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posterIncreasing economic prosperity dangles tantalising rewards for the young and ambitious, but for women trapped by outdated social codes the pleasures of success are largely off limits.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.

Black Hair (검은 머리, Lee Man-hee, 1964)

Black Hair 1964 posterFilm noir can be the most contradictory of genres. A moralistic world filled with immortality, fatalism mixed with existential angst, and a rage against society which is always tinged with a resignation to living on its margins. Genre in Korean cinema has always been a little more fluid than elsewhere and Lee Man-hee’s seminal crime thriller Black Hair (검은 머리, Geomeun Meori) is also a melodrama – the story of a self loathing man committed to his own arbitrary codes, and a woman he expects to pay the price for them.

In a brief prologue that has little to do with the ongoing narrative, ruthless gangster Dong-il (Jang Dong-hui) extorts a corrupt CEO by blackmailing him over some illicit smuggling. Meanwhile, across town, the gangster’s wife, Yeon-sil (Moon Jeong-suk), meets with a man, Man-ho (Chae Rang), in a hotel room. She’s come to pay him off, hoping it will be for the last time but Manh-ho, an opium addict, knows he’s onto an endless cash cow and refuses to put an end to their “arrangement”. Sometime ago, Man-ho raped Yeon-sil and has been blackmailing her for money and sexual favours ever since. Yeon-sil threatens to tell her husband and the police and suffer the consequences, but Man-ho knows she won’t. Dong-il’s gang have a strict rule about adultery and if Yeon-sil trusted him enough to believe he would believe her about the rape, she would have told him already.

Another goon hides behind a screen, snapping photos of Yeon-sil and Man-ho which he later passes on to Dong-il. The boss is shocked and shaken. He knows he has to enforce the rules he himself set down for the gang, but he never expected them to cost him his wife. Eventually Dong-il orders an underling to slash Yeon-sil’s face with a broken bottle, after which she is exiled from the gang. Anyone who tries to repair her scars or help her in any other way will be treated as an enemy.

At this point the narrative splits as Yeon-sil is cast down into a sleazy underworld, living with her blackmailer who pimps her out as a common streetwalker and then steals all her money to spend on drugs and booze. She pines for her husband whom she has been prevented from seeing, longing to at least explain why she did what she did and ensure he knows that her heart has always been with him. Dong-il, by contrast, is going to pieces – his gang no longer respect him, he feels guilty about the way he treated his wife, and he has no idea where to go from here.

Unlike other films of the era or film noir in general, Lee’s world view is non-judgemental in its treatment of the respective paths of Yeon-sil and Dong-il. Yeon-sil is left with no choice than to enter into a life of casual prostitution and the film forgives her for this – the fault is that of Dong-il and Man-ho rather than her own. Having been horribly scarred, she wears her hair longer on one side to hide her disfigurement but is constantly reminded of her emotional damage through its physical manifestation and the reactions it often elicits. Picking up a client in the street, she’s threatened with violence and cruel words for having “deceived” him when he catches sight of her disfigured face. A passing taxi driver witnesses the attack and challenges the man so Yeon-sil can escape. The cabbie then hires her and they spend the night together in a nearby brothel. He surprises Yeon-sil by being entirely unfazed about her facial scarring, offering to help her get it treated if that’s what she wants, and making it clear he would like to spend more time with her off the clock.

Yeon-sil’s life is completely controlled by her triangular relationship to the three men – her unforgiving husband Dong-il, the cruel and venal Man-ho, and the good and decent cab driver. After meeting the cabbie, Yeon-sil tries to see Dong-il again but his boys stop her. They say they’ll take her to see him, but really they’re planning quite another destination. Luckily, in a staggering coincidence, they’re spotted by the taxi driver who once again saves Yeon-sil, taking her home to stay with him and proposing they embark on a more formal relationship.

This is more of a problem than it seems for Dong-il’s guys who now fear their boss will find out they tried to kill his wife in an effort to wake him up from his ongoing existential malaise. The rules of the gang are tough and clear – adultery is not permissible, no woman is allowed to leave, no exceptions are to be made. Dong-il, however, is beginning to rethink the code he himself designed. A conversation with his childhood nanny throws up a number of interesting questions. She blames herself for giving Dong-il “evil” milk which has led to his spiritual corruption, though Dong-il later tells Yeon-sil that he did not choose evil so much evil chose him. He created these “evil” gang rules, but failed to live up to them in continuing to feel attached to Yeon-sil – he feels he must punish himself for the “sin” of being unable to forget her and abide by his own honour system which he now feels to be pointless and arbitrary. Effectively issuing himself a death sentence, Dong-il changes tack confirming that he has, in a sense, chosen evil even if it was a “choice” of refusing to resist the path set down for him. Suddenly realising the emotion he felt for Yeon-sil was love, he is struck by a terrible feeling of loneliness. 

As in much of Lee’s work, Yeon-sil and Dong-il are trapped by their own society and belief systems and finally perhaps by feeling. Yeong-sil is frequently captured behind bars or caught in a window, imprisoned within the frame as she tries to reconcile herself to her precarious position, daring to hope for a new, decent life with the good hearted taxi driver while also mourning her love for Dong-il and living with the humiliation caused to her by Man-ho. Lee’s structure is sometimes unclear as he introduces a fairly pointless subplot about the taxi driver’s modern woman little sister who has moved out to be independent but works in a hostess bar, inhabiting the same sleazy world as Yeon-sil and Dong-il, only more innocently, but never does much with it beyond contrasting the lives of the two women who occupy slightly different generations and have very different options open to them. There’s a fatalism and inevitability in the way Yeong-sil and Dong-il live their lives to which the taxi driver and his sister do not quite subscribe but Lee breaks with the genre’s trademark pessimism to offer the glimmer of a bittersweet ending and the chance of a new beginning for the much abused Yeon-sil now freed of her dark associations.


Black Hair is the second in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet. (Not currently available to stream online)