A mixed review for Lee Man-hee, the classic film director for LKFF 2011

Most years, the London Korean Film Festival aims to include some classic films, usually from the 1960s, within its schedule. This is a valuable feature for UK cinemagoers, some of whom may be of the impression that Korean film started with Shiri.

This year Lee Man-hee was featured, with two films: A Day Off and Assassin. The Korean Cultural Centre had already given a flavour of Lee’s films earlier this year when they screened his last film, Road to Sampo, as part of a focus on Korean films of the 70s. Born in 1931, Lee died at the early age of 43 in 1975, of a heart attack brought on by overwork. During his 15-year career (his debut film was Kaleidoscope in 1961) he completed around 50 films. Sadly, prints for only 23 of these still survive, which according to Dr Mark Morris (at his talk before the screening of A Day Off) is quite a high ratio for films of the period, when money was short and prints were shown and re-shown until they were worn out. Many masterpieces have been lost, including Lee’s Full Autumn (1966) (of which a rather disappointing remake by Kim Tae-yong, Late Autumn screened at the LKFF this year).

Lee Man-hee
Lee Man-hee

Lee famously got into trouble with the authorities more than once – he was, for example, arrested for his Seven Female POWs (1965) – in which North Koreans rescue some South Korean nurses from the Chinese during the Korean War: Lee’s crime was being too sympathetic to the communists.

In respect of his Day Off (aka Holiday, 휴일, 1968), the film fell foul of the censors for presenting too bleak a picture of life in Korea in the late 1960s. The film was never approved for release, and the print sat on a shelf, forgotten, for more than 30 years until it was finally screened in 2005.

The story centres on two young lovers about whom we know very little other than that they can only meet on a Sunday. The man, Heo-wook, seems to be unemployed, but is nevertheless well-dressed: he can’t afford a cup of coffee, but the only activity available to him seems to be to loiter in coffee shops. And he can’t really afford a packet of cigarettes without cheating his taxi driver. The woman, Ji-yeon, is similarly well-dressed, and possibly has a job. We’re not sure where she lives, but assuming she lives with her father it’s a miserable hovel.

Namsan Park in late autumn - not the best place for a lovers' tryst
Namsan Park in late autumn - not the best place for a lovers' tryst

They spend their week days waiting for Sunday, when they meet each other in a park on Namsan. But it’s clear that at one point they were able to meet in private because the girl is six months pregnant. How to get an abortion when they have no money?

Heo-wook spends a few hours trying to borrow money from his friends – one of whom is so bored that he is spending all of his Sunday in the bath. The mission provides an opportunity for Lee to show street scenes of Seoul (predominantly the Myongdong area) a Seoul which seems to be one big building site with nothing quite finished yet.

Heo-wook and Ji-yeon consult the obstetrician
Heo-wook and Ji-yeon consult the obstetrician

In one of the more confusing plot points, they go to the doctor to get an abortion, only to be told that Ji-yeon is desperately ill (well, this is a Korean melodrama, after all) and her only hope is, well, to have an abortion. Ji-yeon is therefore saved from the moral dilemma, and the decision (which she had already made) is taken out of her hands.

Heo-wook drowns his sorrows and picks up a girl - a typical Sunday afternoon in late 1960s Seoul?
Heo-wook drowns his sorrows and picks up a girl - a typical Sunday afternoon in late 1960s Seoul?

Heo-wook drowns his sorrows in a bar, in the process picking up a similarly miserable drunken girl. After a night of drinking and canoodling with his new playmate he remembers that Ji-yeon has had an operation and ought to check up on her. You can fill in the remainder of the plot yourself, and rather like at the end of Aimless Bullet, where the hero goes on an aimless taxi journey through the streets of Seoul, Heo-wook gets on a random tram, just managing to stay upright, and proceeds literally to the end of the line. He resolves, pointlessly, to have a haircut the next day. End of film.

It is intentionally a bleak picture of the hardships of living in Seoul in the 1960s, of the poverty and aimlessness of life. It is a Seoul in transition: there’s endless construction but no completed buildings – the construction sites themselves seem empty and derelict. This is not a film which promotes Park Chung-hee’s vision of Korea and is valuable for its contemporary view of life. It is said that the censors told Lee that a very simple change would enable the film to be passed for screening: to have Heo-wook extend his final sentence to say: “tomorrow morning I’m going to have a haircut and then sign up at the army recruiting office so that I can fight those commies”. Lee refused, preferring to have his film present a consistent world view.

