The General’s Mustache (장군의 수염 / 將軍의 수염, Lee Seong-gu, 1968)

General's Mustache posterBroken dreams of the post-war society prove too much for one man to bear in Lee Seong-gu’s masterpiece of Korean Modernism – The General’s Mustache (장군의 수염 / 將軍의 수염, Janggun-ui Suyeom). Adapted from the novel by Lee O-young, Lee’s film co-opts the procedural but subtly subverts it, taking a cue from the film noir to turn it in on itself and ask if we can truly ever know another person, or if we simply conjure an image of everyone we know based on a collection of external observations gathered by ourselves and others. Our hero, Cheol-hun (Shin Seong-il), is a melancholy man who has chosen to live in a world of his own creation but when his shield of artifice is pierced by a spear of reality he can endure it no longer. Cheol-hun is dead, but who, if anyone, killed him and can we ever really understand why he died without his words to guide us?

Lee opens with a scream as Cheol-hun’s landlady discovers his body, draped half naked over his bed next to a stove with the safety cover removed. Concluding that carbon monoxide poisoning is likely the cause of death, the police find the panicked landlady suspicious but leave with three clues – a ladies’ stocking, a missing camera, and the scar on Cheol-hun’s forehead. The stocking takes them to Cheol-hun’s ex, who tells them that Cheol-hun gave his camera to a “nude model” which was perhaps a point of tension between the two, but not apparently the reason they decided to separate. The scar, ruining the detective’s (Kim Seung-ho) theory, turns out to be an old one – received in infancy when his exhausted mother (Han Eun-jin) dropped an iron on his head after a long day at the press.

After the testimony from Cheol-hun’s mother, the scar seems incidental but turns out to be anything but. Cheol-hun’s mother blames herself for his childhood injury (as any mother would) and has spent her life worrying about him, believing that the scar itself has been the cause of all his misfortune and sent him off on an unlucky path. From Cheol-hun’s sister (Kim Sin-jae) we learn that the family was once wealthy – local landowners who valued their “aristocratic” blood. After the war all that ended. The land was given back to the people, and Cheol-hun’s family were stripped of not only of their prestige but of their means of living. Nevertheless, Cheol-hun’s austere father refused to let his children play with the “commoners”, and so little Cheol-hun’s loneliness was born.

The testimony of Cheol-hun’s former boss reinforces the view that Cheol-hun was an eccentric loner, ill equipped for life in the “real” world. A former photojournalist, Cheol-hun lost his job as a result of a disastrous interview with a recently returned scholar who had enjoyed some minor success in America. The scholar, having been abroad five years, peppers his speech with random English and puts up a pretence of having forgotten his Korean. He complains that Korean kimchee is too spicy, and suggests that the key to improving the “backward” nation lies in “reforming” the cuisine. Cheol-hun, becoming ever more irritated, offers a few barbed comments but cannot contain himself when the kids, “John” and “Mary” who do not speak any Korean, arrive. American names, he points out, are usually associated with dogs and sex workers – why would you give them to your children if you plan to live in Korea? Needless to say, the interview is over.

Cheol-hun has now been characterised as a man who cannot read the air, but it’s time to hear from him too though it will have to be second hand. Shin-hye (Yoon Jeong-hee), the girlfriend, radically changing under testimony broadly agrees with this view of the man she loved but could no longer live with. Cheol-hun told her that he’d never been good with people and had no real friends save one in the army – interestingly enough a man descended from royalty, but that he died leaving Cheol-hun alone again with the lingering guilt that he was unable to save his only friend. His tragedy is that he yearns for true connection, to truly become one with another person, but he cannot achieve it. His life with Shin-hye crumbles not because of “reality” but because Shin-hye craves the real – to live in the real world where people bleed and hurt. She cannot live with Cheol-hun in his escapist paradise, but he cannot bear to leave it.

The title of the film comes from the book that Cheol-hun wanted to write. In the story, a victorious general fighting for “independence” returns to his “liberated” country. The general is dashing and brave and he has on his face the most magnificent mustache. A weedy reporter giddily asks him if he too might dare to grow such a wonderful mustache to which the general cooly assents. Before long a mustache craze sweeps the nation. Even those who cannot grow a mustache of their own have taken to wearing wigs, but our protagonist says no. He doesn’t want a moustache and refuses to wear one. He loses his job, but it remains open whether the fact of his not having a mustache (which no one forces him to have) or his melancholy loneliness in not wanting to have one and not understanding why everyone else does is the cause of all his suffering. 

