and heavily stylised narrative of the “anti-communist” film, subtly muddying the essential messages but allowing Ahn’s compassion (rather than his “faith”) to shine through as the best weapon against oppressive inhumanity.


Seven People in the Cellar is the fourth and final film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Not currently available to stream online.

* In rendering the Hanja title, the landscape poster uses the arabic numeral 7 while the portrait version uses the Chinese character 七.

The Sea Knows (玄海灘은 알고 있다 / 현해탄은 알고 있다, Kim Ki-young, 1961)

The Sea Knows posterThe Korea of 1961 was a land in flux. The corrupt regime of Rhee Syngman had been brought to its knees following mass protests regarding the rigged 1960 elections but hopes for a new democracy were cut short when military General Park Chung-hee staged a coup, later declaring himself president for life and continuing his authoritarian rule until he was assassinated by one of his own subordinates. Kim Ki-young’s The Sea Knows (玄海灘은 알고 있다 / 현해탄은 알고 있다, Hyeonhaetaneun Algoitta) arrived perhaps at just the right time, ducking under the radar before the Motion Picture Law of 1962 would forever change the industry and if not prevent at least frustrate any attempt to discuss the controversial themes at the heart of Kim’s drama. The Sea Knows is, like much of Kim’s work, a tale of power and desire only this time on a wider scale as he examines the complicated relationship between Korea and Japan as mediated through romantic melodrama.

We open in 1944. Korean student Aro-un (Kim Wun-ha) has been conscripted into the Japanese army following an incident in which he embarrassed a high-ranking official (something which has made him a local hero at home). Despite the fact that Korea has been inducted into the Japanese empire and Koreans are now sons of the emperor too, the regular Japanese troops are not exactly grateful for service of their brethren from across the sea. Koreans are a pain, they decry. They’re always going on about justice and fairness. They won’t just shut up and take their lumps like regular Japanese soldiers. The “50 year tradition” of the Japanese army is to break the will of new recruits through violence, strip them of their individuality, and reduce them to a finely tuned hive mind.

Needless to say, Aro-un is not eager to comply. There’s a strong strain of homoeroticism in the strangely camp banter between the higher-ups. At the first inspection the commanding officer takes a good look at Aro-un, decides he resembles a “cute puppy” and recommends he come to his room to get some “biscuits”. Meanwhile a particularly sadistic NCO, Mori (Lee Ye-chun), pinches the chest of Aro-run’s judo champion friend Inoue (Lee Sang-sa) and decides he’ll not be an easy target – unlike the short and wiry Aro-un who is too righteous to know what’s good for him. Mori, an insecure and under qualified NCO, makes use of men like Aro-un to entrench his own position through the “50 year tradition” of military discipline. The humiliations mount until Aro-un is forced to lick Mori’s excrement encrusted boots in punishment for having failed to polish them to his satisfaction.

Yet, unlike in the majority of Korean films dealing with war and occupation, the Japanese are not universally bad – there are many just like Aro-un who are uncomfortable with the militarist line and are doing what they can to resist, albeit often passively. Aro-un’s university friend, Nakamura (Kim Jin-kyu), is just such a man, turning down the possibilities of promotion to avoid endorsing the regime while acknowledging that there is little more he can do to free himself from it. It’s through Nakamura that Aro-un meets his own source of salvation in the unlikely figure of a young Japanese woman – Nakamura’s sister Hideko (Gong Midori). Hideko originally betrays the common prejudice against Koreans in claiming that the perpetrators of a nearby robbery were most likely Korean seeing as Koreans can’t get jobs and therefore have no other options than to steal, though in retrospect perhaps her assertions were a more logical comment on poverty and entrenched oppression than they were on racial stereotyping.

Hideko is, as Aro-un later points out, a very unusual Japanese woman. A free spirit, she finds herself drawn to Aro-un and is committed to pursuing a course of true feeling over that laid down by the codes of her society, choosing his sensitivity over the brutalisation of her militarist nation. War, Aro-un muses philosophically, is about the manipulation of the present. Love is about the foundation of a future. Yet there is also something dark and imbalanced even in their otherwise pure romance as each finds themselves becoming a symbol of suffering and violence. Aro-un is drawn to Hideko’s unexpected warmth as she sheds tears for his suffering on hearing of his various degradations, seeing no difference in the tears of a Japanese woman and those of his Korean mother who each felt his pain as their own, but Hideko’s insistence on hearing of his latest humiliations almost takes on a sadistic quality as the pair become bound by suffering as much as by innocent connection.

Kim’s central tenet is a bold one for the increasingly volatile world of 1961, making a case for borderless connection over nationalistic chest thumping and championing the resilience of the human spirit as well as the enduring power of love as a counter to the horrors of war. War is, in another of Aro-un’s philosophical musings, just something that happens to you and makes enemies of those who might have been friends. Making extensive use of stock footage and model shots, Kim plunges Aro-un into a fiery hell from which only love and will can save him. An unexpectedly nuanced but no less harrowing tale of wartime brutalisation and spiritual resistance, The Sea Knows is an impassioned plea for humanity in an inhumane age in which there are no heroes and no villains, only victims and resistors caught in a vast web of power and madness.


The Sea Knows was screened as part of the Korean Cultural Centre’s Korean Film Nights 2018: Rebels with a Cause series. You can also watch it online for free courtesy of the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel. The existing print is, however, incomplete and badly damaged – four sequences in which there is picture but no sound or sound but no picture are missing / unsubtitled in the online version but are present in the restoration.

