The Devil’s Stairway (마의 계단 / 魔의 階段, Lee Man-hee, 1964)

devils-staircase-poster.jpgBy 1964, Korea’s economic situation was beginning to improve and for many there seemed to be a bright light shining in the distance, a fixed point to which they could aspire and felt was in their grasp if they could only catch a lucky break. Throughout Lee Man-hee’s relatively short career (the director sadly passed away at the young age of only 45 – apparently a casualty of his fondness for drink and intensive work habit which accounts for his high output), his protagonists struggle with a conflict between the desire for the new kind of “success” their society promises them, and a feeling that they can never truly obtain it. Ambitious surgeon Dr. Hyeon (Kim Jin-kyu) attempts to climb The Devil’s Stairway (마의 계단 / 魔의 階段, Maui Gyedan, AKA The Evil Stairs) by abandoning the compassion that ought to define his profession for coldhearted pragmatism but discovers that the path has its price while his victims are not quite so passive as he’d assumed them to be.

When we first meet Dr. Hyeon he’s lounging around in bed while his female companion, Nurse Nam (Moon Jeong-suk), dresses and prepares to leave. Somewhat coldly, Hyeon tells her to exit via the back stairs and avoid being seen by the security guard on her way. Irritated, Nam leaves and the pair go back to work at the hospital the next morning pretending there’s nothing more between them than the relationship between a nurse and a chief surgeon. This situation might have continued indefinitely were it not for the fact that Jeong-ja (Bang Sung-ja), the daughter of the hospital’s head doctor, has taken a liking to Hyeon and seeing as her father has no sons to take over when he retires, an arranged marriage is in the offing. Dr. Hyeon, who is ambitious and emotionally cold, considers accepting the offer but Nurse Nam is unwilling to let him go, especially as she is pregnant with his child. When she threatens to spill the beans about their illicit relationship, he decides to kill her by dosing her up with sedatives and throwing her body in the pool behind the hospital to make it look like she drowned herself in heartbreak and shame, but Nurse Nam refuses to go quietly.

The titular “Devil’s Stairway” is a literal staircase from the hospital floor to the head doctor’s office. There has recently been accident in which the bannister was broken and a woman was killed. The banister is repeatedly mended throughout the film but represents a point of fracture in the spiritual path to success. Nurse Nam is another early casualty when she and Hyeon argue in the middle of the stairs and the recently mended bannister breaks as he struggles with her. Despite the minimal drop to the floor, Nam is left with serious injuries requiring surgery, loses her baby, and gains a conviction that Hyeon bears her ill will. Her position is extremely difficult – the accident has exposed the fact that she had conceived a child outside of wedlock and though she has not yet disclosed the name of the father, Hyeon fears that she will destroy his bright future either by speaking out or through forcing him to marry her to avoid social disgrace.

Hyeon gives in to darker instincts. He tells Nam that his heart is hers, perhaps intending to carry on an arrangement even after he’s decided to accept the marriage proposal, but excuses himself for stringing her along by reminding her of his lack of financial stability and comparatively low social status. We are reminded later that he is old be unmarried and, even stranger, is assumed to be a “virgin” – a solitary, perhaps dull, bachelor not known for mixing with women. This again signals his coldhearted ambition – he waits and he calculates. He wants a hospital of his own and knows his only way to get one is to marry into it, and so he does even if it means sacrificing “love” and emotional happiness for the cold comforts of conventional success and the false acclamation of social status.

Hyeon thinks he’s got away with it, but his crime haunts him. Going slowly out of his mind, Hyeon sees Nam everywhere, placing a strain on his relationship with his new wife who grows wary of his increasing violence and bad temper. His madness culminates in a tense surgery scene in which everyone around him has Nam’s face and he finds himself surrounded by his crime, forced to confess himself as a murderer in order to free himself of her ghost. Yet, things are not quite as they seem and it is not he alone who finds his grand plan floundering.

Hyeon posits his poverty as a reason for his crime, but it’s his greed which guides him towards the Devil’s Stairway. He could have married Nam, had his child, and led an ordinary middle-class life of relative comfort perhaps even opening his own clinic in good time, but he chose the quick fix in marrying for money and (literally) throwing over the woman he claimed to love to ease his feelings of insecurity and resentment at his position in the social order. His murder is cowardly but, as Nam points out, the law may protect him while there are precious few looking out for her, a betrayed woman, pregnant outside of marriage, and without a family to press her case.

As he did in the same year’s Black Hair, Lee co-opts the murkiness of the film noir, sending its sense of betrayed morality into the realms of the gothic with an ever increasing atmosphere of supernatural dread. The pond seems to emanate evil while the stairs beckon ominously, the wind rattles the doors open without warning and the rain pours down outside adding to the claustrophobic gloom of the creepy old hospital as if attempting to embody the evil that lies at its centre. Drawing heavily from Les Diaboliques, Lee declares no winners in his tale of fractured morality and emotional betrayal, painting it as a symptom of a confused era in which all emerge tarnished from a struggle to gain some kind of personal agency in an otherwise oppressive environment. Taut to the last, The Devil’s Stairway is a forgotten masterpiece of psychological horror and a mild condemnation of a society’s slide into national paranoia and greedy consumerism at the cost of true human feeling.


