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.
Even by my standards, this is a mini-Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday entry, as I’ve only seen two films by Yim Soon-rye. However, born in 1961 and having studied film in Paris, she’s had a long career in the Korean film industry. Her films are characterised by their focus on women protagonists, that are a bit more contemplative than much mainstream cinema, though having only seen two I can’t really extrapolate much further myself. However, I will certainly be seeking out more opportunities to view her films.
Following 1955’s The Widow, there are barely any films directed by women throughout the rest of the century in Korean cinema. One of the earliest to gain any widespread acclaim was this one directed by Jeong Jae-eun (born 1969). She has largely moved into documentary filmmaking since then, but far more women have take up directing in the Korean cinema industry since.
Every generation has its ‘state of the nation’ ‘here is how the kids live now’ type of statement film, and I guess this is it for 2001 Korea — five friends, just out of the education system, making their way in the world. Bae Doona as Tae-hee is the kind, thoughtful one who keeps the group of friends together, who goes out of her way to help others in need, and who is generally the best person in the film, especially in the way she reaches out to Ji-young (Ok Ji-young), who lives in poverty with her grandparents, and scrapes a meagre living with her art, eventually withdrawing almost completely except for the cat of the title. (Cat lovers incidentally may note there isn’t all that much of it in the film.) Take Care of My Cat may not have any big set-pieces or bold action, but it makes its quiet, compassionate way through several divergent stories and really gives a sense of these different women at a moment in their lives.
Director/Writer Jeong Jae-eun 정재은; Cinematographer Choi Young-hwan 최영환; Starring Bae Doona 배두나, Lee Yo-won 이요원, Ok Ji-young 옥지영; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 12 December 2017.
There aren’t many Korean films directed by women much before the 1990s, and indeed this claims to be the first and may be one of the very few at all in the 20th century. As we’ll see in my subsequent reviews, women directors become very much more prominent in Korea after the turn of the century.
The Widow tells a melodramatic story about a four-way love triangle, between Shin (the widow of the title, Lee Min-ja) and Taek (Lee Tak-kyun), a young man who’s having an affair with the wife of Shin’s late husband’s friend, who himself is chasing unsuccessfully after the widow. When Taek’s old flame returns (he presumed her dead in the recent war), everything is upended once more for Shin. This sounds like the basis for a knock-about comedy, or even a weepie, but it’s instead a slowly-unfolding, gentle drama of love and disappointment, which perhaps suggests the director’s distinctive point-of-view within her contemporary cinematic milieu. It presents a fascinating document of a changing era — not least because (as seen in the 1920s-set My Mother and Her Guest), widowhood had until recently been a heavily-proscribed and solitary state for Korean women. When Taek opines that a woman’s place is in the home, his old flame tuts at him and calls him “old-fashioned”. Sadly, the final reel is lost and the last 10 minutes without sound, so it’s difficult to know how it all resolves, though I suppose that as the audience we can imagine several different scenarios, and are free to decide whichever feels most appropriate.
Director Park Nam-ok 박남옥; Writer Lee Bo-ra 이보라; Cinematographer Kim Yeong-sun 김영순; Starring Lee Min-ja 이민자, Lee Tak-kyun 이택균; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Friday 19 July 2019.
A Korean drama set at the outskirts in a large city, where a couple of intertwined families of North Korean expatriates live, the lives of the children and their parents quite different, with the generation gap marked by the disrespect shown from the younger ones, who need to go out to the city for work (not all of it quite as morally upstanding as their parents would want). We see a lot of the elderly gentlemen of the families sitting around, getting grumpy about the price of things (that indeed is how the film begins), being gouged in the rent by their landlord even for these shacks high above the city, which feels more like a favela or a slum than an integrated settlement. We see the way that money pulls everyone apart, fuelled by the American servicemen who frequent the bars and nightclubs, but their poverty is presumably also class-related and to do with their North Korean origins. The film can be a little clunky at times, but it’s compelling and moves towards a more hopeful resolution centred on the younger generation.