Barefooted Youth (맨발의 청춘, Kim Ki-duk, 1964)

barefooted Youth posterThe “Seishun Eiga” or youth movie had long been a staple of Japanese cinema by the time the short-lived “Sun Tribe” movement took hold in the mid-1950s, but, for understandable reasons, it did not make its way to Korea until a decade or so later. When it comes to so called “adolescent films”, Kim Ki-duk’s 1964 Barefooted Youth (맨발의 청춘, Maenbaleui cheongchun) is hard to beat. The film had, in fact, been filtered through Japanese cinema as its star Shin Seong-il – then riding high as a youth idol and wanting to star in as many youth movies as he could before his era came to an end, had seen Ko Nakahira’s Dorodarake no Junjo which starred ’50s idol Sayuri Yoshinaga alongside her frequent co-star Mitsuo Harada in a tragic tale of love across the class divide (this enduring story was later remade in 1977 with another idol, Momoe Yamaguchi, as the female lead). Shin was keen to star in a remake of Dorodake no Junjo and petitioned his studio to set it up. The plot of Kim’s version is almost identical and was widely seen as a deceitful remake at the time of its release, but that’s not to say it failed to speak of a certain kind of hopelessness among the young people of Korea battling valiantly against an unforgiving society.

Petty gang errand boy Du-su (Shin Seong-il) has been sent on an important mission to deliver some smuggled watches to a fence. On his way out, his boss reminds him not to get into unnecessary fights and risk being late for this very important date. Du-su ignores him and comes to the defence of two nervous middle-class girls in the middle of being mugged by thugs of a different nature. One of the other thugs has a knife and stabs Du-su in the stomach, causing him to drop the prosthetic arm he’s been wearing “as a joke” as well as one of the watches. Turning the knife back on the attacker, Du-su gets away and eventually delivers the goods.

This event profoundly alters Du-su’s future prospects, firstly because he’s brought himself to the attention of the police and also risked putting them on the gang’s trail if the police have picked up the missing watch and discovered it’s a smuggled Hong Kong knock off that might be connected to Du-su. Secondly, the woman Du-su saved, an Ambassador’s daughter called Johanna (Um Aing-ran), is overly grateful and quickly becomes attached to him. 

Johanna is everything Du-su is not – wealthy, cultured, elegant, and religious. Her world could not be more different than Du-su’s yet there is an inescapable bond that exists between them. Unlike many class difference love stories, both parties move closer towards the centre, trying out the other’s world and finding it different but perhaps not impossible. After their first few hours together when Johanna finds her way to Du-su’s run down flat in a lower class neighbourhood, Du-su puts on a Beethoven record at his local club (much to the consternation of the other patrons) and orders himself a glass of juice, while Johanna swaps her usual bible based bedtime reading material for an English language boxing magazine and takes her first swigs of whisky directly from the bottle.

However, trying out the other world for real does not go as well – Du-su, having overdone it with a formal tail coat, falls asleep at a concert, while Johanna finds it difficult to adjust to the rowdiness of the boxing ring. When Johanna finally takes Du-su home, hoping her mother will help him find an honest job so he can go straight, his presence is met with horror and a meal with a hoped for ally goes about as wrong as it possibly could, exposing Du-su’s lack of sophistication as he picks up a steak to eat with his hands (not being confident with a knife and fork), and then spills water all over the hostess who points out his lack of employable skills. 

Trapped on all sides – by the gangsters worried he’ll expose them, by his origins as the son of a prostitute and a man who died in jail, and by the general lack of opportunities for poor boys in economically straightened 1960s Korea, Du-su has nowhere left to go. Johanna is also trapped, in a sense, by a prospective arranged marriage and an overbearing but well meaning mother determined to send her abroad to save her from her reckless amour fou. Du-su, facing prison and life in a gang, and Johanna facing losing love for respectability, have hit an impasse. Having managed to transcend their class differences on a personal level, they see no way they can ever be together and if they cannot be together in life then they see no option but to escape from a world which has no place for them.

The economic inequality and enduring inviability of their love is signalled in the closing scenes in which Johanna’s funeral procession is several miles long with flowers and hearses and a crowd of mourners dressed in white. Meanwhile, Du-su’s body, barefoot and covered by a sheet on the back of a cart being pulled by his grief-stricken friend, is unattended. Not only could they not be together in life, they are forever separated even in death. As in the title of the Japanese film (taken directly from the book which inspired it), it is the lovers’ “purity” which comes to define them and adds extra poignancy to their fate. Du-su and Johanna share a single kiss but Kim obscures it from view, photographing the pair through a window pane in which the crossbars once again divide them. When the bodies are discovered, the first question that is asked is if they had had sex before they died – the answer is a resounding “no”, to which the man replies “good, I’m glad” though he is not especially referring to the poetry of their chastity in death but some kind of pointless and retrospective moral judgement on the “illicit” quality of their relationship.

Unlike the respective Japanese versions which tend to pivot around the leading actress (here Shin is the star, but both the actresses in the 1963 and 1977 versions were the headliners) Barefooted Youth tilts towards Du-su who literally becomes the “barefooted youth” of the title on his funeral cart, causing his friend (whose feelings are perhaps more than those of brotherhood) to remove his own shoes and place them on Du-su’s icy feet, trudging through the snow in his socks remarking that Du-su’s burial is witness to a greater and warmer love than the superficial flashiness of Johanna’s procession. Having resented Johanna for taking his friend away, he now respects her for joining him in death. The tragic end of these two young people is not only a romantic tale of doomed love, but an indictment of an unforgiving society in which social inequality, entrenched social codes, and the rigidity of the older generation have destroyed youth’s expectations of a brighter future. Du-su’s final advice to his friend is to live his life to the fullest and die without without regrets while he dreams only of being like a white crane flying in the blue sky, a pure soul enduring in eternity.


Available to watch on the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel and as part of the Kim Ki-duk DVD box set.