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The Lost Horrors of Korean Cinema: Lee Yong-min’s Lost Horror Legacy

Lee Yong-min’s Career

Lee Yong-min headshot

In the past couple of years, the South Korean film industry has produced a slew of horror films—The Red Shoes (2005), The Host (2006), and Thirst (2009) just to name a few—which have managed to receive exposure amongst the international film community. At first glance, one would think that Korea was finally getting in on the horror genre, but this is not true. Starting in the early 1960s, during the countries own Golden Era of film production, South Korean cinema was dabbling with horror. In the 1960s and 1970s, one filmmaker who specialized in the Korean horror genre was Lee Yong-min.

In a certain aspect, Lee Yong-min could be categorized with other foreign directors like Mario Bava and Nobuo Nakagawa; filmmakers who would become pioneers of the horror genre in their own homeland, jumpstarting the genre for others to follow. And yet, while Bava and Nakagawa continue to receive a dedicated fan-base for their contributions towards cinematic terror, Yong-min has, sadly, been left on the way-side. Part of the problem is that the majority of his films, especially the horror ones, are lost. However, while some titles have managed to be recovered and preserved at the Korean Film Archive (KOFA), the archive has yet to release any of them on home video in either South Korea or anywhere outside of the country. Therefore, at this time, it can be assumed Yong-min’s existing work has yet to receive critical attention amongst cinephiles in South Korea, as well as even minimal interest here in the West.

Despite having a fairly varied filmography, very little is known about Yon-min. The majority of his films, be it horror or otherwise, are either lost or unavailable for wide viewing. Therefore, finding background info on his upbringing, what got him into the industry, what inspired him to tackle the horror genre, and what happened to him after his final film remains unknown. But, what is unique about Yong-min is that he was truly a pioneer of the horror genre in his homeland.

Still from A Neckless Beauty

Still from A Neckless Beauty

Born November 2nd, 1916 in Seoul, Lee Yong-min would study film in Japan at the Nihon University College of Art. In 1946, Yong-min made his first film, a cultural documentary, The Topography of Jeju Island (South Korean title: Jejudo pungtogi) and then later made a short film, The Shepherd and the Golden Watch (1949; Mogdonggwa geumsigye). In the mid-1950s, Yong-min would turn to direct feature-length films, first specializing in melodramas like Holiday in Seoul (1956; Seou-ul-ui hyu-il), A Wild Chrysanthemum (1957; San-yuhwa), and If You Overcome the Crisis (1959; Gogaereul Neomeumyeon), as well as serving as cinematographer on projects he didn’t direct.

Still from A Flower of Evil

Still from A Flower of Evil

In 1961, Yong-min unleashed A Flower of Evil (Ag-ui Kkot), the first modern horror film made in South Korea during that period. And yet, despite receiving a brief mention in various Western horror-reference books, it’s hard to ascertain if the film was a success or not, as, at the time of this writing, A Flower of Evil is a “lost” film. After his first endeavor into cinematic terror, Yong-min would branch off to direct historical dramas like A Happy Day of Jinsa Maeng (1962; Maengjinsadaek Gyeongsa). He would also serve as main cinematographer on director Gwon Yeong-sun’s Conqueror (1963; Jeongbokja). In addition, Yong-min received the 1963 Blue Dragon Film Awards (i.e., the South Korean equivalency of the Academy Awards) for Best Cinematography and the 1964 Seoul Award for Film Culture.

Eventually, Yong-min took another stab at horror with A Bridegroom From a Grave (1963; Mudeomeseo Na-on Sillang), which is also lost as of this writing, and two years later he would unleash A Bloodthirsty Killer (1965; Sal-inma). As the years went on, Yong-min would continue directing films that were horror, thriller, or fantasy oriented; with titles like A Neckless Beauty (1966; Mokeomneun Minyeo), Devil and Beauty (1969; Angmawa Minyeo), A Dangerous Husband (1970; Wilheomhan nampyeon), and Revenge of the Snake Woman (1970; Sanyeo-ui han).

