Black Hair (검은 머리, Lee Man-hee, 1964)

Black Hair 1964 posterFilm noir can be the most contradictory of genres. A moralistic world filled with immortality, fatalism mixed with existential angst, and a rage against society which is always tinged with a resignation to living on its margins. Genre in Korean cinema has always been a little more fluid than elsewhere and Lee Man-hee’s seminal crime thriller Black Hair (검은 머리, Geomeun Meori) is also a melodrama – the story of a self loathing man committed to his own arbitrary codes, and a woman he expects to pay the price for them.

In a brief prologue that has little to do with the ongoing narrative, ruthless gangster Dong-il (Jang Dong-hui) extorts a corrupt CEO by blackmailing him over some illicit smuggling. Meanwhile, across town, the gangster’s wife, Yeon-sil (Moon Jeong-suk), meets with a man, Man-ho (Chae Rang), in a hotel room. She’s come to pay him off, hoping it will be for the last time but Manh-ho, an opium addict, knows he’s onto an endless cash cow and refuses to put an end to their “arrangement”. Sometime ago, Man-ho raped Yeon-sil and has been blackmailing her for money and sexual favours ever since. Yeon-sil threatens to tell her husband and the police and suffer the consequences, but Man-ho knows she won’t. Dong-il’s gang have a strict rule about adultery and if Yeon-sil trusted him enough to believe he would believe her about the rape, she would have told him already.

Another goon hides behind a screen, snapping photos of Yeon-sil and Man-ho which he later passes on to Dong-il. The boss is shocked and shaken. He knows he has to enforce the rules he himself set down for the gang, but he never expected them to cost him his wife. Eventually Dong-il orders an underling to slash Yeon-sil’s face with a broken bottle, after which she is exiled from the gang. Anyone who tries to repair her scars or help her in any other way will be treated as an enemy.

At this point the narrative splits as Yeon-sil is cast down into a sleazy underworld, living with her blackmailer who pimps her out as a common streetwalker and then steals all her money to spend on drugs and booze. She pines for her husband whom she has been prevented from seeing, longing to at least explain why she did what she did and ensure he knows that her heart has always been with him. Dong-il, by contrast, is going to pieces – his gang no longer respect him, he feels guilty about the way he treated his wife, and he has no idea where to go from here.

Unlike other films of the era or film noir in general, Lee’s world view is non-judgemental in its treatment of the respective paths of Yeon-sil and Dong-il. Yeon-sil is left with no choice than to enter into a life of casual prostitution and the film forgives her for this – the fault is that of Dong-il and Man-ho rather than her own. Having been horribly scarred, she wears her hair longer on one side to hide her disfigurement but is constantly reminded of her emotional damage through its physical manifestation and the reactions it often elicits. Picking up a client in the street, she’s threatened with violence and cruel words for having “deceived” him when he catches sight of her disfigured face. A passing taxi driver witnesses the attack and challenges the man so Yeon-sil can escape. The cabbie then hires her and they spend the night together in a nearby brothel. He surprises Yeon-sil by being entirely unfazed about her facial scarring, offering to help her get it treated if that’s what she wants, and making it clear he would like to spend more time with her off the clock.

Yeon-sil’s life is completely controlled by her triangular relationship to the three men – her unforgiving husband Dong-il, the cruel and venal Man-ho, and the good and decent cab driver. After meeting the cabbie, Yeon-sil tries to see Dong-il again but his boys stop her. They say they’ll take her to see him, but really they’re planning quite another destination. Luckily, in a staggering coincidence, they’re spotted by the taxi driver who once again saves Yeon-sil, taking her home to stay with him and proposing they embark on a more formal relationship.

This is more of a problem than it seems for Dong-il’s guys who now fear their boss will find out they tried to kill his wife in an effort to wake him up from his ongoing existential malaise. The rules of the gang are tough and clear – adultery is not permissible, no woman is allowed to leave, no exceptions are to be made. Dong-il, however, is beginning to rethink the code he himself designed. A conversation with his childhood nanny throws up a number of interesting questions. She blames herself for giving Dong-il “evil” milk which has led to his spiritual corruption, though Dong-il later tells Yeon-sil that he did not choose evil so much evil chose him. He created these “evil” gang rules, but failed to live up to them in continuing to feel attached to Yeon-sil – he feels he must punish himself for the “sin” of being unable to forget her and abide by his own honour system which he now feels to be pointless and arbitrary. Effectively issuing himself a death sentence, Dong-il changes tack confirming that he has, in a sense, chosen evil even if it was a “choice” of refusing to resist the path set down for him. Suddenly realising the emotion he felt for Yeon-sil was love, he is struck by a terrible feeling of loneliness. 