Director Kim Soo-yong 김수용; Writer Lim Hee-jae 임희재 (based on the play by Kim Yeong-su 김영수); Cinematographer Jeon Jo-myeong 전조명; Starring Kim Seung-ho 김승호, Shin Seong-il 신성일, Kim Ji-mee 김지미; Length 81 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Monday 24 June 2019.
This film, set in historical Korea (Goryeo), tells of a time when old people were abandoned up a mountain by their kids, a response to a lack of food in a culture which greatly valued large families. It opens with a panel of experts in the modern day talking about the scourge of overpopulation, before flashing back in time to a rural village out in the mountains. Given the large number of people in the film, the 10 kids of the one family, whom we see at various times over a number of decades, I did get rather confused by who was whom — not least because the film is missing a couple of reels, replaced by dense chunks of text which go past pretty quickly. Still, it’s a brutal film of lives cut too short, nasty and brutish, with all kinds of squabbles and conflicts defining these people, who are born without much hope and then stripped even of that by the circumstances of their lives. The widescreen monochrome photography looks good, though, and it presents nicely its moral quandary of who in society we should value.
Director/Writer Kim Ki-young 김기영; Cinematographer Kim Deok-jin 김덕진; Starring Kim Jin-kyu 김진규, Ju Jeung-ryu 주증녀; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Saturday 29 June 2019.
I may not be an expert on Korean cinema, but this seems to me to be one of the standouts of this era of filmmaking along with Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid of the year before (which I haven’t yet seen, but which will show up on the Criterion Collection). The director and his lead actress (also his wife), Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, have their own fascinating stories quite separate from this film — they were kidnapped in 1978 by North Korea on the orders of Kim Jong-il so as to bring prestige to that country’s film industry — and this story is told in the British documentary The Lovers and the Despot (2016).
A film told largely through the eyes of a young child, Ok-hee (the ubiquitous Jeon Young-son, who appears in many of these 1960s films), who at six is bright, chatty and seemingly guileless in her attachment to her widowed mother (Choi Eun-hee) and the lodger who takes a spare room in their home (Kim Jin-kyu). Soon enough we realise that in fact she has her tricks too, and there’s a lot of humour (she can be very funny) and compassion in the way she helps to match-make her mother with the guest, contrary to societal expectations around how widows should act in Korean society of this period (it’s set in the 1920s I believe). There’s a lot of play around lying and truth-telling, there’s careful etiquette about when two unattached people can be in the same space together or seen talking, lots of avoidance of eye contact, and then at length the sweep of melodrama as the home’s maid falls pregnant to an itinerant egg-seller, and has to move out for propriety’s sake. The film never becomes harsh like some of its characters though, and there’s an underlying warmth to the story that suggests a future for the characters that is only ever hinted at.
Director Shin Sang-ok 신상옥; Writer Lim Hee-jae 임희재 (based on the novel by Cho Yo-sup 주요섭); Cinematographer Choe Su-yeong 최수영; Starring Choi Eun-hee 최은희, Jeon Young-son 전영선, Kim Jin-kyu 김진규; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Korean Cultural Centre, London, Thursday 20 June 2019.
In February 2019, the BFI Southbank programmed a season of early Korean cinema in partnership with the Korean Cultural Centre, and in the introductions at the opening night screening of Crossroads of Youth, we learned that while the first Korean film was made in 1919, the earliest surviving film (and the only surviving silent film) was this one, from 1934. Being a silent film, and one made with the intention of being accompanied by an on-stage narrator (a practice shared with Japanese cinema, perhaps unsurprising given that the territory was under Japanese occupation at the time), this was more than any ordinary screening. Indeed, for this special occasion we got not just a narrator, but a quartet of musicians and even a couple of singers coming in for periodic numbers, which meant this was a complete performance, not just a film.