The quote at the film’s beginning, painted on Cheol-hun’s maddeningly crowded walls, reads “I refuse to, That’s why I’m alive”. Yet it isn’t quite a refusal so much as a lack of capacity. Cheol-hun’s boss had a point when he said that Cheol-hun was fundamentally unsuited to living in human society, as did Shin-hye when she described him as a lonely child in need of a guardian. If anything killed Cheol-hun, it was loneliness – a revelation which profoundly shakes the conviction of the veteran detective. After all, you can’t put handcuffs on spiritual isolation. The detective thinks of his family, and decides to take a watermelon home to share with them as means of reinforcing his own shallow connections but it’s clear that his conception of the world, of his abilities as a detective and the entire framework of his existence have been irreparably compromised by his investigation into the life and death of Kim Cheol-hun.

Partly a satirical swipe at post-war conformity, Lee’s film also subtly subverts a popular trope from the anti-communist genre in its apparent sympathy for landlords. Cheol-hun’s loneliness is posited as a direct result of his “fall” from his rightful position – the only friend he ever makes is also a fallen nobleman, and he struggles to adapt himself to the “classless” society of the “democratic” era. Yet it’s precisely these outdated ideas of “class” that have ruined his life in his father’s refusal to let him play with the other children. Cheol-hun retreats to a fantasy childhood world to avoid the harshness of modern life, but cannot escape his loneliness or his longing and when he realises Shin-hye is not the soulmate with whom he thought he could forge a new, perfectly isolated paradise, his entire existence becomes impossible.

Lee conjures a mosaic of Cheol-hun composed of the memories of those around him, gradually thickening in texture and finally coming into focus but always only a simulacrum of a man and not the man himself. Adopting a standard procedural narrative, Lee adds in extensive flashback and hypothetical dramatisations as the police investigate, switching to black and white for raw hypotheses and even breaking into elegantly drawn animation to recreate the surreal world of Cheol-hun’s putative novel. Dark and sad, The General’s Mustache seems to imply that there is no answer for solitude, that you can never really know another person fully, and that the loneliest man of all is the one born without a “mustache”, already naked of face in having no final mask to expose but finding that no one wants to see his true self only the one which is demanded he wear to appear just like everyone else.


The General’s Mustache is the third film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon (일월 / 日月, Lee Seong-gu, 1967)

Sun and Moon posterOld habits die hard in Lee Seong-gu’s Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon (일월 / 日月). The feudal past refuses to ease its icy grip even in the new “democratic” era in which freedom and prosperity are promised to all. Lee Seong-gu, closely associated with the Western Modernist movement, flexes his Literary Film muscles with an adaptation of Hwang Sun-won’s novel. Mixing a standard melodrama narrative with an exploration of “outdated” social prejudices and the gradually fracturing psyche of a man who learns a “dark secret” regarding his personal family history, Lee isolates the individual within a changing society as an ordinary man finds himself unable to move forward despite his own desire to be free of the superstitious past.

Lee opens with a scene more in keeping with a romantic comedy. Aspiring architect In-cheol (Shin Seong-il) meets drama student Na-mi (Nam Jeong-im) at an upscale ski resort and is instantly smitten. After spending time with her, In-cheol goes home and visits a childhood friend, Da-hye (Moon Hee). Da-hye is quite obviously in love with In-cheol – a fact of which he is obviously unaware or just completely insensitive since his purpose in coming is to tell her about Na-mi. Despite her personal pain, Da-hye is a good friend and gives In-cheol the appropriate advice regarding his romantic endeavour, reminding him that many of his previous relationships have failed because he was too diffident and he let them drift away.

Meanwhile, In-cheol is called into his father’s study to meet his dad’s new business contact who, it happens, wants a house designed. In a piece of near dynastic finagling, In-cheol gets a new job and, surprise surprise, the house turns out to be for Na-mi who is the daughter of the bank manager In-cheol’s dad wants a loan from. Everything is working out just fine, but then In-cheol’s brother – the Mayor of Gwanju (Jang Min-ho), turns up in a state of agitation and tells them he’s being blackmailed. Someone has discovered their dark family secret – In-cheol’s dad ran away from his family because they were butchers, a near “untouchable” class even in the Korean society of 1967. In-cheol thinks this is all very silly, who cares about things like that anymore? But on another level the discovery profoundly disturbs him in what it says about him as a person and about the society in which he lives.

