The Korean Family, Light and Shadow

Foreword by Dr. Mark Morris.

People from outside Korea are always surprised to learn that Korean families manage to maintain dense networks of affection and responsibility, obligation and ritual that societies elsewhere gen- erally cast off, for better or worse, long ago. Whether it concerns small details like etiquette between elders and jun- iors during a family meal, or weighty decisions such as marriage or the rituals still involved in waking the dead, kinship makes its presence felt throughout the social structure of the contemporary nation, one which on the surface seems ultra-modern and more obsessed with consumerism than custom. And the omnipresence of patriarchal values as one keystone to the social edifice can take a bit of getting used to as well.

Lee Hyeong-pyo had been a cinematographer and maker of docu- mentaries for the US Army before pro- ducer Shin Sang-ok hired him to direct Under the Sky of Seoul (1961). The family in question is headed by a most fallible patriarch, played by the great actor Kim Seung-ho. Kim Hak-kyu is a prac- titioner of traditional Chinese medicine. He does little actual work and seems to spend most of his time with two cronies, men like himself devoted to occupations such as fortune-telling or small scale business whose future belongs to a past that is rapidly disappearing from the landscape of Seoul.

Hak-kyu’s only interaction with his widowed daughter and unemployed son consists of clumsy efforts to thwart their own efforts to escape family gravity and live independent lives. Another fine actor, Kim Jin-kyu, plays the young doctor whose bright new clinic is right across the alleyway from Hak-kyu’s old house. The growing affection between young widow and the widower doctor, like the sexual relations between Hak- kyu’s son and a local girl, put pressures on the hapless old man; when his pig- headed attempt to become a local politician fails spectacularly, it leads him to a suicide attempt, of sorts. In clumsier hands, this could all be the stuff of bathetic melodrama. But Under the Sky of Seoul is comic from its off-kilter open- ing panorama and the first sounds of its jaunty music (creatively appropriated from other soundtracks, often the case in those days). Kim Seung-ho’s ‘suicide’ scene ends with the whole family laughing.

The cast includes many other popular actors who would enliven Korean cinema throughout the golden decade of the 1960s. That remarkable decade was already well underway by 1961. Kim Seung-ho himself appeared in 32 features that year. He established himself as Korean film’s most beloved father figure in this film and in others made that year, such as the more tragic Coachman, where Kim plays a working- class father, or Petty Middle Manager, a family comedy set in the world of mid- dle-class moral ambiguity.

Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960) was made the year before Lee Hyeong-pyo’s comedy. Between the making of the two films, South Korea had seen its first national father figure, the corrupt authoritarian president Syng-man Rhee, chased out of the country and a weak but more democratic government shunted aside by a military coup. That coup brought to power Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian modern- iser who would drag the nation towards its future as industrial and technologi- cal wonder. The Housemaid was made before Park’s censors were in place; once in control, they banned it as well as other challenging films of the brief interregnum like Yu Hyun-mok’s masterpiece Obaltan (Aimless Bullet).

Kim Jin-kyu here takes on the role of Dong-shik. Dong-shik has a career that brings in little income: he teaches music to female workers at a textile factory and gives piano lessons at home. Meanwhile his wife sits sewing incessantly, trying to augment their funds in order to pay for the new house apparently being built around them. And what a strange house it becomes. Director Kim combines expressionistic sets, discordant music and haunting lighting to make the house an ominously central player in the drama.

The family is a bit odd from the outset: a man without a very manly job, economic decisions driven by the wife’s ambitions, a disabled daughter – and isolated from the usual wider network of kinship. Into this unstable nuclear family comes the character who blows it apart: a poor working-class girl taken on as a maid to help out the wife, now pregnant with a third child. The film is realistic in showing a collision between young job-hungry people coming into Seoul from the country- side and the aspiring middle-class who would employ them. Yet the ways the director shot the story, and its strange blend of camp gothic and expressionis- tic horror, had no real precedent in Korean cinema. The sexual aspects of this particular collision between struggling teacher and predatory maid may have been too much for the censors in 1961. However, Kim Ki-young would go on to make versions of the same narrative in the 1970s and 1980s: you can see them on the Korean Film Archive website hosted by YouTube. None are half as powerful as this unsettling masterpiece of weirdness from 1960.

–Dr. Mark Morris, Cambridge University

Under the Sky of Seoul

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UK Premiere

Film info

Director: Lee Hyung-pyo
Cast: Kim Seung-ho,Heo Chang-kang,Kim Hee- kap,Choi Eun-hee,Kim Jin-kyu
Cert TBC, 123mins, 2018

Introduction by Dr Mark Morris

The Housemaid

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Film info

Director: Kim Ki-young
Cast: Kim Jin-gyu, Lee Eun-shim, Ju Jeung- nyeo, Um Aeng-ran, Ahn Sung-ki
Cert TBC, 111mins, 2018


Official Selection
Thessaloniki Int. Film Festival

Official Selection
Tokyo Int. Film Festival

In partnership with MUBI