A Coachman (馬夫 / 마부, Kang Dae-jin, 1961)

A coachman poster 1The Korea of 1961 was one of societal flux, mired in post-war poverty but striving towards a brighter economic future. The rising tides of affluence had given birth to a new middle-class with the old feudal attitudes while others were largely left behind on the shores of prosperity. Kang Dae-jin’s A Coachman (馬夫 /마부, Mabu), the first Korean film to win a major international award with the Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival, finds itself at just this juncture as an old man pulling a horse and cart is forced to face up the automobile age while worrying what is to become of his family in the perilous modern society.

Ageing patriarch Chun-sam (Kim Seung-ho) has been guiding a horse and cart since his father died in Manchuria when he was 14. Technically speaking, he is not the owner of his horse, Dragon, but operates it on behalf of the owner, the mistress of an upper middle-class salaryman. As business is slow, she is always threatening to sell the horses which would leave Chun-sam and the other coachmen without a means to support themselves. Meanwhile, Chun-sam’s four children whom he raised alone after his wife passed away at a young age are each looking for different ways out of their impoverished existence. Chun-sam married off his eldest daughter Ok-nyeo (Jo Mi-ryeong) who is deaf and mute to a man he saved during the Korean War but he is abusive and treats her like a servant while openly inviting his mistress into their home. Oldest son Su-eop (Shin Young-kyun) is currently studying to retake the bar exam for the third time, middle daughter Ok-hee (Um Aing-ran) has begun dating a shady salaryman, and youngest boy Soo-up has become a high school delinquent.

Kang opens with an exciting sequence following Soo-up who has attempted to steal a bicycle as he tries to escape from its owner chasing him. Returning home covered in mud, slowing to a walk and putting his student’s cap back on to avoid suspicion, he makes his way from the modern houses of the new city back through traditional Korean homes towards his rather makeshift family abode which they share with the horse stabled in a side room. Chun-sam is obviously not a wealthy man, but the family bear their struggles with fortitude, perhaps to some extent avoiding each other but rarely arguing directly. Even the news that Ok-hee has once again quit her latest job, working in a cafe, in record time is greeted with exasperated acceptance rather than anger or resentment.

Ok-hee quit the cafe to fall in with her ultramodern friend Mi-ja (Choi Ji Hee) who has arranged a double date with a pair of sleazy executives, telling them that Ok-hee is a university graduate and daughter of a wealthy CEO. Intensely ashamed of her working class background as a mere coachman’s daughter, Ok-hee tries to catapult herself into the middle classes by weaponising her sex appeal, too proud to take the long way round through honest work. She rejects the attentions of family friend Chung-soo (Hwang Hae) who is good and kind because he is only a driver, taking little notice of his earnest warning that nothing good ever comes of hanging around with shady types like her boyfriend. He keeps trying to persuade her to take a job in a nearby factory, but she still thinks she’s above that kind of life and is convinced she can get the executive to marry her.

Chang-soo’s interest is of course romantic, but the advice he gives her is honest and altruistic. Unlike his unsavoury money lender father, Chang-soo is a salt of the earth type, but good men are hard to find and trying to escape poverty through marriage is a road fraught with danger as Ok-nyeo discovers. Chun-sam thought he’d done the right thing in marrying her off, believing a match would be hard to come by because of her disability and worrying she’d be left alone with no-one to look after her, but she is forced to endure mistreatment and humiliation at the hands of her husband. Ok-nyeo repeatedly returns to her family home, only able to show them the bruises to explain what’s happening, but Chun-sam always sends her back unable to break with the old patriarchal rules which insist that once married she must forever remain this man’s wife.

Chun-sam faces a similar dilemma of his own when he strikes up a tentative relationship with the kindly maid at his boss’ mansion who often heats up rice wine for him and goes out of her way to give him little treats. The odious moneylender is also after Suwon (Hwang Jung-seun) who is considered “old” to be unmarried at 37, but she favours Chun-sam because, as she says, she has always known him to be a “good man”. The “courtship”, if you could call it that, is innocent in the extreme with Suwon largely taking the lead while Chun-sam lags bashfully behind, childishly excited but also embarrassed because he cannot afford a wife and would be ashamed to ask her to share his life of poverty.

Looked down on by everyone, Chun-sam is forced to go cap in hand to his employer where he is made to “know his place” and reminded he is “just a coachman” with no right to talk back. When Hwang, the boss’ lover, injures Chun-sam through reckless driving, Su-eop becomes fed up with persistent feudalism and intends to have a polite word but is quickly shut down, reminded that he is nothing more than coachman’s son and told that his dreams of becoming a lawyer are not only unrealistic but an offence to the social order.

Su-eop alone takes the conventional route out of poverty in pursuing education and a steady government job, but is repeatedly told that he’s getting above himself and should be content with becoming a coachman like his dad, despite the fact that being a coachman is already close to an obsolete profession given the increasing affordability of the motorcar. He alternates between guilt and despair, wondering if he’s being irresponsible in pinning all his hopes on the bar exam and worrying that he’s not doing enough to support the family.

Yet Chun-sam, forced to consider his own obsolescence, is keen for him to succeed, not only because the family needs him to make a success of himself but because he wants his son to have a better kind of life than he had taking full advantage of the possibilities of the new society. Though their lives are hard, Chun-sam and his family remain kind and honest (even Ok-hee and Suo-up eventually conclude that hard work is the way after all), bonding with others of the same mindset like the maid Suwon who eventually quits her job in protest, and Chang-soo who rejects his father’s underhanded venality for simple human decency. United by friendly solidarity, the family is repaired and resolves to live on as a tiny unit of cheerful resistance against the feudalistic greed and selfishness of the modern society.


A Coachman was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Burning Mountain (山불 / 산불, Kim Soo-yong, 1967)

Burning Mountain still 1In his 1965 film The Seashore Village, Kim Soo-yong had presented a broadly positive vision of a community of women who had learned to survive without men by supporting each other. 1967’s Burning Mountain (山불 / 산불, Sanbul, AKA Flame in the Valley) revisits a similar theme but with much less positivity. This time around, the women have been deprived of their men not because of nature’s cruelty, but because of man-made corruption. Set during the Korean War, Burning Mountain finds a collection of wounded, lonely women condemned by patriarchal social codes and hemmed in by political strife not of their making struggling against their baser instincts as they determine to survive in an often hostile environment.

A small village near Jirisan has lost all of its men. Pressed by communist guerrillas for food, the lone women are hungry and afraid. Consequently, they are often at each other’s throats and united only in a shared futility of waiting for men they are almost certain will never return, either because the war has taken them or they have taken the opportunity to seek a better kind of life. The drama begins when Jum-rye (Ju Jeung-ryu) discovers a communist deserter, Kyu-bok (Shin Young-kyun), hiding in the bamboo grove and is seduced by him, satisfying her long repressed desire and escaping her loneliness through a transient bond with a captive man.

Unlike the fishwives of The Seashore Village, the women of Burning Mountain are a more conservative bunch though they too are largely unafraid to talk plainly of their unanswered desire in the absence of men. Rather than embracing each other as the fishwives had, the mountain women allow their sexual frustrations to make them bitter and irritable, forever at each other’s throats and unable to let go of past grievances. They dwell on the possibility of escape, but do not believe it to be real. One of the younger, unmarried women, talks of going to the city to find work as a maid but is confronted by a world of checkpoints and soldiers which restricts both her movement and her freedom in ways she is ill-equipped to understand.

The village stands as a tiny enclave, caught between North and South, part of both and neither as if lost in some eternal netherland. The bamboo grove represents the innocent natural freedoms which have been taken from the villagers by civilisation and by later by the folly of men and war. It’s in the bamboo grove that Jum-rye first encounters Kyu-bok in a meeting which begins as rape but ends in seduction as Jum-rye surrenders herself to a rough stranger in desperation and loneliness. The affair continues and relations between herself and the other women improve until Sawol (Do Kum-bong), a woman with whom she’d been on bad terms because their absent husbands had been on different sides, discovers Kyu-bok’s existence and blackmails the pair into allowing her to make sexual use of him in order to ease her own frustration.

Roles interestingly reversed, Kyu-bok takes exception to his new status as a kept man, resenting the feeling that he is nothing more than a pet, breeding stock kept to scratch an itch. Nevertheless, he stays while the women, increasingly conflicted, urge him to turn himself in to the authorities sure that if he explains himself they will not treat him harshly. Already emasculated in having been forced into the mountains against his will, Kyu-bok remains impotent in all ways other than the sexual, pleading with Jum-rye that she let him stay in the bamboo grove “until the world gets better”.

Sadly, the world shows little sign of doing that, though thanks to their shared transgression a strange kind of camaraderie arises between former enemies Jum-rye and Sawol, now disposed towards female solidarity having eased their own frustrations. They want to trap Kyu-bok and keep him for themselves, but at the same time they dwell on the idea of the unseen woman waiting somewhere for him just as they are waiting for their menfolk and know they cannot have him for long. Where the constant refrains of “we are all the same” had rung somewhat hollow, they ring true now in the two women’s commitment to a woman they don’t know who is, in some senses, their rival.

Yet, the liminal space of the bamboo grove cannot be allowed to stand in the increasingly straitened future. Already subversive in his frank depiction of female desire, Kim subtly undercuts the austerity of the times in making accidental villains of the South Korean army who arrive to burn the bamboo grove down to smoke out the guerrilla fighters, taking from these women the symbol of their freedom in the natural pleasure of the forest. The cowardly communist, while fulfilling the demands of the censors’ board, is both passive victim of his times and a representative of the frustrated masculinity which has caused them in the first place. The corruption of the war has come to the bamboo grove and set light to the last vestiges of hope in taking from these already impoverished women their very source of life. A sorry tale of despair and futility, Burning Mountain spins a tale of weak men and resilient women whose solidarity is bought through a mutual satisfaction cruelly ended by an austere and unforgiving regime.


Burning Mountain is available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Bloodline (血脈 / 혈맥, Kim Soo-yong, 1963)

Bloodline posterDirector Kim Soo-yong began his career while still in the military shortly after the end of the Korean War, originally making “military films” for the Ministry of Defence’s Film Department. Since his debut in 1958, Kim had directed 19 features before the release of his “breakout” transition into mainstream cinema with Bloodline (血脈 / 혈맥, Hyeolmaek, AKA Kinship) – an early example of the “literary film” with which Kim would become heavily associated. Like much of Kim’s later work, Bloodline is a socially progressive, empathetic look at the lives of everyday people living in very difficult circumstances but trying their best to be their best all the same.

The film opens in 1946, immediately after the end of the Second World War which is also, of course, the end of the Japanese Colonial Period and the beginning of a short-lived Korean post-war democracy. A small shantytown courtyard in Seoul is home to three families – the wealthier Kim Deok-sam (Kim Seung-ho) who was once a successful mining agent in Japan and lives with his grown-up son Geobugi (Shin Seong-il), the tinker “Ggangtong” (Choi Nam-hyun) who lives with his second wife Ongmae (Hwang Jung-seun) and daughter Boksun (Um Aing-ran), and Wonpal (Shin Young-kyun) whose wife (Lee Kyoung-hee) is seriously ill while his daughter (Lee Gyeong-rim) is disabled. Wonpal, a refugee from North Korea, is also responsible for his elderly Christian mother (Song Mi-nam) and younger brother Wonchil (Choi Moo-ryong) who went to university in Japan but has come back with literary aspirations and has so far refused to get a job and help support the family.

The world of 1946 is an immensely chaotic one in which the old order has been destroyed but nothing has yet arrived to take its place. For good or ill, the American occupation has become an essential economic force – Deok-sam is forever urging Geobugi to get a job on the American military base which he believes will pay well both in terms of salary and a series of perks official or otherwise. Meanwhile, Wonchil’s old girlfriend, Oki (Kim Ji-mee), is one of many women who’ve found themselves without support in the desperate post-war economy and has become the mistress of an American serviceman. Like Won-chil she came from the North with nothing and was left with no other option than entering the sex trade as a bar girl – the same fate which awaits Boksun at the behest of her step-mother who plans to sell her to a bar to provide for the family and has been forcing her to learn bawdy folksongs in order to become a fully fledged “gisaeng”. 

Both generations are, to a particular way of thinking, intensely selfish. The old, still bound up with a series of ancient social codes, try to oppress their children in the same way they were oppressed only now they’re in charge and reluctant to cede the little power they have now they finally have it. The parents want their children to do what is best for the “family” regardless of their personal happiness. Deok-sam is determined that his son should get a job with the Americans, Ongmae is determined that Boksun become a bar girl so that she and her husband can live in comfort, while Wonpal just wants to support his wife and daughter but can’t and resents his brother for not helping more. Yet the young people want their freedom and to be a part of the world which is opening up before them. They are filial and want to look after their parents, but reject their oppressive demands especially when it comes to their romantic futures. Ggangtong disagrees with his wife’s decision to sell Boksun and has hatched a plan to marry her off to a nice barber who has asked for her hand and seems to have good prospects, but Boksun is in love with Geobugi and wants to marry him, only he is dragging his feet because he has no money and worries about his father. Geobugi wants to get a job in a nearby factory, but hasn’t had the courage to go against his father’s wishes.

Kim Soo-yong, as unjudgemental as always, places his sympathies firmly with the young as they demand their right to choose while also reserving a right to a fresh start for all – including bar girl Oki who is allowed to simply walk away from her life in the sex trade and into a happier future once the moody Wonchil has learned to accept her past and also reconciled with his brother, literally “repairing” the family home in fixing the hole in the leaky roof through which Wonpal’s wife once used to watch the stars. Meanwhile, Boksun and Geobugi also look forward to their brighter future with jobs in a progressive factory which is friendly, bright, and open. Ggangtong, who resented his wife’s feudal desire to sell their daughter but also tried to arrange her marriage, is the first to see that his era has ended, affirming that the youngsters were right to leave and that the world now belongs to them. Eventually sense is seen, the old give way and accept the desires of the young, realising that they will lose their children if they cannot learn to set them free. The world has changed, mostly for the better, and familial bonds will have to change with it but they will not necessarily have to break if each side is willing to give ground in expectation of a better tomorrow.


Bloodline is available on English subtitled DVD courtesy of the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a bilingual booklet featuring an essay by director Kim Soo-yong, and an article about the restoration by the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Ki-ho, as well as full cast and crew credits.

The Seashore Village (갯마을, Kim Soo-yong, 1965)

The Seashore village posterKorean cinema of the 1960s was a tightly controlled affair. The authoritarian government of Park Chung-hee had instituted the Motion Picture Law of 1962 which insisted on a studio system with stars under contract and a turnover of at least 15 films a year. The law intended to increase the amount of films produced for mass consumption, giving free reign to the melodrama and thereby accidentally undermining its more censorious aims. Nevertheless, The Seashore Village (갯마을, Gaenma-eul), adapted from a novel by Oh Yeong-su and part of the “literature film” genre for which director Kim Soo-yong would remain famous, goes much further than one would reasonably expect given the conservative nature of Korean filmmaking across the ages. A story of village life with all of its various superstitions and primitive practices, Kim’s film is a daring exploration of female sexuality and the collective power of women away from men.

An opening voice over introduces us to a melancholy fishing village where the life is hard and the people resigned to loss. The boats depart to great fanfare, but just as they are leaving someone remarks that he’s had a bad dream – bad dreams are one of many bad omens for sailors. New wife Hae-sun (Ko Eun-ah) doesn’t wait to watch her husband disappear over the horizon, she takes to the clifftop shrine of the Dragon King and prays for his safe return.

Her prayers are unanswered. A typhoon strikes and Hae-sun’s husband, along with another sailor, is killed. So young a widow, Hae-sun becomes an awkward problem for the villagers. Sang-su (Shin Young-kyun), a shady drifter, begins making subtle overtures which eventually turn into outright harassment and attempted rape. Hae-sun likes the family she married into and wants to stay true to her husband’s memory, but the forces of nature conspire against her.

While Hae-sun is a classically “good” woman who rejects the advances of Sang-su, the other village wives feel rather differently. Everyone except Hae-sun’s widowed mother-in-law (Hwang Jung-seun) knows about Sang-su’s obvious desire for Hae-sun but they see nothing wrong in it. Rather than the conservative atmosphere of the middle-class urban melodrama in which bodies of surrounding middle-aged women act as enforcers of moral discipline, these literal fishwives are of an earthier disposition. Many of them have been widowed with husbands lost at sea – the way they see it, you’d best take your pleasures where you can and there’s nothing wrong with a quick roll in the hay if it eases frustration and aids productivity. They laugh at Hae-sun’s prudery and marvel at her ability to carry on as normal after losing her husband not because of the grief, but because of the lack of intimacy.

It might be 1965 outside of the village, but the old ways still rule here even if they’re on their way out. In the old days, women did not remarry – a serious problem in a small village with few men around to replace those lost at sea. Hence, women have learned to live alone, supporting each other in place of men and often forced to do without them. In a surprising development, Kim flirts with the taboo of lesbianism – something which is addressed half-jokingly by the gossipy widows but eventually gives way to a literal roll in the hay with half the village women looking on in hilarity rather than horror. The women joke about living together but lesbianism does seem to be presented as an imperfect solution to their present problem in the lack of satisfaction available to them due to the absence of men. Far from a taboo, sexual desire is a normal part of life in the village – something ranked alongside eating and sleeping and no more or less embarrassing than any other bodily function. The widows crave men and are unafraid to say so even if some of them are content to make do with each other in resignation to their awkward status as older single women.

Hae-sun is in a slightly better position given that remarriage is apparently no longer so much of a taboo. Unfortunately that presents a problem for her as all she wants to do is stay with her family just as she is. She doesn’t like Sang-su and his increasingly aggressive behaviour towards her is unlikely to change that but nevertheless she eventually finds herself given to him almost against her will. Despite becoming a wife once again, Hae-sun’s beauty continues to curse her by causing problems between men wherever she sets foot. The problems, however, are definitively on the male side – men long to possess her, with violence if necessary, and ruin themselves in their immoral pursuit of a “pure” woman. The village widows rejoice in their earthy pleasures, finding comfort and release in each other but the male impulse, by contrast, is always towards conquest and control, domination rather than mutual support.

Life in the village is hard and often sad, but the women are happy and optimistic. They live the lives that are given to them, and do the best they can with what they have. The very antithesis of the lurch towards modernity, the simple life of the villagers harks back to something purer and more honest without the pretension of urban civility and apparently free from the political concerns of the day. Bold in its outlook, The Seashore Village is a surprisingly progressive effort from the Korea of 1965, subverting its “primitive” setting to present a positive picture of female power and sexuality.


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.

North and South (南과北/남과북, Kim Ki-duk, 1965)

north and south posterMelodrama has often been an unfairly maligned genre, dismissed as pandering to the sentimental or engaging in frivolous emotion but to do so misses the undercurrent of social questioning that such films often entail. Korea has made the melodrama its own – indeed, though genre is often a more fluid matter in Korea than it is elsewhere it’s difficult to find films of any kind which are completely devoid of melodramatic themes. It’s less of a surprise therefore to find that Korean cinema turns to melodrama to examine one the nation’s most pressing concerns – the relationship between North and South. Kim Ki-duk’s North and South (南과北/남과북, Namgwa Buk) is the story of a woman caught between two men, two nations, and two eras but it’s mediated through the story of a noble North Korean who has battled all in the name of love, left his family, his home, his country only to find that he is too late and the world has already left him behind.

The film begins with capture of a North Korean soldier in November 1952, the middle of the Korean War. Following normal procedure, the soldier, Major Jang Il-gu (Shin Young-kyun) is taken in for questioning but the major matter on his mind is the lady in the photograph he keeps brandishing to everyone he meets. Rather than political disaffection, Il-gu has defected to the South in the name of love – he’s looking for a woman he regarded as his wife, the mother of the son he has never seen. The South Korean officers are less than sympathetic, they’ve been noticing increased activities on the frontiers and they want to know some concrete military details before they even agree to admit Major Jang, but Il-gu won’t talk until they promise to help him look for Eun-ga (Um Aing-ran) – the woman for whom he has betrayed his comrades.

Captain Lee Hae-ro (Choi Moo-ryong), otherwise sympathetic to Il-gu’s plight, runs into a problem when elements of Il-gu’s story start sounding all too familiar. In a coincidence too staggering to believe, Eun-ga is Hae-ro’s wife. Originally reluctant to marry him, Eun-ga had explained that she had a son already and was waiting for the child’s father (to whom she was not “legally” married) from whom she had been separated by the 38th parallel. Lee was patient and persistent, he told Eun-ga that she was free to leave him should her long lost love return (never believing it was possible) and that he was content to look after her until that day came or, should he be so fortunate, for the rest of his life. Now Il-gu has arrived as if to punish him for disrupting this fairytale of doomed romantic love.

Unlike many films of the time, Kim is not interested in demonising the North so much as emphasising the tragedy of Korea’s division. Eun-ga and Il-gu are divided by more than just politics. Eun-ga was the middle-class daughter of a wealthy doctor, Il-gu was the son of one of their servants. Their love was not possible even before the war, but still it blossomed. Growing up together, Il-gu and Eun-ga experienced the quintessentially innocent taste of first love, vowing to stay together even in the face of fierce parental opposition and social convention, but it is the war which eventually seals their fate. Il-gu, not wanting to be conscripted into the Japanese army hides out in a shack where Eun-ga, the only person to know his whereabouts, spends a fateful night with him during which time their child is conceived.

Dreaming only of being re-united with his “wife” and child, Il-gu has been carrying around a picture of Eun-ga and looking for an opportunity to defect ever since the erection of the 38th parallel. Abandoning everything in the name of love, he has left his mother alone in the North and risked his life in hope of seeing Eun-ga once more. Hae-ro, a romantic man himself, is intimidated by Il-gu’s passion. The great, fated love he’d imagined for himself in marrying the nurse who had saved him at his lowest ebb suddenly pales in comparison to Il-gu’s willingness to sacrifice his life in pursuit of a true love dream. Understating Il-gu’s feelings, Hae-ro finds himself in a terrible position, worried that his love will leave him, feeling guilty for pestering her into a marriage she may not have really wanted, and unsure whether he should even tell Il-gu and Eun-ga that he holds the key to their long delayed reunion. Il-gu remains resolute, demanding love or death, but Hae-ro vacillates, drinks himself into solipsistic misery, and indulges his own weaknesses which are only made worse by Il-gu’s continued heroism.

Immediately before the final sequence in which the trio are forced to confront their emotionally difficult situation, Il-gu is threatened with a gun but refuses to give up any information without proof he can meet Eun-ga. Believing all hope to be lost, he asks only to be allowed to go up a mountain to die but is moved by the compassion of intelligence officer Kwon (Namkoong Won) who alone is committed to delivering Eun-ga and eventually gives up his information even though it pains him to betray his own comrades. In an impassioned debate with Kwon, Il-gu gives voice to the film’s overarching message in reminding him “Are we not all brothers”. Kwon, counters that the reason they fight is in service of Il-gu’s quest – it’s precisely so that he can come here, speak freely, and pursue his love unhindered. The “South” is winning, in a sense, but the message of brotherhood and understanding between men is the one which is delivered with the most clarity.

Understanding between men is indeed the theme of Hae-ro and Il-gu’s eventual meeting. Eun-ga’s torment is relegated to background detail as she sobs her heart out in the corner in the unfairness of her impossible situation. Her heart has always belonged to Il-gu and she feels herself to have betrayed him, betrayed love, in marrying an admittedly good and kind man out of reasons of practicality rather than passion. Coming to understand the situation, Il-gu responds with compassion and understanding even in the middle of his own heartbreak. He bitterly regrets his journey and wishes Hae-ro had told him Eun-ga was now his wife rather than allow him to hurt her by suddenly reappearing and breaking her heart all over again. Witnessing Il-gu’s magnanimity, Hae-ro is also moved, offering to step back and allow Il-gu to return to the family he may have lost. Both men recognise the goodness of the other, want nothing more than the best outcome of the situation for Eun-ga and her son, and are committed to moving forward with sensitivity in trying to minimise the emotional pain inflicted on the innocent Eun-ga who continues to suffer through no fault of her own.

The “fault” falls on the 38th parallel which, as Il-gu explains during a painful first meeting with his unknowing son, is “the worst thing ever made by stupid men”. The situation is indeed impossible, there is no easy answer for Eun-ga who will have to choose between past love and a present commitment (or, uncomfortably, have that decision made for her by her respective lovers). Kim dramatises their anguish perfectly through the extraordinary performances of his cast during the drawn out, painful encounter in which they attempt to forge a way forward, but Eun-ga, who stands in for her nation, stands to lose all when this same fierce love and understanding between men may cost her everything in tragic gestures of love and sacrifice.


Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Ki-duk box set. Not currently available to stream online.

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.

Love Me Once Again (미워도 다시 한번, Jung So-young, 1968)

love me once again posterBy the late 1960s, Korean society was caught in a moment of intense social change. Though under the oppressive authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee, the strict censorship regulations of the early 1970s had not yet taken effect and the 1962 Motion Picture Law which encouraged a shift towards commercial cinema intended for mass entertainment created a fertile ground for melodrama which itself enabled subtle commentary on modern society. The first in what would become a long running series with two sequels and a number of remakes stretching into the 1980s, Love Me Once Again (미워도 다시 한번, Miweodo Dasi Han Beon) is a prime example. A box office hit and pop culture phenomenon, Love Me Once Again is a somewhat unusual entry the melodrama canon in its broadly sympathetic treatment of adultery and attitude towards children born out of wedlock.

The film begins in the present as family patriarch Shin-ho (Shin Young-kyun) enjoys a pleasant family Sunday fishing with his son and picnicking with his wife (Jeon Gye-hyeon) and daughter but the scene is quickly interrupted by a servant who comes to fetch Shin-ho to greet an urgent visitor to the house. The visitor turns out to be an old friend of Shin-ho’s who has a distressing message for him – Hye-young (Moon Hee), a young woman with whom he had an affair eight years previously, is back in town and would like to meet.

Flashing back eight years, Hye-young is a young kindergarten teacher living in the lodging house where Shin-ho is staying while working away from home. The pair become friends and everyone seems to assume they are a couple, though Shin-ho insists Hye-young is just a friend. Nevertheless, he eventually begins an affair with her leading Hye-young to turn down a marriage arranged by her parents. Though Shin-ho discourages her to do this, Hye-young has no idea he is already married with two children and believes he will marry her at some point in the future. Shin-ho plans to tell Hye-young about his wife but can’t bring himself to do it, allowing her to find out in the worst possible way when his wife arrives with both kids in tow. Realising she’s been duped and feeling in the way, Hye-young takes off without warning leaving only a letter wishing Shin-ho well and letting him know that she is pregnant with his child and intends to raise it alone.

Hye-young is certainly a very “modern” forward thinking woman though she is also morally upright, only embarking on a relationship with Shin-ho because she believes he is the man she will spend her life with. Her family had arranged a marriage for her and express their frustration with Hye-young for not returning home immediately in a letter which also makes plain that they will suffer embarrassment if she refuses the marriage altogether – which she does. When she returns home pregnant with Shin-ho’s child, her brother (who seems to be the head of the family), throws her out. Hye-young’s mother seems more sympathetic, but is powerless to help. Hye-young will have to manage on her own without the assistance of friends or family.

Eight years on she has a lovely little boy, Young-shin (Kim Jung-hoon), whom she has raised alone in hardship but not unhappiness. Encouraged by her brother and seeing how Young-shin looks on enviously at other little boys playing with their fathers on the beach, Hye-young begins to wonder if it might not be better to have Shin-ho raise Young-shin alongside his other two children in a middle-class family home. As Shin-ho’s son he would have a life of material comfort, a paternal input, and be free of the stigma of being the illegitimate child of an unmarried single mother.

Though the situation is difficult, it is handled with calm and maturity on all sides, not least from Shin-ho’s wife who takes a while to think hard on the situation and then agrees to look after Young-shin but only as a full adoption. She asks that Hye-young refrain from writing to or seeing her son, leaving him entirely in the family’s care. Hye-young has made her decision and agrees that may be for the best, even declining the offer of written updates from Shin-ho’s best friend. Once Young-shin has become a part of Shin-ho’s family, his wife truly does her best to make him feel at home as the third of her children, treating him kindly and taking the older two to task for teasing their “baby brother”. The children however are not quite so accepting with Shin-ho’s eldest son particularly hostile, bullying little Young-shin mercilessly even though he has done nothing to provoke his anger other than try to be friends with him. Getting a new little brother is perhaps particularly hard for the children who now have to share everything with a virtual stranger, but despite the efforts of Shin-ho’s wife, she just can’t seem to make them accept him.

Shin-ho, feeling awkward and guilty, is not quite as committed as his wife is to making the new family work. He tries to treat Young-shin as his son, but never quite connects with or makes him feel at home. The major problem is that the family all insist Young-shin must forget about Hye-young and commit fully to his new family as they are committing to him but that’s a lot to ask for an eight year old boy who quite fairly misses his mother and does not understand why he is not allowed to see her. A crisis occurs when Shin-ho angrily confiscates a locket Hye-young had given Young-shin containing her photo as a memento, sending him off on a long journey trying to find a way back to his mother. Being only eight, Young-shin has no idea how to go about finding her bar knowing the name of the town where he used to live. Roaming around the city all alone calling his mother’s name, Young-shin stays out all night. Shin-ho and his wife are sick with worry, searching for him in the pouring rain, but when he finally returns drenched and miserable, Shin-ho treats him only with anger and not with tenderness.

Meanwhile, Hye-young is struggling to come to terms with her decision to “abandon” her son, having bad dreams that Young-shin is being mistreated or is miserable, missing her as much as she misses him. Obeying the family’s request to stay away, Hye-young cannot resist coming to visit and observing from far away, hoping to catch a glimpse of her son and find out if he is well and happy. Unfortunately she turns up just as he’s gone out looking for her and spots him cowering outside Shin-ho’s house, drenched in the rain. Afraid to go near him she urges him to go inside, calling out from the shadows only to be spotted by Shin-ho as she makes her escape.

Rather than wallow in misery, Jung does not refuse the inherent melodrama of the situation but addresses it realistically and with a degree of maturity and patience most real life situations can only aspire to. Hye-young believes that Shin-ho hates herself and her son and will never be able to accept them as members of his family, but even so he does appear to have developed at attachment to Young-shin and hopes that he can maintain contact with him even if it remains clear Young-shin cannot remain in their home. Shin-ho’s wife too makes a point of not blaming Young-shin for her husband’s mistake and displays compassion for Hye-young who meant her no harm and has incurred only suffering as a result of her involvement with Shin-ho. Where most melodramas would punish Hye-young for her transgressions, Jung is kinder to her, never condemning her for her “immoral” behaviour in sleeping with Shin-ho before marriage and making it clear that her decision to live independently as a single woman and raise Young-shin alone is not only valid but correct and to be supported. A controversial attitude for the Korea of 1968 but one which declares itself on the side of modernity rather than adherence to traditions which more often than not create more problems than they solve.


Available to stream for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

Sorrow Even Up in Heaven (저 하늘에도 슬픔이, Kim Soo-yong, 1965)

It’s a sorry enough tale to hear that many silent classics no longer exist, regarded only as disposable entertainment and only latterly collected into archives and preserved as valuable film history, but in the case of South Korea even mid and late 20th century films are unavailable thanks to the country’s turbulent political history. Though often listed among the greats of 1960s Korean cinema, Sorrow Even Up in Heaven (저 하늘에도 슬픔이, Jeo Haneuledo Seulpeumi) was presumed lost until a Mandarin subtitled print was discovered in an archive in Taiwan. Now given a full restoration by the Korean Film Archive, Kim’s tale of societal indifference to childhood poverty has finally been returned to its rightful place in cinema history but, as Kim’s own attempt to remake the film 20 years later bears out, how much has really changed?

11 year old Yun-bok has been forced out of his home and into a makeshift hovel near the river thanks to his gambling addicted invalid father’s inability to look after his four now destitute children. Yun-bok likes to narrate his life as a kind of letter to his absent mother who seems to have abandoned the family for unclear reasons possibly related to her husband’s drinking and gambling problem. Attending school as normal in an attempt to work hard and get an education so he can take care of the family in an adult world, Yun-bok, along with his younger sister Sun-na, spends his free time selling sticks of gum in the streets to try and earn enough money to feed everyone before his father drinks and gambles it all away.

Despite his obviously difficult circumstances, Yun-bok remains steadfast in his desire to stick by his family and take care of his siblings. Berated by the teacher for arriving late, Yun-bok finds an ally in a schoolmate who just wants to help even though many of the others shun him because of his raggedy clothes and lice infested hair. Eventually a teacher notices Yun-bok’s distress and urges him to write his struggles in a diary – which he does much as he’d been narrating his days in his imagined conversations with his mother. Moved by Yun-bok’s heartending descriptions of his life on the starvation line, the teacher manages to get the diaries to the newspapers who begin publishing them as a public interest column but just when it looks as if things maybe looking up for the family, Yun-bok loses heart and hops a freight train to look for Sun-na who has run away from home after an argument.

Korea in the 1960s was a difficult place, still bearing the scars of both WWII and the Korean War not to mention the resultant political turmoil. Nevertheless, by 1965 things had begun to pick up as seen in the flip side to Yun-bok’s sorry state of affairs – the various bars and drinking establishments he manages to work his way into in order to sell a few more sticks of gum. These places are filled with the sound of popular music where affluent young couples dance The Twist and salarymen in dark suits cement their business relationships over drinks. For some, everything is going fine but a concerted effort is being made to unsee the kind of unpleasantness which lurks below growing economic prosperity as manifested by 11 year old boys somehow responsible for the maintenance of a family of five.

As one teacher puts it, you can’t break the mirror because you don’t like what you see. Though there are some willing to help Yun-bok (at least to an extent) including his school friend who comes from a well to do family only too glad to set some food aside for Yun-bok and his siblings, out in the real world he finds only other desperate people willing to stoop to theft and violence against a child for nothing more than a few pennies. Many of these episodes are distressing as Yun-bok has his shoeshine kit stolen by an older boy or is violently beaten by a grown man at the harbour but the most serious occurs in the city when he is accused of pickpocketing by some louts who kidnap him and strip him naked for otherwise unclear reasons.

Though Sorrow Even Up in Heaven has a broadly positive ending as Yun-bok’s circumstances seem set to improve thanks to his accidental fame, Kim is quick to point out that there are many Yun-boks out there who can’t all become media sensations. Like many child heroes of classic Korean cinema, Yun-bok remains morally good – the idea of theft occurs to him but he remembers his teacher saying that everything will work out as long as his heart is pure, and his only transgression lies in spending a few pennies on himself to get something to eat and thereby work harder for his family (and for this he pays a heavy price). Even so his circumstances are portrayed in a naturalistic rather than melodramatic fashion neatly undercutting the inherent sentimentality of the material. Though Kim’s approach is closer to neorealism in the early scenes, he mixes in touches of magical realism with the ghostly appearances of Yun-bok’s mother which, alongside impressive montage and superimposition sequences, lend Yun-bok’s story an elevated cinematic quality. Remade several times over the last forty years, Sorrow Even up in Heaven remains sadly timeless in its depiction of an earnest young boy who knows only kindness and honesty even while those around him remain wilfully indifferent or actively cruel in the face of his continued suffering.