It does seem ridiculous to stigmatise such commonplace occupation in a supposedly modern society, but In-cheol can’t seem to move past it. He pays a visit to a slaughter house which is just as awful as he’d expected it to be as he watches a once powerful cow twitching helplessly on the floor while other workers dismember the corpses of animals, pulling out entrails and severing heads ready for keener butchery. Still, In-cheol reminds himself it’s just a job and resolves to meet his cousin, but his cousin, insisting that he has no relatives, won’t talk to him. In-cheol takes this for rudeness or rejection, but really his cousin is attempting to protect him. In having internalised the constant abuse he suffers – even once being arrested by the police when a murder took place nearby solely because he is a butcher and had no alibi, In-cheol’s cousin avoids contact with those outside of his group and does not want to taint him with the butcher brush. Yet In-cheol keeps pushing, only for his cousin to roundly tell him to leave it alone unless he has the courage to accept his butcher blood fully for all it is.

The problems are manifold. In-cheol’s father’s first engagement was broken when the bride found out he came from a butcher family, while his wife (who married him without knowing) became a religious obsessive after learning of her husband’s origins. In-cheol’s marriage prospects are almost certainly off the table if anyone finds out, but even if someone agrees to marry him knowing the truth should he really invite them to do so knowing that they (and their children) will share his shame?

Unable to speak, unable to move forward or back, In-cheol spirals into a depressive cycle of inertia and suffering. Da-hye tries to talk to Na-mi to get him to wake up, but Na-mi tells her she’s not much bothered about In-cheol’s mental state and has only been messing around. Nevertheless, she finally draws closer to him as means both of assuming the leading role in her relationship, and as a way of annoying her father whilst potentially getting herself involved in a small scale scandal. Meanwhile, Da-hye who had pointed out that In-cheol’s problem was his passivity, ironically reveals that she too has been waiting for him to wake up and realise her feelings for him, only now realising she has probably missed her chance. The melodramatic device of the love triangle becomes a symbol of In-cheol’s ongoing psychological fracturing as he finds himself caught between two women and realising he can choose neither of them because his “ancestral curse” has effectively disqualified him from living in the modern world.

Using innovative editing techniques, Lee dramatises the tragedy of an isolated generation, supposedly living in a “modern” society but unable to escape the outdated social codes of the past. Rather than attempt to free themselves from irrational and superstitious ways of thinking, they choose self-exile and willingly accept their unhappiness in an otherwise altruistic intention of preventing the spread of a contagion. Melancholy yet urgent, Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon uses the ridiculous survival of an ancient prejudice to lay bare a dark secret at the centre of its own society but finds only tragedy without sense of an escape.


Ilwol: The Sun and the Moon is the first film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. (Not currently available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel).

The Daughters of Kim’s Pharmacy (김약국의 딸들 / 金薬局의딸들, Yu Hyun-mok, 1963)

Daughters of Kim's Pharmacy poster“Literary Film” had become a kind of genre of its own in Korean cinema, both embracing and rejecting the nation’s taste for melodrama with differing degrees of artiness. Director Yu Hyun-mok, however, was not generally associated with the kind of affectation coupled intense sentimentality that sometimes marked the worst examples of the genre but with a unique brand of cinematic realism which attempted to address the social issues of the day whilst still getting past the censors who were hot on politics but increasingly lax on sex and violence. Nevertheless, The Daughters of Kim’s Pharmacy (김약국의 딸들, Kim yakgukjib daldeul) is a “literary film” adapted from a novel by Park Gyoung-li and set firmly in the recent past. Yu eventually gives in to the inherent melodrama of a small family battling a legacy of pain and destruction, but tellingly subverts it by discarding the tragic ending of the original novel for something that offers a degree of hope albeit in an all but hopeless world.

The film begins at the close of the Joseon Dynasty as a young man runs into another man’s house and desperately reaffirms his love for a woman who is now married to someone else while he is also married to woman from his village. The woman refuses to see him while he pleads with her, sobbing, but when her husband returns home unexpectedly he doubts his wife’s virtue. Threatening her and then chasing off the lover, the husband kills him by accident and is forced to flee while the woman takes poison and kills herself in her misery leaving her son, who will later become Kim the pharmacist, orphaned and alone, and the family forever “cursed” by her unquiet spirit.

18 years later Kim himself is forced into an arranged marriage which he wanders away from on the wedding day, leaving his aunts to wonder if he hasn’t been “possessed” by the vengeful spirit of his late mother. Despite the “curse” the marriage is successful in that it is not particularly unhappy and produces four daughters who are each of age when the story begins thirty years after Kim’s wedding.