As in much of Lee’s work, Yeon-sil and Dong-il are trapped by their own society and belief systems and finally perhaps by feeling. Yeong-sil is frequently captured behind bars or caught in a window, imprisoned within the frame as she tries to reconcile herself to her precarious position, daring to hope for a new, decent life with the good hearted taxi driver while also mourning her love for Dong-il and living with the humiliation caused to her by Man-ho. Lee’s structure is sometimes unclear as he introduces a fairly pointless subplot about the taxi driver’s modern woman little sister who has moved out to be independent but works in a hostess bar, inhabiting the same sleazy world as Yeon-sil and Dong-il, only more innocently, but never does much with it beyond contrasting the lives of the two women who occupy slightly different generations and have very different options open to them. There’s a fatalism and inevitability in the way Yeong-sil and Dong-il live their lives to which the taxi driver and his sister do not quite subscribe but Lee breaks with the genre’s trademark pessimism to offer the glimmer of a bittersweet ending and the chance of a new beginning for the much abused Yeon-sil now freed of her dark associations.


Black Hair is the second in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet. (Not currently available to stream online)

M (엠, Lee Myung-se, 2007)

“More specific, less poetic” the distressed author hero of Lee Myung-se’s M (엠) repeatedly types after a difficult conversation with his editor. Almost a meta comment on Lee’s process, it’s just as well that it’s advice he didn’t take – M is a noir poem, a metaphor for an artist’s torture, and a living ghost story in which a man shifts between worlds of memory, haunted and hunted by unidentifiable pain. Reality, dream, and madness mingle and merge as a single kernel of confusion causes widespread panic in a desperate writer’s already strained mind.

A young woman haunts the screen, pleading with us to remember her and be sad. She is a dream, a visitation into the mind of blocked writer Han Min-woo (Gang Dong-Won) whose publishers are eagerly awaiting the completion of his next manuscript. Back in the real world, the same young woman appears around Min-woo but seems to be in an entirely different plane of existence, completely invisible to the man she claims to love. Eventually Min-woo enters a mysterious back alley bar and finally engages with the girl, Mimi (Lee Yeon-Hee), before blacking out and forgetting all about the whole thing.

Reality resets once again and we realise Min-woo is about to be married to Eun-hye (Kong Hyo-Jin) – the daughter of a wealthy man who seems to approve of the marriage if not, exactly, Min-woo’s literary career. Min-woo should be happy – he’s getting married to a woman he appears to care for, has been successful in his career, and has everything pretty much set for life at only 29. Min-woo is not happy. Persistent writer’s block means he’s written almost nothing with a deadline approaching, he’s worrying about money, and somehow or other he can’t quite commit to Eun-hye – there is something nagging at his mind, but try as he might he cannot say what.

Min-woo is worried enough to visit a psychiatrist but the doctor offers little more than a bottle of prozac and an instruction to call back in the morning. His mental state is clearly fracturing but even objectively his manner is strange, suddenly shouting or issuing orders in a shocking break from his generally mild mannered exterior. As if the mounting pressure of his overdue manuscript weren’t enough, Min-woo is extremely insecure in his literary talents. He views himself as a successful hack, berating those who dare to praise his work as fans of cheap trash.

Yet his internal world seems to be defined by potboiler hardboiled with its rain drenched streets, foggy avenues, and smokey bars peopled by miserable whiskey drinking men and omniscient bartenders. Describing the process of piecing his fractured mind back together as re-editing a film in which several frames are missing, Min-woo quickly becomes lost inside his own internal landscape, trying to locate the wound to stem the bleed but finding it ever elusive. Mimi is more than a spectral figment of his imagination. A living personification of the living past, her presence haunts him with the power of mystery, like something unforgettable which has long been forgotten.

