Korean classic The Flower in Hell (Jiokhwa; 1958) is a gritty drama with a memorable climax that uses thriller and horror elements to great effect. It is also an eye-opening time capsule of South Korea in the late 1950s. Choi EunHie smolders as gum-chewing Sonya, a sex worker who seemingly lives her life to the fullest, and is an opportunist who doesn’t mind stirring up a little controversy. Sonya lives with YoungShik (Kim Hak), a petty criminal who makes his way by stealing supplies from the American military to sell on the black market.
The main protagonist is YoungShik’s younger brother DongShik (Jo HaeWon), who comes to Seoul from their country home to locate DongShik and implore him to return home to help take care of their ailing mother. This sets in motion such things as a brawl between DongShik and his fellow gang members, a lust triangle between Sonya and the two brothers with war orphan Judy (Gang SeonHui) on the periphery, a train robbery with dangerous-looking stunt work, and the famous climactic stalking-in-mud sequence. Director Shin SangOk uses a near-documentary approach at times, including showing a nightclub sequence in which a band plays mambo and jazz music for American soldiers while Korean women perform dances that range from tame to unexpectedly shocking. His look at lower-class life and survival at that time is unflinching, and Kang BeomGu’s terrific black-and-white cinematography captures the proceedings splendidly. Choi (Shin’s real-life wife) is outstanding as a femme fatale who is intelligent, clever, bold, and much more than a mere survivor. Jo plays his country bumpkin character with the right amount of naivety, and Kim gets to stretch perhaps the most, as his character can be tender one moment and wildly violent another. Gripping from start to its mud-caked finish, The Flower in Hell is must-see viewing for fans of world cinema.
Ieoh Island (Iodo; 1977) is a surreal offering from legendary director Kim KiYoung (The Housemaid [Hanyo; 1960]) about a mysterious death and an island inhabited solely by women. Sun WuHyun (Kim JeongCheol) is an advertising man announcing a hotel named after the titular legendary island believed by the locals to be a place of death. When he takes a group of press members on a boat toward the island as a publicity stunt, press member Cheon NamSeok (Choi YunSeok) demands the boat be turned around because Sun is taking island tradition lightly. When the two settle their differences with a late-night drunk, Cheon disappears from the boat and Sun is accused of throwing him overboard. Sun and Cheon’s editor Yang (Park Am) go to Cheon’s home island of Parang to either clear his name or find him guilty, and the women there speak of water ghosts, traditional supernatural legends, peculiar fertility rituals, and other unnerving subjects.
Park YeoIn (Kwon MiHye) is an infertile woman and MinJa (Lee HwaShi) is a barmaid who wants to make the most of her fertility; both women harbor secrets and have deep emotional scars. The island’s shaman (Park JeongJa) is there to seemingly work miracles and to exploit the relationship between YeoIn and MinJa. Ieoh Island is a slow burner that starts off needing viewers to find the rhythm of its flashbacks and current sequences, but once things start getting weird and puzzle pieces begin to fall in place, it builds up to a climax that shocks even today. Not quite a folk horror film but definitely pushing toward that subgenre, Ieoh Island has overtones that will remind some viewers of The Wicker Man (1973), but Kim KiYoung’s enigmatic work has plenty of originality to offer.
The Flower in Hell and Ieoh Island screened at The London Korean Film Festival, which took place from 1st-14th November in London before embarking on its annual tour 18th-24th November. For more information, visit http://koreanfilm.co.uk/.