The central heroine, Yong-bin (Um Aing-ran), is a “modern woman” of the colonial era, taking advantage of a shift forward into a progressive new world by leaving her tiny home village for university in Seoul. Though she longs to be free of the primitivism of her origins with its shamanistic rituals and patriarchal traditions, she is also of an elegant, conservative disposition and loves her parents deeply – something that provokes conflict in her desire for the comforts of home and the promise of away.

Of the other three daughters, each represents a particular kind of trap of the age. The oldest, Yong-sook (Lee Min-ja), has given birth to a child out of wedlock and lives alone independently raising her son in penury. Meanwhile third sister Yong-ran (Choi Ji-hee) is no longer a child but continues to loll around the house showing off her legs and posing provocatively. Her father is thinking of marrying her off to a local fisherman who has taken a liking to her, but the plan is scuppered when it is revealed that Yong-ran has been taking frequent nighttime excursions to the graveyard in the forest for secret trysts with one of the servants. When they are discovered, Kim chases the man away leaving Yong-ran publicly shamed and heartbroken. Eventually she is married off to someone befitting her social class only to discover that her new husband is impotent thanks to an opium addiction. She is routinely beaten and abused but can do nothing to escape her life of violence and terror. Yong-oak (Kang Mi-ae), the youngest sister, will eventually suffer a similar fate if one more usual, when she marries Yong-ran’s fisherman suitor only to find him rough and resentful as the fishing industry continues to fluctuate.

When Yong-bin’s mother (Hwang Jung-seun) meets her at the harbour on her return from Seoul she mentions the family curse by way of bemoaning their increasing ill fortunes. Yong-bin dismisses her mother’s concerns, preferring to think that its one’s own deeds that determine one’s future, but her mother sadly shakes her head and repeats that it’s all fated. Yong-bin’s modern way of thinking will increasingly come into conflict with her superstitious upbringing, but there’s no denying her family has had a run of bad luck – one which is only set to intensify as time moves on.

This is the central tragedy – the Kim family, trapped in the past, is unable to move beyond its “curse” and whether fated or not is set to destroy itself through outdated thinking. Though it is undoubtedly not the message the film is intended to convey, it’s impossible to ignore the degree of unhappiness which has been caused by the system of arranged marriages and the convention that true feelings must be suppressed in order to maintain ancient social codes. The Kims’ “curse” comes from the death of a woman scorned in love and betrayed by a prideful husband. If only she had been allowed to marry the man she chose, there would be no curse, no violence, no fear. As long as personal happiness is undervalued, there will be only suffering and misery for all but most particularly for the young women of Korea.

Yong-bin, an urban sophisticate, knows this more than most. Her father thinks he ought to marry her off first so he can marry off Yong-ran whose precociousness is beginning to alarm him. Yong-bin, however, wants to finish her education before submitting herself to a lifetime of servitude as someone’s wife and later mother. Her father has his eye on a match – the son of a usurious loanshark who is also a Japanese collaborator. Luckily, Yong-bin likes the man her father has chosen and sees only a romantic fantasy in marrying a childhood friend despite a warning from another mutual acquaintance that Hong-sub is a timid yet ambitious man – a dangerous combination which is unlikely to yield much happiness. She is going to get her heartbroken in more ways than one, her illusions of innocent romantic destiny shattered and her heart wounded by a spiritual as well as physical betrayal by the feckless Hong-sub who turns out to be not the man she thought he was but the one she was warned about.

Yet there is something in Yong-bin’s modernism that cannot be denied. This being the colonial era, the influence of the Japanese is felt even in this tiny village. Kim has sold the family pharmacy because of the influx of Western medicine coming in through Japan. He invested heavily in fishing, but the Japanese are ruining that too through invading local waters and overfishing them. Yet Kim still thinks of himself as a feudal lord with a real duty towards the people of his village. When his boat is ruined in a shipwreck and many sailors killed, he feels he must compensate the victims’ families who are now without the means to support themselves. This leaves him open to exploitation by Hong-sub’s usurious father who is in big with the Japanese who are, to an extent, the route cause of all these problems. Hong-sub’s father laughs when Kim declares his need of extra cash to support those who’ve suffered because of his failed fishing venture, thinking his sense of duty merely stupid but also seeing that it’s another hook for him to exploit that brings him closer to his goal of harnessing Kim’s ancestral estate with its large amount of farmland and property.

