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.

The Descendants of Cain (카인의 후예 / 카인의 後裔, Yu Hyun-mok, 1968)

Descendents of Cain poster 1Yu Hyun-mok, often regarded as among the more “intellectual” of film directors in Korea’s Golden Age, is also among those to have been arrested for violation of the Anti-Communist laws. Yu was later exonerated and went back to filmmaking as before but it remains true that Yu betrays a little more ambivalence to the anti-communist message so often required than many of his colleagues. That is to say, Yu often leans economically left in his frequent criticism of social inequality and his anti-consumerist stance, but remains socially conservative if with a strong desire for social justice. The Descendants of Cain (카인의 후예 / 카인의 後裔, Kainui Huyea), adapted from a novel by Hwang Sun-won, is as anti-communist as they come, but also offers its share of ironies in painting “communism” as a kind of disease born of greed and self-interest which thrives on fear and eventually consumes those who are seduced by its false promises.

Irony is indeed our starting point as our cheerful villagers enjoy a raucous celebration in honour of Independence Day only for the communists to suddenly turn up and spoil the party. Worst of all, one of the communists is a long lost son of the village – Choe is the absentee husband of Ojaknyeo (Moon Hee), a maid, who has developed an affection for her boss, the nephew of the local landlord, Park Hun (Kim Jin-kyu). The communists’ first action is to close down the school that Park Hun opened to provide education for the peasants and co-opt it as their base. Park knows he’s in a dangerous position and has little power to resist, opting to wait it out and see how far the communists really intend to go. The peasants, however, are becoming excited hearing about the land redistribution programme and are starting to forget everything that Park and his family have done for them over the generations, swayed by the false promises of the communists who preach equality while insisting on deference.

The central conflict is, in many ways, between the feudal past and the “democratic” future. Set in what would shortly the “the north” in 1946, Descendants of Cain positions itself on more than one kind of dividing line with the lingering spectre of tragedy always on the horizon. High on a ridge there’s a large stone slab erected as a memorial to the late Park, Park Hun’s grandfather, whose solicitous care for the villagers had earned their eternal respect and perhaps their love. The Parks are “good” landlords. They take their “feudal” responsibilities seriously as evidenced by Park Hun’s school and his father’s desire to finish construction on the local reservoir which is both his legacy and an important failsafe precaution against draught which is in the interests of all. By all appearances this is a well functioning village where no one is hungry or alone. The peasants have not felt “oppressed” or been unhappy, which is not to say they don’t want to better their lot but they have no burning desire for revolution and have nothing in particular to rebel against.

This leaves the communists with a problem – they have little leverage over happy peasantry which has never acknowledged its own oppression let alone longed for freedom from it. Their approach is therefore one of divide and conquer. Cynical in the extreme, the communists set about exploiting petty village disputes to foster discord between people – something which eventually contributes to a murder which they also manipulate for political gain. The “landowners” are of course a prime target, but their judgement must be at the hands of “the people” by means of a farmers’ trial. Having recruited something close to a former village leader, the communists assume they will have the villagers on side but they all (bar two) refuse to indict the Parks. The communist leader, fond of irony, gestures towards towards his armed men and reminds the villagers that no one here is “impinging on their freedom”. That is, their freedom to express the views they are required to express or suffer the consequences.

Threatened with violence and intimidation, feudal deference bends or perhaps shifts to a different master. The villagers, losing their attachment to the Parks, salivate over the possibility of “redistribution” and of being handed “free land”. Their desires are material and not political. Thus when the Parks’ estate is “returned” to the people, they simply walk in and start taking things. Not the most sensible way to redistribute wealth concentrated in the hands of the elite – the fast get horses, the indecisive dented pans which sounds like a recipe for rancour and discontent. When the old village chief becomes disillusioned with his choices and smashes the memorial to old Park, a small fight breaks out among villagers keen to snag the large pieces of stone for various other projects. Happy peasants who once shared everything and wanted for nothing, are now fighting with each other over rubble and trinkets.

The communists, far from fostering collective spirit, have become the evil feudal lords they rail against, oppressing the peasants with their rules and regulations while wilfully creating an atmosphere of fear in order to better oppress them. Their hypocrisy is rammed home early on by the slimy Cheol who complains about his wife’s supposed faithlessness while molesting a barmaid and smugly repeating the story of a large scar he has on his forearm. His superior, believing he got the scar during a labour dispute at a mine, promoted him for his communist spirit, but Cheol really got the scar in a scuffle over a girl (not his wife, incidentally).

Cheol is “a” force which comes between the two lovers, Ojaknyeo and Park Hun, as both are too morally upright to pursue a full romance when Ojaknyeo is still married to another man, even if the other man’s first action on seeing her is to throw her to the ground and begin kicking the living daylights out of her. Later Ojaknyeo gets another, more serious, beating from her father but this time because she’s chosen the wrong side in refusing to step away from the feudal world in her responsibility to Park Hun and his household, even if that responsibility is partly romantic desire. Yet Park Hun and Ojaknyeo are also separated by the feudal world’s rules in their obvious class difference. Communism is supposed to break down these barriers, not to mention removing the “patriarchal tyranny” of marriage, yet the communists would rather award Ojaknyeo to her former husband, little caring that he is abusive and neglectful. Ojaknyeo, at least, will not be freed from her oppression any time soon.

