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 Dorodake 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.

A Day Off (휴일, Lee Man-hee, 1968)

vlcsnap-2017-08-09-23h50m27s782Prolific as he was, Lee Man-hee had his fair share of troubles with the censors throughout Korea’s turbulent 1960s, most famously with his arrest for breaking anti-communism laws with The Seven Female POWs which was later heavily edited and released as Returned Female Soldiers (perhaps a neat nod back to Lee’s mega hit, The Marines who Never Returned). Before that, however, Lee’s poetic meditation of the difficulties of being young in the increasingly heartless capital, A Day Off (휴일, Hyuil), was banned altogether for painting an all too gloomy picture of modern life and love. Though modern Korean cinema has gained itself a reputation for gloominess, that of the gloomy years was still expected to be, in some way, “inspirational”. Refusing to end on a happier note, Lee shelved the film leaving it unseen until rediscovered for a retrospective in 2005.

The elliptical narrative begins with Huh Wook (Shin Seong-il), trapped by another listless Sunday and remembering a girl he used to spend them with, Ji-youn (Jeon Ji-youn). Huh Wook and Ji-youn can only meet on Sundays, they count down the hours until they can be together again but then when the day closes they almost wish they’d never met at all. Neither of them have any money – Huh Wook can’t even afford a cup of coffee, let alone a wife. The relationship reaches a crisis point when Ji-youn, whose constitution is weak, becomes pregnant.

Huh Wook and Ji-youn’s conversation is raw and painful, filled with half spoken thoughts and an unwillingness to confront the depth of their despair. The couple half discuss their predicament with the assumption that they are talking about a child they cannot afford to have and an abortion they cannot pay for but it turns out the operation that Ji-youn means may be for an unrelated illness. When they finally see a doctor he advises that Ji-youn have an abortion because her health is so poor that she would likely not survive a pregnancy.

This is a city which is rapidly expanding, living conditions and opportunities should be improving but for the left behind like Huh Wook and ji-youn Sunday is all they have to live for, and so they can hardly stand it. Their situation is so hopeless, so filled with despair that there is nothing at all waiting for them but a perpetual cycle of work and release. While Ji-youn is in hospital, Huh Wook wastes time at a bar where he gets chatting to another woman. They talk, they drink, they spend the night together in a derelict building before Huh Wook is woken by church bells and remembers poor Ji-youn lying in hospital, fighting for her life.

Huh Wook is the more romantic but also the least willing to confront the situation. He criticises Ji-youn for her silence but she fires back at him with a description of an idealised life she knows they can’t have – a nice house, flowers in the garden, and yes, children. An ordinary dream but one she knows will never be a reality. Huh Wook leaves her alone to try and borrow money, wasting one of their precious Sundays. His friends have all found different kinds of release – the first is a womaniser but flat refuses Huh Wook money he assumes is for an abortion, the second is a drunk who advises him to have the baby and spend the money on drink, and the third is a wealthy man with a live-in maid. Huh Wook never gets round to asking him for the money but steals it from his jacket while he’s in the bath. 

Released in 1968, A Day Off has echoes of Antonioni in its beautifully empty cinematography and bleak view of human connection in an increasingly modern world. Huh Wook and Ji-youn appear to have a deep and genuine connection but their existence is so fraught with financial and social difficulties that the future is always an impossibility and, in a sense, already the past. Huh Wook wanders alone. Beaten up by the friend he stole the money from, he’s tired, bloody, and worn out. Yet all he feels is relief. All his hope is gone and now he’s free of its burden, left with nothing other than the false promise of a new dawn on the unforgiving streets of Seoul.