The Japanese play into a small sub-plot in which Yong-bin’s cousin (Shin Seong-il) is engaged in the resistance movement and eventually leaves for a covert mission in Japan. Before he leaves he introduces Yong-bin to a friend, Kang-geuk, who has been arrested and is being carted off to Japan for trial but has apparently fallen in love with her based only on his friend’s stories and a photograph. She’s back to a romantic fantasy once again and gravitating towards the spectre of arranged marriage which the film has already done such a great job of discrediting. It is, however, the perfect symbiosis of the film’s themes allowing Yong-bin to embrace both sides of herself. Meeting again after the liberation and a succession of terrible tragedies for the Kim family, Kang-geuk responds to Yong-bin’s intention to leave her hometown forever by asking her to name a place which is not tinged by loss and tragedy, and of course she can’t. Suddenly, her village doesn’t seem so bad anymore.

The “curse” is broken in being acknowledged and Yong-bin exercises her freedom to choose, consenting to a marriage, and making a decision to stay rather than being forced to leave. Yu’s comparatively hopeful ending in which Yong-bin nevertheless places herself back within a patriarchal value system stands in sharp contrast to that of the novel in which the Kim family’s failure to reconcile themselves to modernity provokes their downfall, but there is only so much hope in this hopeless world and Yong-bin, like her surviving sisters, will continue to suffer in an existence which offers little else to Korea’s oppressed women, remaining complicit in her own misery.   


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Yu Hyun-mok boxset. Also available to stream via the Korean Film Archive’s official YouTube Channel.

Night Journey (야행 / 夜行, Kim Soo-yong, 1977)

Night Journey posterIncreasing economic prosperity dangles tantalising rewards for the young and ambitious, but for women trapped by outdated social codes the pleasures of success are largely off limits. Director Kim Soo-yong was well known for literary adaptations and Night Journey (야행 / 夜行, Yahaeng) is, like Mist, inspired by a Kim Seung-ok novel but Kim makes a point of shifting the focus, telling the story not just of a jaded bank clerk but also of the effects of living under an authoritarian regime which demands (superficial) conformity, insists on productivity, and slowly destroys the souls of all those caught in its perilous march forwards into the corporate future.

Lee Hyeon-ju (Yoon Jeong-hee) is a woman of a certain age, unmarried, and working as a teller in a bank in Seoul. One of two “old maids” in the office, Hyeon-ju is shocked to find out that her fellow bachelorette from the adjacent desk is about to marry Mr. Choi – the couple had kept their relationship a secret but now that the engagement is public, Miss Oh will be quitting her job the day before the wedding. Alongside the joy such news surely brings, everyone seems to be making a point of being “sensitive” around Hyeon-ju, worried she will be hurt or embarrassed to learn of another woman getting married while she remains single and alone. Hyeon-ju seems more annoyed by the attempts at sympathy than anything else, but accepts her boss’ offer of a few days vacation even if she seems aware it’s mostly to get her out of the way and avoid any potential awkwardness.

Awkwardness is not something that’s going to go away though because Hyeon-ju is leading a double life in which she is actually living with bank clerk Mr. Park (Shin Seong-il) who manages the desk behind her but doesn’t want anyone at work to know about their relationship. Hyeon-ju goes home early to make dinner, but Park plays the after work drinking game, rolling in drunk and collecting the sleeping Hyeon-ju off the couch to deposit on the bed where he climbs on top of her and sates himself before rolling over in a drunken snooze. The relationship between the pair is, effectively, that of a bored middle-aged couple only they do not have the security of a marriage certificate and live in constant uncertainty.

When Hyeon-ju returns home from her brief trip back to the town where she grew up, Park does not say that he missed her, just that things have been very “inconvenient” with her away. “Convenient” is something Hyeon-ju worries defines Park’s feelings towards her, that he regards her as a part of the furniture, as something merely to serve his own desires. A rare evening at home together finds them enjoying a boxing match on TV which later leads to an amorous moment on the floor but just as he did before, Park gives up half way through to go back to the boxing, almost forgetting Hyeon-ju is even there. The other marriage at work prompts Hyeon-ju to wonder if it isn’t time they too made things official, but Park lazily brushes the question off, claiming to find marriage and all that sort of thing very boring. Spying on her partner at work, Hyeon-ju perhaps worries he plans to dump her for a match more advantageous to his career while she remains trapped in her dead-end bank teller job with a marriage her only realistic path to a successful middle age.