In the end, Min-woo’s creative madness is a salve for an internal scar but its final resolution may be its own undoing. A love story and a ghost story, Min-woo’s crisis is every man’s obsession with lost love. Guilt mingles with pain and regret but also with existential confusion and unresolvable loss. As he later puts it, you lose things, often the things which are most important to you – it is a part (and a privilege, in someone else’s words) of being alive. You try to bury your pain in oblivion but eventually the things you’ve lost will be returned in unclear or unexpected ways. Min-woo may have made peace with himself (or this aspect of himself), allowed a ghost to bid him goodbye, but then again, perhaps he only dreamed himself free and is forever condemned to remember and be sad.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Rainy Dog (極道黒社会, Takashi Miike, 1997)

rainy-dogThey say dogs get disorientated by the rain, all those useful smells they use to navigate the world get washed away as if someone had suddenly crumpled up their internal maps and thrown them in the waste paper bin. Yuji (Show Aikawa), the hero of Rainy Dog (極道黒社会, Gokudo Kuroshakai) – the second instalment in what is loosely thought of as Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy, appears to be in a similar position as he hides out in Taipei only to find himself with no home to return to. Miike is not generally known for contemplative mood pieces, but Rainy Dog finds him feeling introspective. A noir inflected, western inspired tale of existential reckoning, this is Miike at his most melancholy but perhaps also at his most forgiving as his weary hitman lays down his burdens to open his heart only to embrace the cold steel of his destiny rather than the warmth of his redemption.

Yuji’s day job seems to be hulking pig carcasses around at the meat market but he’s also still acting as a button man for the local Taiwanese mob while he lies low and avoids trouble in Taipei following some kind of incident with his clan in Japan. Receiving a call to the effect that following a change of management it will never be safe for him to go home, Yuji is as lost as a dog after the rain but if there’s one thing he hadn’t banked on it was the appearance of a rather sharp Taiwanese woman who suddenly introduces him to a mute little boy who is supposedly his son. Yuji is not the fatherly type and does not exactly take to his new responsibilities. He half remembers the woman, but can’t place her name and isn’t even sure he ever slept with her in the first place. Nevertheless, Ah Chen follows Yuji around like a lost little puppy.

Two more meetings will conspire to change Yuji’s life – firstly a strange, besuited Japanese man (Tomorowo Taguchi) who seems to snooze on rooftops in a sleeping bag and is intent on getting the drop of Yuji for undisclosed reasons, and the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold (and a fancy computer for running an internet blog) with whom he will form a temporary makeshift family. Getting mixed up in something he shouldn’t Yuji’s cards are numbered, but then it couldn’t have been any other way.

As in Shinjuku Triad Society, Miike returns to the nature of family and of the tentative bonds which emerge between people who have been rejected from mainstream society. Yuji is a displaced person, forced out of his homeland and lost in a foreign city. Though he appears to have a good grasp of the local language, the landscape confuses him as he wanders through it like the man with no name, adrift and permanently shielded by his sunglasses. The Taiwanese gangster he’s been freelancing for repeatedly describes him as “like a son” despite the fact that they seem to be around the same age but it’s clear that he could have Yuji eliminated in a heartbeat if he found he’d outlived his usefulness.

Similarly, Yuji does not immediately jump into a paternal mindset when presented with this strangely cheerful young boy. Eventually he lets him come out of the rain and presents him with a towel, greeting him with the words “you’re not a dog” but subsequently abandons him for what seems like ages during his time with the prostitute, Lily, who describes his tattoos as beautiful and shares his dislike of the intense Taipei rain. Asked if she’s ever considered going somewhere sunnier, Lily admits that she has but the fear that perhaps it would all be the same (only less wet) has put her off. Perhaps it’s better to live in hope, than test it and find out it was misplaced.

Gradually, Yuji begins to a least develop a protective instinct for Ah Chen as well as some kind of feeling for Lily which leads him to carry out another hit in order to give her the money to escape on the condition that she take Ah Chen with her. However the trio get ambushed on their way out ending up at a beach leaving them with nowhere left to run, signalling the impossibility of getting off this inescapable island. Just when it seems all hope is lost, Ah Chen finds a buried scooter which he and Lilly begin to dig up. Eventually, Yuji joins them, fully confirming his commitment to the mini family they’ve accidentally formed as they work together to build themselves a way out. Yuji’s decision separate from them and return to the world of crime, albeit temporary, will be a final one in which he, by accident or design, rejects the possibility of a more conventional family life with Ah Chen and Lilly for the destiny which has been dogging him all along.

