Three Films by Lee Man-hee: The Marines Who Never Returned (1963), A Day Off (1968) and Assassin (1969)

These three films all feature on a box set put out by the Korean Film Archive, though many of their film restorations (not just these three, but many others) are available to view for free on an official website and a YouTube channel, which I’d recommend checking out if you want to follow up on classic Korean cinema. As for the director, I can’t give you much information. His name is sometimes transliterated as Lee Man-hui, and he was born in Seoul in 1931 and studied there too. He started out in the industry as an actor in the 50s, but had graduated to directing in 1961 and as a director had a prodigious output for much of the 1960s, making up to 10 films in a single year (1967 seems to have been his most prolific). He died at the age of 43 from liver cancer, in 1975.


돌아오지 않는 해병 Dora-oji anneun haebyong (The Marines Who Never Returned, 1963)

If you feel like the title may be a spoiler for what is to come in this tale of South Korean soldiers fighting the north and China in 1950, then welcome to the war film genre (or, indeed, to war). There are plenty of sequences of troops stuck in muddy places fighting to survive, more or less bookending the film, and for me these are the least interesting parts (but perhaps I am just not an enormous fan of the war film as it’s usually and patriotically told). In between, at least in the first half, we get some interplay between the characters, the little struggles that are playing out amongst this squad, and the young girl they saved who tags along (Jeon Young-sun). It’s an earnest attempt to deal with an important bit of recent conflict, but for me it never really coheres into greatness. Still, it’s elegant to look at, shot in widescreen black-and-white.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Lee Man-hee 이만희; Writer Jang Guk-jin 장국진; Cinematographer Seo Jeong-min 서정민; Starring Jang Dong-hwi 장동휘, Choi Moo-ryong 최무룡, Jeon Young-sun 전영선; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 10 July 2019.


A man comforted by a woman

휴일 Hyuil (A Day Off, 1968)

This is a pretty stylish film it must be said, which explores one young man’s ennui in a fashion reminiscent somewhat of Antonioni: there’s modern architecture, bleak vistas swept by dust, little camera pans up to details of the environment, and an overwhelming sense of lives put on hold, dissolute and dissatisfied people. Huh Wook (Shin Seong-il) is our anti-hero (for he’s not really a very nice guy), who drifts around, bouncing from his pregnant girlfriend to a drunk woman in a bar, and because it’s still a Korean film, there are plates of food and lots and lots of drinking scenes. But ultimately it does feel rather one-note in its depiction of urban alienation and the crisis of youth unemployment (at least to me); he eventually reaches the end of the line (literally) and that’s about where my patience with him ended too.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Lee Man-hee 이만희; Writer Baek Gyeol 백결; Cinematographer Lee Seok-gi 이석기; Starring Shin Seong-il 신성일, Jeon Ji-youn 전지연; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Wednesday 26 June 2019.


Several Korean tough guys hang around

암살자 Amsalja (Assassin, 1969)

At a time when the Communist Party in the North has split over the division of the Korean peninsula, one faction sends a hit man after the leader of another faction. The film sets up this violent political infighting rather well at the outset, followed by the back-room chicanery intended to head off the dispute, but once the assassin of the title is hired, it all becomes a little confusing. Our assassin (Jang Dong-hee) is clearly weary of the life, and his face seems to have an almost death mask-like pallor as he grimly fulfils his mission (though perhaps that’s the preservation of the colour in this restoration of what was clearly a patchy original negative). A parallel storyline involving the young daughter (Jeon Young-sun) of the assassin’s previous hit, whom he is looking after, adds little to the drama except the sense that our assassin cares too much to be a killer anymore — in any case, even for her age, the girl seems far too credulous to be letting dodgy Communist Party heavies into her home. Overall, it’s a film with a fatalistic ring to it, but it never really feels compelling in the way that some of Lee Man-hee’s earlier films do.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Lee Man-hee 이만희; Writer Lee Eun-seong 이은성 (based on the novel by Lee O-young 이어령); Cinematographer Lee Seok-gi 이석기; Starring Jang Dong-he 장동휘, Nam Koong-won 남궁원, Park Am 박암, Jeon Young-sun 전영선; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 July 2019.

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