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

Aimless Bullet (오발탄, AKA Obaltan, Yu Hyun-mok, 1961)

Post-war cinema took many forms. In Korea there was initial cause for celebration but, shortly after the end of the Japanese colonial era, Korea went back to war, with itself. While neighbouring countries and much of the world were engaged in rebuilding or reforming their societies, Korea found itself under the corrupt and authoritarian rule of Syngman Rhee who oversaw the traumatic conflict which is technically still ongoing if on an eternal hiatus. Yu Hyun-mok’s masterwork Aimless Bullet (오발탄, Obaltan) takes place eight years after the truce was signed, shortly after mass student demonstrations led to Rhee’s unseating which was followed by a short period of parliamentary democracy under Yun Posun ending with the military coup led by Park Chung-hee and a quarter century of military dictatorship. Of course, Yu could not know what would come but his vision is anything but hopeful. Aimless Bullets all, this is an entire nation left reeling with no signposts to guide the way and no possible destination to hope for. All there is here is tragedy, misery, and inevitable suffering with no possibility of respite.

Nominal head of the family Cheolho (Kim Jin-kyu) has an OK job as an accountant but still he can’t make ends meet and his small family consisting of his wife, two children, war hero younger brother Yeongho (Choi Moo-ryong), unmarried sister Myeongsuk (Seo Ae-ja), and senile mother with wartime PTSD lives in a makeshift hovel in the middle of a fetid slum. Yeongho may have distinguished himself on the battlefield, but now the war is over society can’t find a use for him and so he remains jobless and another drain on his brother’s resources. In many ways he was one of the lucky ones, returning from the war with physical and mental scars but no permanent impairments. Myeongsuk’s former fiancé was not so lucky and requires the use of crutches to get around leading him to reject the woman he loves in the belief that he will never be anything more than a burden to all around him.

Cheolho suffers with a persistent toothache which he refuses to get treatment for despite the constant urging from his colleagues because he cannot in good conscience consider spending the money on himself when he has so many people with so many different needs to take care of. His toothache is not just a toothache but a manifestation of the unending torment of life in this ruined city defined by despair, madness, and cruelty.

The film begins with broken glass – a motif which will be repeated throughout as the structural integrity of this makeshift environment is repeatedly tested and repeatedly fails. A group of former soldiers is drinking in a bar, each lamenting their sorry progress in the post-war world. Yeongho remarks that he feels like a broken bowl – something used up and ready for the scrap heap. The country he fought so hard to protect has no place for him now the fighting is done. After such a long time searching for work, Yeongho is finally offered a promising job by an old flame currently working as an actress in the fledgling film industry, but the part they’ve offered him is that of a war veteran with similar scarring to his own. The studio want realism and casually ask him to remove his shirt and show off the traces of bullet holes on his side which is a step too far for Yeongho who objects to his wartime service being “exploited” in such a mercenary way. Insulted and not wanting to dishonour the memories of his fallen comrades Yeongho storms out only to later reconsider and realise he may have been foolish to turn down such a promising opportunity despite his indignation.

It isn’t just bowls and glass which end up shattered but dreams too as love lies bleeding in a land of permanent despair. Yeongho seems like something of a ladies’ man but re-encountering a kindly nurse he met at the front he begins to feel another life is possible. This particular dream is complicated by the presence of a disturbed neighbour who has also fallen in love with the nurse and stops by late at night to read her poetry despite the fact that she has taken to waving a gun to scare him off.

Cheolho has committed himself to living honestly, even if it means his family suffers. Yeongho is beginning to wonder if his philosophy is worth suffering for, why should they have to keep living like this when they could abandon conventional morality and humanitarian concerns and become rich through immoral means. Myeongsuk, abandoned by the love of her life and unable to find work, has fallen into prostitution, another effect of the ongoing American military presence. Yeongho, having lost all hope, makes a drastic decision of his own but one which is destined to be as ill fated as each of his other dreams, hollow and unfulfillable as they are.

Experiencing a moment of selfish indulgence born of total despair, Cheolho finally gets his tooth seen to. Actually he asks the dentist to just pull all his teeth right now but medical ethics suggest that’s not a good idea. Ignoring the dentist’s advice, Cheolho roams the streets of the city before stopping into another dental clinic for more “treatment”. Dazed and bloody he steps into a taxi but confuses his drivers by changing his mind on destinations from the morgue to the hospital to the police station. The Aimless Bullet of the title, as the cabbie calls him, Cheolho can only echo the words of his senile mother, “let’s go”, even if he has no idea where. Earlier in the film another character has the same dilemma and frames it as a joke – ask a dying man where he’s going, he says, and he’ll tell you he doesn’t know. There is nowhere for Cheolho to go. His road is blocked, his meter running. Korea is directionless and lost, a desolate land of broken bowls and ruined hearts too tired to keep moving even if there were any destination available.

So relentlessly bleak, it’s little wonder that the film ran into censorship problems which eventually saw it pulled from cinema screens. Legend has it censors objected to the frequent refrains of “let’s go” from the bedridden mother which they interpreted as “let’s go to North Korea” as opposed to the “just let us die” which seems to be the much darker message implied by her later talk of sheep and green pastures. Everything here is broken, caged, ruined. There is no way out or possibility of salvation in this life or any other. Lasting only a few seconds, the film’s most shocking moment passes with little to no reaction as Yeongho, on the run from the police, dashes past the body of a woman who has hanged herself with her crying baby still tied to her back. Yeongho, and presumably the police chasing him, ignore both the body and the wailing of the child in their self obsessed propulsion forwards. A warning – but one which is heeded only too late.


Short scene from the film (English subtitles)

Aimless Bullet is available on English subtitled region free blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive but you can currently watch the HD restoration version of the film in its entirety legally and for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel. (You may have to sign in and “confirm” you’re a grown up.)