Hyeon-ju craves satisfaction – some real connection with Park that makes her feel alive, needed, wanted, and seen as a distinct individual. Returning to her hometown she reverts to her teenage self – putting on her high school uniform and taking her little sister down to the beach to ride her bike just as she had done. It is however not all happy memories – Hyeon-ju was drummed out of town as a hussy, the entire community know and remember her sordid past and if she were to consider an arranged marriage back home she could not expect to marry very well. Nevertheless, a now widowed son of a wealthy family takes an interest but Hyeon-ju is disappointed to realise that despite his bad boy exterior and fancy motorbike, her suitor is a small-town boy after all with a bashful attitude to love and sex which stands in contrast to Heyon-ju’s own passionate, seemingly free nature.

Freedom, however, is something she seems to have little of. We catch her catching sight of a man being handcuffed as she stands atop a busy bridge and we assume she recognises it as a echo of her own oppression but in actuality she fetishes the act of being manacled, almost compelled to place herself in a position of relative powerlessness. Later, on the same bridge, she’s dragged off by a rough man who apparently takes her to a nearby hotel and assaults her while her attempts to resist read more like playing along. Later she goes back to the same bridge, perhaps hoping to see the man again, violent acts of passion seemingly the only ones that wake her from her restlessness.

Fed up with Park, she roams the city streets alone – something respectable women rarely do as she proves when an attempt to enjoy a solo drink arouses the interest of an entire room filled with drunk salarymen in which she is the only female. Drunk men in the street attempt to pick her up and again she seems to enjoy deflecting them, often with little more than a glare though she is mildly surprised when one of them turns out to be the recently married Choi who reveals to her that he is disappointed with married life after discovering Miss Oh was not a virgin during their honeymoon.

The separation of the sexes seems to dictate that men spend the majority of their lives in the deliberately homosocial world of work with its frequent after-hours drinking sessions, while women (excluded) are left with little to occupy their time outside of becoming wives and mothers. Hyeon-ju seems to want something more, but her nighttime catwalk affords her only the mild sensation of pleasure in attracting attention solely so she can exercise the power to reject it.

Yet her attitude to men and sex is perhaps also due to having experienced betrayal and manipulation at a young age. The reason for her expulsion from her hometown was an illicit affair with her middle-aged teacher whose deflowering of her on that same beach on which she rode her bike seems to have occurred with a degree of violence which she continues to crave in all her subsequent couplings. The teacher, with whom she seems to have shared some kind of wedding ritual, was killed in Vietnam, ruining both her reputation and her future prospects through a relationship that was certainly unethical but she alone has payed the price for. He lies in the military cemetery opposite her apartment where she makes awkward, flirtatious eye contact with the soldier on guard each time she walks past.

Hyeon-ju’s hometown ruminations and odyssey through nighttime Seoul only serve to ram home to her how impotent she has been in her dull yet ordinary city life. Seoul may seem like a bustling metropolis of burgeoning modernity but it’s still full of the same tired old ideas where men are men and women are not much of anything. She fantasises about going on a crime spree with a rough looking guy from a cafe but ends up paying for his coffee before becoming the only grownup in an arcade among a group of kids in an attempt to dissolve some of her frustration. Eventually getting what she thought it was she wanted, Hyeon-ju has come too far not realise she doesn’t want it anymore. Literally railroaded into conventionality, she makes the staggering decision to just get off the train altogether, leaving her lover only the cryptic message that the holiday is now over.


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

Mist (안개, Kim Soo-yong, 1967)

Mist 1967 posterBy 1967 Korea’s fortunes were beginning to expand. For the young, the future held promise but the nature of that promise was still indistinct. Often considered his masterpiece, 1967’s Mist (안개, Angae, AKA The Foggy Town) was another in the series of literary adaptations for which director Kim Soo-yong had become well known but its avant-garde mise-en-scène and gloomy outlook stand in stark contrast to the heartrending melodramas with which the genre was synonymous. Economic prosperity and superficial success have provoked only emptiness and despair, but a return to source provides little clarity for one harried salaryman lost in the expanding landscape of Korea’s global ambitions.

A poor boy from a remote coastal village, Gi-joon (Shin Seong-il) is now a successful salaryman in the capital where the constant clacking of typewriters, ringing of telephones, and racing of traffic rub at his tired mind. The fact of the matter is Gi-joon is not all that successful – he owes his position to having married the widowed daughter of the CEO. His wife and father-in-law, however, have relatively little faith in his business acumen and so, with the annual shareholders meeting on the horizon, they suggest he get out of the way by paying a visit to his hometown. Gi-joon is not all that happy to be going back, he hated Mujin with its unrelenting fog and general air of existential malaise, but he’s spineless and so he goes, despite himself.