For all its historical interest, it must be said that the filmmaking itself is a little patchy, which isn’t helped that the first reel has been too badly damaged to salvage, but it’s a testament to the fact that old films can still be unearthed in peoples’ attics, and the fact it survives at all is wonderful. However, given the expectation of the narrator’s accompaniment, not much is explained in the film itself (there is very little text, and no intertitles). Therefore, seeing it with the narrator acting out the parts, filling in plot details, keeping us alert to who’s who (and making occasional joky asides and metatextual references about some of the onscreen action) helped immensely in enjoying this film.
With our narrator sitting at a desk by the side of the screen, it is very much clearer what’s going on in the melodramatic narrative — a young man spurned in love (Lee Wan-yong) sets out to the city, where he succumbs to drinking, while his enamorata is cruelly used by rich men, who then set their sights on his sister (who is herself in town to find her brother). That said, there’s also a hint that this narrative itself undergoes little changes over the course of time depending on the inspiration of its interpreter. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when he’s gently mocking the filmmaker for going out of focus or for the patchy acting of a bit player, and it makes the film just a part of a stage show that greatly impressed me. Without that accompaniment, I can’t imagine I’d be quite as generous.
Director/Writer Ahn Jong-hwa 안종화; Cinematographer Lee Myeong-u 이명우; Starring Lee Wan-yong 이원용, Shin Il-seon 신일선; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Thursday 7 February 2019.
Of all the films I saw at the London Film Festival, Madonna is the one I have the hardest time with, not because it was my least favourite or because it was badly made in any way, just that it’s got some quite challenging material in it. After all, it starts with a dead woman by the side of a canal, in a shot that’s not explained until quite some time later (and to be honest I’m still unclear about that woman), but which is freighted with all kinds of melodramatic baggage. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because most of the film is a sort of build-up to these revelations, as Hye-rim (Young-hee Seo) starts working in the VIP wing of a large city hospital, where she is caring for an ailing billionaire investor, jealously guarded by his son. When he takes a turn and requires a new heart transplant, a mysterious unnamed pregnant patient (So-hyun Kwon) is brought in on life support, and Hye-rim sets out to investigate her past. The bulk of the film, then, is built up in flash-backs about this woman, nicknamed “Madonna”, and her difficult life on the streets. As I hinted above, I don’t quite buy some of the narrative twists taken later in the film, but at its heart this is about the inequities of class, and the unfair pressures put on women, particularly those who are poor, overweight or otherwise marginalised by society. It’s shot through with all kinds of grim and macabre details that can make it difficult to fully love, but there’s plenty in it that shows style and flair.
Director/Writer Shin Su-won 신수원; Cinematographer Yun Ji-woon 윤지운; Starring Seo Young-hee 서영희, Kwon So-hyun 권소현; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Rich Mix, London, Friday 16 October 2015.
For an 18-rated film this is an odd experience, not least because it avoids entirely the kinds of things you expect in 18-rated Korean films. Largely that’s because most Korean films that get a Western release are horror movies or otherwise extreme depictions of violence and revenge. A Girl at My Door has plenty to offer that’s disturbing (why else would it have an 18) but it’s not due to body horror or violence, it’s more down to the basic stuff of human interrelationships. Young-nam (Doona Bae) arrives in a small coastal town to take up the post of police chief; the reason for her posting remains mysterious, though there’s a hint at some wrongdoing in her previous role. She takes a place near to where young girl Do-hee (Sae-ron Kim) lives, and witnesses the girl being terrorised by her drunken father (Sae-byeok Song) and grandmother, so she steps in, over time taking on an almost maternal role to Do-hee. It all ambles along in an unhurried way, building up a picture of this community and the various relationships within it, folding in immigrants working there illegally, a measure of racism, sexism and homophobia, all the familiar stuff of small town drama. The kicker is the child abuse allegations and this is where things get really complex, but there’s a hint this may be less an issue of pædophilia as pædophobia, and importing a real sense of unease to the situation. There are hints in the setting of something like Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, but the character drama is much more internalised and controlled, with excellent performances from both of the leads.
Director/Writer July Jung 정주리; Cinematographer Kim Hyun-seok 김현석; Starring Bae Doona 배두나, Kim Sae-ron 김새론, Song Sae-byeok 송새벽; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Friday 25 September 2015.