Birth and death become one as Yuji regains his humanity only to have it taken from him by a man exactly mirroring his journey. There are no theatrics here, this is Miike in paired down, naturalistic mode willing to let this classic story play out for all that it is. Working with a Taiwanese crew and capturing the depressed backstreet world of our three outcasts trapped by a Taipei typhoon for all of its existential angst, Rainy Dog is Miike at his most melancholic, ending on a note of futility in which all hope for any kind of change or salvation has been well and truly extinguished.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Yokohama BJ Blues (ヨコハマBJブルース, Eiichi Kudo, 1981)

Yokohama bj bluesYusaku Matsuda may have been the coolest action star of the ‘70s but by the end of the decade he was getting bored with his tough guy persona and looked to diversify his range a little further than his recent vehicles had allowed him. Matsuda had already embarked on a singing career some years before but in Eiichi Kudo’s Yokohama BJ Blues (ヨコハマBJブルース), he was finally allowed to display some of his musical talents on screen as a blues singer and ex-cop who makes ends meet through his work as a detective for hire.

After his set at a rundown jazz bar, BJ’s first job is tracking down a missing son. When he finds the guy, Akira, he seems to have become the employee (and possible sex slave?) of a gay gangster. Akira says he’s fine with his new life and wants his mother to leave him alone so BJ gets the hell out of there to give her the message but the unpleasantness of the situation lingers with him a little.

Shortly after, BJ receives a telephone call from an old police buddy, Ryo, who needs his help. Ryo got in too deep with the same gang BJ just came up against and is thinking of quitting the force in a bid to make the “Family” lose interest in him. However, Ryo is gunned down in broad daylight leaving his partner, Beniya, convinced that BJ is somehow responsible. BJ now doubly has it in for Family and starts working on his own behalf to try and find some answers and possibly a little vengeance too.

You see, back when Ryo and BJ were partners, they both liked the same girl, Tamiko, who eventually married Ryo. Beniya thinks BJ killed his friend to steal his wife and is much more interested in giving BJ a good kicking rather than investigating this very strange gang set up which seems to have some kind of drug smuggling gig going with the triads in Hong Kong.

BJ forms an odd sort of friendship with Akira in the hopes of tracking down the four gay, leather clad punk henchmen of Ali who probably gunned down his friend. However, the conspiracy only deepens and BJ finds himself suspecting even his closest of friends.

With its jazz soundtrack and melancholy tone, Yokohama BJ Blues is channelling hard boiled in a big way though does so in a distinctly modern fashion. BJ sings the blues whilst walking around this strange noir world which seems to endlessly disappoint him. Unfortunately for him, BJ is quite a good detective and quickly gets himself in way over his head only to end up finding out a few things it might be better not to know.

One of the film’s most notable components is its use of homoerotic themes with its gangs of gay gangsters, rent boys and punks. Indeed, though the wife of his former partner is floated as a possible motive, the love interest angle is never fully explored and all of BJ’s significant interactions in the film are with other men. Firstly his relationship with his former police partner Ryo which kick starts the entire adventure and then his strange almost date-like experience with Akira about half way through. BJ remains otherwise alone, a solo voice seeking justice for his fallen friends.

Of course, the film’s selling point is Matsuda’s singing so he’s allowed to play his own chorus in a sense by narrating the events from the stage in the form of the blues. Not quite “The Singing Detective”, but almost – BJ tries to bring some kind of order to his world by turning it into a song. In addition to adding to the noir tone, the bluesy soundtrack even allows for a New Orleans-esque musical funeral which oddly fits right in with the film’s weird, macabre atmosphere.

A surreal, noir inspired crime drama with musical elements, Yokohama BJ Blues is quite a hard film to categorise. Unusual for its homosexual milieu and overt homoerotic plotting the film occupies something of a unique place given its obvious marketing potential and star’s profile coupled with its decidedly murky noir tone. Difficult, yet interesting, Yokohama BJ Blues ultimately succeeds both as an intriguing crime drama and as a star vehicle for its versatile leading man.