Taking the train, Gi-joon has plenty of time to dwell on his past, literally seeing reflections of his younger self and entering extended flashbacks of memory. Mimicking the stream of consciousness approach of the novel, Gi-joon provides frequent voiceover, introducing his hometown in a less than favourable light as a place which traps its young who yearn to be free of its oppressive boredom. According to the irritated dialogue of two passengers on the bus (which Gi-joon has to take after his lengthy train journey), Mujin is a nothing sort of town where the sea is too shallow for fishing and the fields to narrow for farming, yet the population is large and largely survives on desperation alone, isolated by the oppressive fog that envelops the landscape each and every morning.

Gi-joon characterises the residents of Mujin as petty and materialistic. Having longed to escape, he thought he’d achieved his dreams in Seoul but a trip home forces him to reconsider what it is he’s become. In truth he’s no different from the petty and materialistic villagers he looked down on in their need to look down on each other. Powerlessness has defined his life. As a young man, he resorted to hiding in a cupboard to escape the draft on the orders of his terrified mother and later suffered from weak lungs which made him something of a local laughing stock. Now he’s set for a big promotion in the city but, as his wife reminds him, he wouldn’t even be there if it weren’t for her. Gi-joon’s marriage is one of convenience but it’s clear his wife holds all the cards – a wealthy widow with ambition needs a husband to act as a foil, and a weak willed man like Gi-joon is just the sort to submit himself to her authority in return for the obvious benefits she can offer him. Gi-joon has gained everything he ever dreamed of, but he feels only despair, oppressed by the very system he longed to be a part of.

Back in Mujin his various self delusions are rammed home to him. Trapped once again by the unrelenting fog, he longs to escape from his Seoul life and free himself from the yoke of his marriage and career. Whilst in town he meets up with old friends who introduce him to recent arrival Ha In-sook ( Yoon Jeong-hee) – an opera student turned music teacher who has joined the local school. In-sook is by far the most exciting thing in the extremely boring town, but Gi-joon is worried he’s stepped into the middle of something when he realises his old friend, Park, now a teacher, has a crush on In-sook while another old friend, Cho, now a status obsessed tax inspector, may also have marital designs.

Gi-joon didn’t need to worry about the tax inspector – as it turns out, he thinks he can do better than a mere music teacher and plans to marry up, much like Gi-joon has. Gi-joon bristles slightly at this, as he does to Cho’s lewd story about how he trapped In-sook on an overnight trip and planned to have a fling with her but she managed to get away (much to Gi-joon’s relief). Back home Gi-joon sees reflections of himself everywhere and particularly doesn’t like this alignment of himself with the ugly ambition of men like Cho who only want to lord it over their former friends. More flatteringly he sees his younger self in the depressed, conflicted In-sook who is already going half mad in the stultifying rural town and longs to go back to Seoul. Despite mild qualms about his friends’ feelings, Gi-joon finds himself bonding with the melancholy young woman who again forces him to see himself the way he really is rather than as the idealised personality he’d constructed for himself as a successful Seoul salaryman.

Bonding in their existential loneliness, the two eventually embark on a tender if melancholy affair which, despite their protestations to the contrary, is built on self delusions if not exactly on lies. Gi-joon intends to take In-sook to Seoul, but he won’t, and In-sook knows she won’t leave even if she wants to believe in the possibility of rescue. The world for them is as foggy and indistinct as the mists around the beaches of Mujin. Filled with emptiness and despair, they remain adrift in the post-war society unable to accept the soulless compromises of conventionality but finding no escape from their self imposed prisons.


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

Horse-Year Bride (말띠新婦 / 말띠신부, Kim Ki-duk, 1966)

In the relatively conservative Korean society of 1966 it’s surprising that film like the Horse-Year Bride (말띠新婦 / 말띠신부, Maltti Sinbu) could have been made at all. On the one hand it embraces and subverts common notions of gender by positioning its “horse year women” as somehow deviant from the norm, difficult to deal with and undesirable, but also places them centerstage as individuals making independent choices in their own lives rather than simply trailing along behind their men. Technically the second in a trilogy of films, the first and last being directed by Lee Hyung-pyo, Kim Ki-duk’s Horse Year Bride is a raucous sex comedy, tame by modern standards but transgressive by those of the time. Adopting a mild, if ironic, issue movie stance, Kim also satirises social attitudes to “horse year women” and councils against a trend of aborting babies set to be born in the year of the horse lest they be female and turn into vicious harridans.