If Yu is making a mild defence of paternalistic feudalism as a metaphor for compassionate government, it is probably a little ambitious given the times in which he lived. Following a regular pattern, Yu paints the world as a terrible place where fear and self interest trump all, only to find small rays of light in the closing moments when an act of violence provokes a series of unexpected epiphanies and reconciliations. He ends on a note of hope in which an older man sacrifices himself for a younger one but is then rewarded with the possibility of salvation and a happier future with the woman he loves (and is now unafraid to pursue) south of the border. Communism seduces and betrays, whereas liberal democracy at least affords the “freedom” to be miserable with personal integrity.


Screened as part of the Korean Novels on Screen season at the Korean Cultural Centre London.

Five Marines (五人의 海兵 / 5인의 해병, Kim Ki-duk, 1961)

Five Marines posterKorean War films have a very particular tone and flavour often absent from those from elsewhere. As sad and despairing as they can be across the world, war films are generally the realm of macho heroism, men bravely holding back tears and charging forth with unrestrained rage in a quest to avenge their fallen comrades. Korean War films, however, like the majority of the nation’s cinematic output, are tinged with melodrama. These men wail, talk about their mothers, and worry for the future while forging intense bonds of homosocial brotherhood and becoming a battlefield family. The debut feature from Kim Ki-duk, Five Marines (五人의 海兵 / 5인의 해병, O in-ui haebyeong) is a prime example of this approach, eschewing combat scenes for behind the lines ensemble drama as ordinary men attempt to come to terms with the extraordinary situation of war.

Stock footage of the battlefield eventually gives way to a small squadron of marines digging trenches and at constant risk of ambush by Chinese forces. The main drama revolves around lieutenant Deok-su (Shin Young-kyun) who is the son of the company commander but there has long been bad feeling between the two men as Deok-su has always felt that his father favoured his brother, Deok-han (Choe Bong), and never really loved him. Meanwhile we’re introduced to another four marines – intellectual Jeong-guk (Choi Moo-ryong), Ju-han (Flyboy / Gwak Gyu-seok) – a father of five from Seoul, farm boy Yeong-seon (Park Nou-sik), and mother’s boy with anger issues Hun-gu (Hwang Hae). Following the death of two comrades, the squad of five is sent on a daring missing into enemy territory to blow up an arms depot through which they aim to make the sacrifice their friends have made in some way meaningful.

Made just eight years after the end of the Korean War and apparently commissioned by the Marine Corps in the wake of the May 16 military coup which initiated the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, Five Marines takes a very different approach to that seen in other contemporary war films such as Lee Man-hee’s The Marines Who Never Returned. Though in no way particularly jingoistic or warmongering, it would be difficult to describe Five Marines as an “anti-war” movie, not least because it avoids depicting scenes of combat until the final mission in which, as expected, some or all of the heroes will fall valiantly defending their fellow Koreans as well as their friends.

Jeong-guk, the college educated enlisted man, originally considers himself to be taking part in the pantomime of war, going along with the ridiculous sham of soldiering, but when a fellow soldier – a young boy who spends his time rewriting a poetic confession of love he doesn’t quite have the nerve to send to the girl he left behind, falls in front of him, Jeong-guk suddenly wants to join the fight for real. The idea of militaristic patriotism is then subtly reinforced if not quite sold with patriotic fervour. The necessity of the sacrifice is never questioned and the idea of doing one’s duty remains paramount even if it is also clear that the war has taken these men out of their familial environments leaving their women at home alone and, perhaps, defenceless.

Kim explores the peacetime lives of each of the men through flashback with the consequence that we get to know and care for them as people rather than as combatants. We rejoice with Jeong-guk when he hears he’s going to be a father, share Ju-han’s amused frustration when his wife includes all their bills in his mail, and worry with Hun-gu when his usual letters have not arrived. During their down time, the men discuss women but with more tenderness than expected – save for Yeong-seon’s rather lewd (and apparently fabricated) story of his wedding night for which he is rightly taken to task by his stern company Sergeant. Rather than focussing on the negatives of military service, Kim emphases the warmth and friendship among the men who forge deeper and stronger connections precisely because of the ever present threat of death.

When the final mission rolls around, Kim allows the action to take centre stage as the five man squad plots and executes a daring raid which does not quite go to plan and eventually erupts into a more conventional fire fight. Marrying the demands for macho battle scenes with the emotional quality of melodrama, Kim allows the men to sort out their emotional difficulties, shedding both blood and tears in equal measure. More emotional drama than action packed celebration of the glory of war, Five Marines may not quite be what the Marine Corps had in mind but perhaps serves their purpose anyway in reinforcing the positive ideas of camaraderie and patriotism whilst telling the stories of ordinary men and extraordinary heroism.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Ki-duk box set. Also available to stream online for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.