Clearly an ending that the censors wanted would have been an abrupt break from the rest of the film. But the ending to Assassin is similarly abrupt, almost as if Lee has run out of film.

The commies try to decide on an assassin
The commies try to decide on an assassin

Assassin (암살자, 1969) is one classic film which really didn’t need to be restored. If it wasn’t by Lee Man-hee one wonders whether it would have been on the Korean Film Archive’s list of priorities for restoration at all. Set in the immediate post-liberation period, it’s a thriller which fits better with Park Chung-hee’s view of the world than did A Day Off. The plot concerns in-fighting between factions of the communist party over whether or not to support the UN Trusteeship under which the peninsula is to be divided under US and Soviet control. One faction decides to commission a hit-man to get rid of the leader of the opposing faction.

The bad guys have detailed plans as to how to kill their target. All the logistics have been worked out – road transport and a boat – and all contacts confirmed and in place. But bizarrely, they haven’t decided on their hit-man yet. And the hit has to take place that very night.

The assassin (right) and his minder with the strange sense of humour - and strange dress sense for a nocturnal mission
The assassin (right) and his minder with the strange sense of humour - and strange dress sense for a nocturnal mission

Once you’ve got over that massive suspension of disbelief, and once the bad guys have persuaded their chosen hit-man that his target is a worthy adversary, you settle down into a conventional thriller. The plot provides opportunity for plenty of suspense, which Lee proceeds to over-milk. The assassin crosses the lake (suspenseful music) while his target, the communist leader, canoodles with his girlfriend (soft romantic music). Cut back to the assassin, still crossing the lake (same suspenseful music) as the communist leader works on his speech for the next morning (same soft romantic music). Cut back to the assassin, approaching the shore… you get the picture. The assassin has a minder with an extremely irritating laugh. And he laughs a lot, for no reason, other than that he is a slightly manic bad guy.

For sensible reasons, the communist faction doesn’t want any witnesses to the assassination (they want to be able to blame the pro-US elements), and thus certain loose ends need to be tied up. As the last witness is removed we get a didactic voiceover which reminds us that communists are bad people. End of film.

The ending felt too abrupt, with too many questions unanswered. What happened to the assassin’s daughter, who was still being baby-sat by one of the bad guys? Why did some of the bad guys who knew about the assassination need to be killed but not others? At the beginning of the film we had a voiceover that we were about to see the story of how the communist factions wiped each other out – yet there were still lots of bad guys still alive at the end of the film.

The babysitter / kidnapper recites a nursery rhyme about the big bad wolf
The babysitter / kidnapper recites a nursery rhyme about the big bad wolf

If the ending was too abrupt, there were scenes which should have ended on the cutting-room floor: the over-milked suspense scenes, as outlined above; the never-ending nursery rhyme about the big bad wolf sung by the assassin’s daughter and her babysitter / kidnapper. The pacing felt unbalanced, and while the motivation for killing the communist leader was explained, the strange sense of humour of the hit-man’s minder was not.

I’m sure I will be told that we should make allowances. Lee Man-hee is a great director. This is one of his early films in colour. He worked under conditions of great resource constraints and censorship. Et cetera.

I really feel guilty about saying this, but do we have to make allowances? Films like Shin Sang-ok’s Mother and her Guest (1961) and Kim Ki-young’s Housemaid (1960) can completely blow you away because of the quality of their story-telling and acting. Despite being made eight years before Assassin, no excuses need to be made. Assassin feels wooden and primitive, at times laughably so, while Mother and her Guest and Housemaid feel remarkably modern and compelling.

Mother and her Guest and Housemaid were however made in Korea’s golden age of cinema, before Park Chung-hee’s censorship regime fully came in force. It is instructive to see that of the two films shown at the LKFF this year it is the one that failed the censor’s requirements that is more watchable. Plenty of other films that were made during the military dictatorship are worth watching – for example Lee’s own Road to Sampo – but sadly Assassin is not. Interesting as a curiosity, but not as a cinematic experience.

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