The film opens with a wedding in which middle-aged (presumably 35 or 36 year old) Bok-soon (Hwang Jung-seun) marries the extremely miserable looking professor Seok-du (Park Am). The wedding photographer who later turns out to be a horse woman herself and a private eye is surprised to notice that Bok-soon has horse’s hoofs rather than fancy shoes under her wedding dress. A fortune teller (Kim Hee-kap) then introduces us to his matchmaking service and claims the wedding we have just witnessed is a result of his best ever match before introducing us to two more couples – Soo-in (Nam Mi-ri) whose husband Sang-won (Yoon Il-bong) has gone full on domestic to look after her while she’s pregnant, while Mi-hae (Um Aing-ran), also pregnant, fends off the sexual advances of her frustrated husband Keun-ho (Shin Seong-il). The two as yet unmarried horses include the aforementioned private detective, Young-hee (Bang Seong-ja), and a dancer, Suk-ja (Choi Ji-hee), who is engaged but not above making use of her sex appeal for material gain.

Bok-soon, one horse cycle ahead of Soo-in and Mi-hae, laments her long period of matronly virginity and is keen to make up for lost time. Seok-du, however, is not exactly a love machine and is completely worn out by his wife’s appetites, even going so far as to return to the fortune teller and complain that his excellent matchmaking has turned him into an exhausted sex slave. The matchmaker suddenly grabs a picture of Napoleon and has a novel explanation for where the famous general’s hand might be. Anyway, his advice is to practice yoga to increase stamina and keep Bok-soon happy.

Meanwhile, Soo-in and Mi-hae have both lied to their husbands about being pregnant in order to avoid sex so that they don’t conceive a daughter that, like them, will be born in the year of the horse. This particular “White Horse” year is thought to be especially inauspicious and daughters born as White Horses will apparently be total nightmares and have terrible lives. The two relationships send up various culturally accepted norms of martial gender roles as the women both manipulate their husbands to get their own way. Soo-in’s Sang-won is so solicitous about the pregnancy that he’s put Soo-in on virtual bed rest and blossomed into a mother hen clucking around doing the housework but making a total mess of it (because, after all he’s a man, and men aren’t “built” for this sort of thing). Mi-hae’s problem is the opposite in that Keun-ho’s sexual needs are a constant source of frustration to him in which he resorts to pounding a giant mortar in an unsubtle attempt to relieve his pent-up energy. Bok-soon too is subtly manipulating Seok-du by feeding him an “aphrodisiac” and secretly practicing yoga herself to get the most out of her married life.

Unmarried Suk-ja attempts to manipulate men by promising more than she means to give but finds herself in hot water with a grumpy salaryman (Joo Sun-tae) who seems determined to take what he thinks he’s owed. Suk-ja later pays heavily for her rejection but the other women rally to her side to take revenge on the lecherous businessman whom they regard as “human scum” and intend to “re-educate” to treat women better. The vengeful band of women taking revenge on the male sex with each of its various double standards and chauvinistic assumptions derives part of its humour from the relative lack of power available to them but does manage to make a sensible point about the sexist world they inhabit.

Eventually, when the women have given up their power and allowed themselves to become pregnant by their men, even the doctor at the hospital assumes they will want abortions to avoid the threat of White Horse daughters. By this point the women have also resolved that there’s nothing wrong being Horse Women or even White Horse Women, with women excising power (even if in necessarily feminine ways), or with enjoying full relationships with their husbands, but they’re still bound by otherwise typical ideas of female gender roles in the importance of maternity and dream their daughters will be Miss Koreas rather than great scholars or forces for good in the world. The doctor raises an interesting point when he suggests the fear of White Horse Women is an unwelcome foreign import from Japan which both paints it as another symptom of colonial corruption and ignores the fact that the reasons for the ongoing stigma are part of the essential social fabric of Korea. He does, however, find some darkly comic reasons against abortion in citing the economic effects of empty schools and lonely classrooms while also suggesting the women’s daughters may have an easier ride thanks to the lack of competition.

In contrast to his previous films, Kim adopts a youthful, pop-culture infused approach which makes frequent use of domestic and foreign pop music with a lengthy animated title sequence plus extended scenes of music and dance often unconnected to the main drama. Extremely frank in its treatment of modern sexual relations, Horse-Year Bride is an unlikely ‘60s Korean sex comedy filled with silly gags and slapstick humour but proves an extremely effective satire of the complicated social mores of ‘60s Korea.


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.

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.