This is a really, deeply, strange film.

Unsubtitled trailer:

I actually quite like Matsuda’s foray into the world of jazz, the title song from Yokohama BJ Blues which is heard in the trailer is called Brother’s Song and is included on Matsuda’s 1981 album Hardest Day. Here he is on a talk show singing Yokohama Honky Tonk Blues:

Voice Without a Shadow (影なき声, Seijun Suzuki, 1958)

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Make friends with this Oni mask – you will be seeing a lot of him throughout the film.

Seijun Suzuki might be best remembered for his surrealist pop art masterpieces from the late sixties or his even less comprehensible art films which followed his return to directing after settling his dispute with Nikkatsu, but everyone’s got to start somewhere and it comes as something of a relief to know that Suzuki was perfectly capable of making a straightforward movie if he wanted to. Voice Without a Shadow (影なき声, Kagenaki Koe) is exactly what it sounds like – a fifties style, US inspired noir however, Suzuki adds his usual flourishes and manages to wrong foot us pretty the whole way through so that we never end up where we thought it was that we were going.

To begin with, our story is fairly straightforward. Reporter Ishikawa (Hideaki Nitani) provides our film noir style voice over as switchboard operator Asako (Yoko Minamida) accidentally dials a wrong number only have it picked up by a strange man who tells her she’s rung a crematorium then laughs hysterically. It turns out that the number was actually for a pawn shop which was in the process of being knocked over and the owner killed – Asako heard the perpetrator’s voice and thanks to her switchboard experience isn’t going to forget it. Ishikawa grows closer to Asako as the case becomes a media sensation but backs off after learning she’s already engaged.

Three years later Asako hears the voice again – a friend of her husband’s who keeps co-opting their living room for mahjong games that go on for days and cost everyone but him a lot of money. Before long Hamazaki (Jo Shishido) is found dead and Asako’s husband is the prime suspect but did he really do it? And if he didn’t, does Ishikawa really want to find out who did?

As you can see it’s a story that wouldn’t be out of place in any B movie noir from the fifties and the telephone set up is even a little reminiscent of Sorry, Wrong Number (though that film has a very different conclusion indeed). Based on a short story by Seicho Matsumoto, Voice, Voice Without a Shadow is full of the classic play of light and shadow that characterises the best film noir and the mood is ably supported by a suitably jazzy score from Hikaru Hayashi. If there’s a criticism to be made in this area, it’s that Nitani’s Ishikawa is a little too nice and pure hearted in comparison to the broken hearted heroes from the detective serials. He seems content to try and help Asako whilst uncovering the truth even if it ends up costing him in the end.

Although Asako herself is technically the leading character she quickly gets relegated to a more conventional woman in peril role. She is the one who recognises Hamazaki’s voice and the only clue linking him to the pawn shop murder three years ago but, while he’s alive anyway, Hamazaki is more interested in having fun terrorising everyone rather than trying to rub her out. In fact, the sudden demise of Hamazaki, played by an extremely young Jo Shishido, is one of the most surprising things about the film in which you’d expect him to remain the central antagonist right up until the grand finale.

Voice Without a Shadow is then a fairly conventional, noir inflected B movie which wears its Hollywood influences on its sleeve. However, there are glimpses of Suzuki’s individual style leaking through such as in his occasional and surprising use of double exposure, innovative composition and other modernist techniques which all help to lift the rather workmanlike script onto another level. In someways, it’s all a little too nice – even Hamazaki’s nasty lowlife activities are neatly skirted around almost like a film noir that’s been through a car wash though its strange pleasantness also has a nicely refreshing quality.

A minor film from the master of the surreal then, but an interesting one none the less. The mystery element proves satisfying even if it could do with a little more dirt under its fingernails and the committed performances also do their bit to enhance the mood. A prime example of its genre, Voice Without a Shadow is a notably restrained entry in Suzuki’s back catalogue but its classical style mixed with an offbeat, absurdist undercurrent make it one worth seeking out.


Voice Without a Shadow is the first film included in Arrow’s Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Vol. 1 collection.