A Day Off is the third 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. Also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Heavenly Homecoming to Stars (별들의 고향, Lee Jang-ho, 1974)

%EB%B3%84%EB%93%A4%EC%9D%98_%EA%B3%A0%ED%96%A52In writing the original novel which inspired Heavenly Homecoming to Stars, Choi In-ho stated that he wanted to tell the story of “a woman whom a city killed”. The novel itself was first serialised in a newspaper where it quickly became a must read and popular discussion point among readers of all ages. It’s perhaps less surprising then that this completely radical film adaptation by first time director Lee Jang-ho proved to be the big cinema hit of 1974. A new “youth culture” movement was beginning inspired by social and political developments from overseas and there was a growing appetite for films and novels which were equally revolutionary. Heavenly Homecoming to Stars managed to provide this but also, crucially, was able to appeal to older age ranges too thanks to its re-imagining of classical melodrama.

In essence, Heavenly Homecoming to Stars is a traditional “fallen woman” narrative. Told in non-linear fashion, the film follows the sorry tale of Gyeong-a and her relationships with four different men each of whom contributes to her downfall. At the earliest point we see her she’s a cheerful young woman like any other working in an office in the city. She finds first love with her co-worker and the pair plan to marry but before they do Yeon-seok pressures her into sex. It’s at this point that everything goes wrong for her as in order to acquiesce to his desires, she begins drinking.

Later she winds up marrying a middle-aged widower with a young daughter but Man-jun is not the man she thought he was and is still nursing a wound from having driven his first wife to suicide through his jealous and increasingly erratic behaviour. After finding out about Gyeong-a’s past, he too leaves her.

Man three is Dong-heok, a rough and violent pimp who turns her into a bar hostess which only increases her reliance on alcohol. Before we meet the quasi-hero of our story, melancholy artist Mun-ho, Gyeong-a is already an alcoholic and well on the way to her own ruin.

Truthfully, Mun-ho may have been able to save Gyeong-a, but he doesn’t. We already know that things don’t end well for her – the film begins with its epilogue as Mun-ho carries a little white box full of ashes across a frozen forest. Hers is a sorry tale though one that’s been told hundreds of times over the course of history and, sadly, will likely continue to be told for centuries to come. Choi In-ho says the city killed her, but it’s only partly “the city” – what it really is is a cruel and patriarchal society which permits men to use and discard women relegating them to a kind of underclass from which it is impossible to escape. Gyeong-a is a woman among hundreds who came to the city in search of a better life and contributed to Korea’s modernisation but found herself sacrificed its name.

Having said that the tone is one of sadness much more than anger. The strict censorship practices of the time placed severe limitations on what could be expressed in a film such as this though, sadly, the ballad of Gyeong-a is one audiences of all ages could identify with. Though it condemns the behaviour of the men in Gyeong-a’s life it does not so much call for change as for lament. Gyeong-a was young, naive and in need of protection which she was denied at every turn – first from the anonymous and unfeeling city and then by its self centred men who took what they wanted from her and callously discarded her afterwards when she no longer fulfilled their standards of a “pure woman”.

Yet, Gyeong-a remains a “pure woman” at heart. Innocent and true, she dies alone in the snow, a woman still young yet ruined by drink, dreaming of her first lover who was also the cause of all of her later misfortune. We’ll be singing the ballads of a hundred Gyeong-as until the sun goes out, but that doesn’t make her story any less sad. Lee Jong-ho’s directorial technique is something of a revelation for the time period neatly allaying standard melodrama tropes with a new brand of Korean realism mixed with European arthouse style. Former child actress Ah In-suk (still only 22 at the time of making this picture) gives a beautifully nuanced performance as the tragic Gyeong-a though apparently retired from acting due to her marriage soon after completing Heavenly Homecoming. An extremely important film in terms of the history of modern Korean cinema kicking off a youth culture movement which would extend into the turbulent 1980s, A Heavenly Homecoming to Stars succeeds both as a conventional melodrama but also as a symbol of a culture in flux.


Heavenly Homecoming to Stars was recently re-released on blu-ray in a beautiful new restored edition which also includes English subtitles on not only the main feature but also the commentary track as well as coming packaged with a booklet in both Korean and English.

However, you can also watch the (considerably less pretty looking) unrestored version with English subtitles and for free (legally) via the Korean Film Archive YouTube channel.

Can’t seem to find a trailer but here’s a poignant (unsubtitled) scene from towards the end of the film: