The Midnight Sun (0시(영시) / 0時, Lee Man-hee, 1972)

midnight sun posterIn Korean cinema, the police are a problematic presence. Often corrupt, violent, self-interested, and incompetent, even when the cops are the good guys it’s generally because they’re badder than the bad. 1972’s The Midnight Sun (0시(영시) / 0時, 0 Shi), however contains a rare example of a virtuous policeman whose fierce commitment to ethical values perhaps runs too far in endangering his role as a husband and father.

Police captain Jang Jung-han (Heo Jang-gang) has been charged with tracking down a couple of delinquents who’ve been going round committing robberies on a motorcycle they stole from the son of a high ranking police officer. Meanwhile, his son, Kyuseok, has made friends with a boy from the country, Dol Lim, who’s looking for his sister. Feeling sorry for the boy who’s all on his own, Jang takes him in until Kyuseok manages to get him a job as a greeter outside a local restaurant. Complications arise when Lee Min-soo (Mun Oh-jang), a felon previously arrested by Jang, is released and signals his intention to get revenge on Jang whom he blames for the death of his son while he was inside.

Jang is in all ways a model police officer who is good at his job and pursues all of his investigations with the utmost professionalism. His work is, however, not always compatible with being a regular family man. An early scene sees him greeted by his young son, up early on a part-time job delivering newspapers on his flashy pushbike, who reminds him he’s not been home in a couple of days. Kyuseok has been given a message from both his aunt and his mum to make sure his dad remembers to come home early – Jang has completely forgotten that it’s his wife’s birthday (and not for the first time).

Though she has long made her peace with being a policeman’s wife, Mrs. Jang (Yoon Jeong-hee) has her share of troubles with a husband whose safety is not assured while he is often absent from home for extended periods of time. Jang’s salary is also comparatively low and the family have a very modest quality of life with little chance of any kind of advancement. For all of these reasons, she counsels her sister, Hye-rung (Kim Chang-sook), not to get into a relationship with Jang’s junior officer, Park (Shin Seong-il). Hye-ryung, unmarried, lives with the Jangs and works as a tour guide on a tourist bus. Rather than advocating marriage, Mrs. Jang thinks her sister should look into becoming an air hostess, hinting at new possibilities outside of the home for the next generation of Korean women. Despite her sister’s advice, however, Hye-ryung purses a tentative, spiky romance with Park even if somewhat irritated that he only takes her out for noodles rather than something fancier. A policeman’s salary only stretches so far, after all.

Jang’s loyalties are strained when his cases begin to overlap. Lee Min-soo has returned from his prison sentence to find his wife has left him for another man and his son has died. Lee only turned to crime because his son was ill and he needed money for medical treatment, but Jang wouldn’t listen to his mitigating circumstances and arrested him anyway. While he was inside his boy died and Lee holds Jang responsible. In revenge, he kidnaps Kyuseok but rather than drop everything to look for his son, Jang continues to work on the delinquent case and reminds his colleagues to split their workloads. He regards his son’s predicament as “personal” and refuses to dedicate extra resources or take men and time away from other matters for his own benefit. Jang’s coolness further strains his relationship with his wife who can’t understand why he isn’t trying harder to find their son. Yet in Jang’s officious mind, to do so would be wrong and a betrayal of his duty as a police officer.

Lee eventually decides to give up on his revenge and let Kyuseok go after bonding with the boy and being swayed by his cheerful innocence. Kyuseok forgives his kidnapper and wants his dad to do the same. Jang too is a compassionate soul – he is eventually able to help Dol Lim find his sister though, unfortunately, also has to arrest her. Like Lee, Dol’s sister is also forced into a reconsideration of her life of crime after seeing her brother. Arrested by Jang, she resolves to atone, swaps her bright red mini skirt for modest attire, and ties her hair up in a more innocent style. She even manages to convert her boyfriend to the same cause and the pair decide to get married once they’ve paid their debts to society. Wanting to help Dol, Jang does his best to get the pair as a light a sentence as possible while ensuring justice is served both on a legal and on a human level.

Mixing the crime genre with family drama, Lee Man-hee continues his tendency towards experimentation but with a more hopeful outlook, allowing for a happier ending in which family bonds are restored and crimes forgiven rather than punished. Rather than the frustration and inertia which often traps Lee’s conflicted heroes, Jang and his family are able to free themselves from their various prisons through nothing more than compassion and goodness. Sponsored by the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency, Midnight Sun is an oddly cheerful piece of pro-police propaganda in which the stigmatised face of authoritarian rule is given a humanising makeover even while remaining steadfast and selfless in the pursuit of justice.


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

Seven People in the Cellar (지하실의 7인 / 地下室의 七人, Lee Seong-gu, 1969)

Seven People in the Cellar posterThe “literary film” was beginning to fall out of favour by 1969. The collapse of the quota system introduced under the 1962 Motion Picture Law, the exclusion of literary film from the “Domestic Films of Excellence” programme (which encouraged producers to produce high quality Korean films to qualify for distributing more lucrative foreign ones), and the rise of television all conspired to produce a shift towards the populist. Lee Seong-gu had made his name with a series of literary adaptations which enabled him to experiment with form in the comparatively more elevated “arthouse” arena but with horizons shrinking even he found himself with nowhere left turn. Seven People in the Cellar (지하실의 7인 / 地下室의 七人 *, Jihasil-ui Chil-in) is Lee’s last “literary film” and is adapted from a stage play by Yun Jo-byeong who was apparently unhappy with Lee’s adaptation in its abandonment of his carefully constructed ideological balance in favour of adhering to the typical rhetoric of the “anti-communist” film.

Set towards the end of the Korean War, Seven in People in the Cellar presents itself as a conflict between the godless and hypocritical forces of communism and the good and righteous Catholic Church. Accordingly, our hero is a priest, Father Ahn (Heo Jang-gang), who has just returned to his church after being forced to flee by the encroaching “puppet army”. Accompanied by a nun, Lucia (Yun So-ra), and a new curate, Brother Jeong (Lee Soon-jae), Father Ahn is glad to be reunited with his flock but there are dark spectres even here – Maria (Yoon Jeong-hee), a young woman Ahn was forced to leave behind when he fled, runs away from the priest on catching sight of him, apparently out of shame. Meanwhile, while Ahn was away, three rogue Communists began squatting in his cellar waiting for the “reinforcements” which are supposedly going to retake the town. Taking Sister Lucia hostage, the Communists force Ahn to feed them while keeping their existence a secret. To Jeong’s consternation, Ahn agrees but out of Christian virtues rather than fear – he feels the Communists too are lost children of God and have been sent to him so that he may guide them back towards the light.

Not a natural fit for the world of the anti-communist film, Lee does his best to undermine the prevalent ideology even if he must in the end come down hard with Ahn’s essential moral goodness. Thus, Communists aside, the conflict becomes one of age and youth, male and female, as much as between “right” and “wrong” or “North” and “South”. Jeong, youthful and hotheaded, lacks Ahn’s Christian compassion – he bristles when Ahn immediately sets about feeding the starving villagers with their own rations, and disagrees with his decision to harbour the Communists even while knowing that Lucia’s life is at stake if they refuse. Twice he tries to kill the communist “enemy”, threatened by their ideological opposition to his own cause – once when he enters the cellar and misinterprets an altercation between Lucia and sympathetic soldier Park (Park Geun-hyeong), and secondly when the troop’s female commander, Ok (Kim Hye-jeong), attempts to seduce him.

Sexuality becomes spiritual battleground with Christian chastity winning out over Communist free love. Ok, as unsympathetic a communist as it’s possible to be, is sexually liberated and provocative. She suggestively loosens her shirt and fondles her breast in front of a confused junior officer, later taking him into the forest and more or less ordering him to make love to her (which he, eventually, does). However, it is to her simply a matter of a need satisfied. Ok describes the moment she has just shared with her comrade as no different than sharing a meal. She was “hungry”, she ate. When she’s hungry again she will eat again but there’s no more to it than that and there is no emotional or spiritual component in her act of “lovemaking”, only the elimination of a nagging hunger. 

Ok’s transgressive and “amoral” sexuality is contrasted with that of the abused Maria who was tortured and later raped by the Communists’ commanding officer. Forced to betray a nun, she was robbed not only of her innocence but also of her faith. Maria is the “pure woman” corrupted by Communist cruelty. Her chastity was removed from her by force, and she sees no other option than to continue to ruin herself in atonement for her “sin”. Unable to live with the consequences of her actions, she sees no way out other than madness or martyrdom.

The fact that Maria’s torturer is another woman, and such an atypical woman at that, is another facet of the Communist’s animalistic inhumanity. As in The General’s Mustache, the Communists are seen to use innocent children as bargaining chips when ordinary torture fails, even this time killing one to prevent him telling the village about their hiding place. Yet the height of their cruelty is perhaps in their indifference to each other – Park, touched by Sister Lucia’s refusal to leave when he tried to let her go fearing that he would face reprisals, announces his intention to defect to the South and is shot dead by his commander in cold and brutal fashion. Park’s defection is a minor “win” for Ahn who sought restore the Communists’ sense of humanity and bring their souls to God, but it’s also born of misogynistic pique in his intense resentment of the “bossy” Ok who turns out to be an undercover officer from HQ on a special mission to spy against him.

With the one redeemed Communist dead, all that remains is for the others is to slowly destroy themselves. Ahn, cool and composed in absolute faith, waits patiently certain that the friendly South Korean soldiers will shortly liberate them. A hero priest, Ahn is the saintly opposite of the Communists’ cruelty in his compassionate determination to save them even at the risk of his own life. Lee keeps the tension high, creating siege drama that feels real and human in contrast with the often didactic and heavily stylised narrative of the “anti-communist” film, subtly muddying the essential messages but allowing Ahn’s compassion (rather than his “faith”) to shine through as the best weapon against oppressive inhumanity.


Seven People in the Cellar is the fourth and final film included in the Korean Film Archive’s Lee Seong-gu box set. Not currently available to stream online.

* In rendering the Hanja title, the landscape poster uses the arabic numeral 7 while the portrait version uses the Chinese character 七.