By the late 1970s, Yong-min’s cinematic output slowed down, with A Horrible Double-Faced Man (1975; Gongpo-ui ijung-ingan) and Black Ghost (1976; Heuggwi) being his final productions. It would seem his filmmaking career ceased and yet the reasons why are unknown. There is very little info regarding weather Yong-min’s career had faltered or if he retired from the industry altogether. On April 24, 1982, it was reported Yong-min had died at the age of 66. Currently, there is no specific information as to how Yong-min died. The horror genre in South Korea still continued in decent numbers thru the 1980s up to the recent 2000s, and yet it seems Lee Yong-min’s early contributions to the genre were a minor footnote in his homeland. It’s a shame, because even with a few of his existing films currently in the hands of the Korean Film Archive (KOFA), Yong-min is a filmmaker worthy of re-discovery.

A Bloodthirsty Killer: Once Lost, Now Found.

And yet, sometimes a title will slip thru the cracks. In the case of Yong-min, his ultra-rare horror film A Bloodthirsty Killer (1965; Sal-inma) was able to surface, albeit with little fanfare. Like with some of Yong-min’s other films, A Bloodthirsty Killer had joined the ranks of lost titles until original 35mm film elements were located under the care of KOFA. In 2003, the film was included in the 7th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival, and later it would receive accolades from genre critics Jasper Sharp and Darcy Paquet. A Bloodthirsty Killer has managed to receive a DVD release in its homeland, but in a non-anamorphic transfer and featuring questionable English subtitles. This remains the only official release of the film, to date.

Still from A Bloodthirsty Killer

Still from A Bloodthirsty Killer

A Bloodthirsty Killer opens with Lee Shi-mok (played by Lee Yea-chun, a South Korean character actor who would contribute other performances in later Lee Yong-min horror films), walking down the street carrying an umbrella as it rains. He is not alone: a stranger is watching him from a distance. Shi-mok arrives at a building displaying an art exhibit inside. Much to Shi-mok’s dismay, he finds the building completely empty and is told by the night watchman the exhibit is closed. As Shi-mok is about to leave, he hears the sound of a woman’s laughter echoing in the main hall. He turns around and sees a single, lone painting hanging on the wall. He approaches to discover that it’s a portrait of his first wife, Ae-ja (Do Kum-bong), who has been deceased for ten years. Shi-mok takes the painting off the wall to get a closer look, but as he does the image melts before his eyes. Stunned by this effect, Shi-mok drops the painting and runs off.

Later that night, Shi-mok enters a cab, and the driver of the car turns out to be the strange man following him. The stranger informs Shi-mok that he is taking him to see Park Joon-chul (Chu Seok-yang), the artist responsible for the painting of Ae-ja. Arriving at an abandoned house, he meets Joon-chul and the artist proceeds to give him a copy of the painting, which he calls the ‘Red Portrait’. Then, out of fear, Joon-chul hides Shi-mok under his bed and Ae-Ja appears to kill the frightened artist, escaping by turning into a cat. Later Ae-ja appears to Shi-mok in a comatose state. Shi-mok takes Ae-ja’s body to Dr. Park, who is confused by her return. Eventually, Ae-ja revives and kills Dr. Park, leaving Shi-mok alone.

Still from A Bloodthirsty Killer

Still from A Bloodthirsty Killer

Once Shi-mok arrives home, things begin to get weirder and weirder. His wife Hye-sook (Lee Bin-hwa), and mother Heo’s (Jeong Ae-ran)response to Ae-ja’s return makes Shi-mok suspect that the two are keeping something from him. Eventually, Ae-ja kills Heo; disguising herself as the mother. Ae-ja secretly brings misery and horror to the family. With the brief assistance of a strange woman, Shi-mok must defeat the vengeful Ae-ja and discover the true reason as to why she is destroying his family.

Presented in crisp black-and-white in anamorphic CinemaScope, A Bloodthirsty Killer is a perfect intro into the horror-works of Lee Yong-min. While the film has a few minor low-budget trappings featuring minimalist production design and locations, it doesn’t mar the film at all and it helps enhance the strange storyline. A Bloodthirsty Killer is fairly well-paced. Once the main credit sequence is over the film begins and it never lets up. Yong-min moves the story further and further like lightning, with the situations getting weirder and weirder throughout. The first 50 minutes of the film are devoted to Shi-mok and his confusion as to why Ae-ja is exacting supernatural revenge on his family. The remaining half of the film turns to Ae-ja and her mysterious back-story via flashback, with Shi-mok taking a back-seat to the whole proceedings. Because of this, Yong-min effectively balances the supernatural-revenge-mystery angle, making Shi-mok and Ae-ja very sympathetic characters, as opposed to other characters that may or may not be hiding something.

Visually-speaking, considering there were very few horror films made during the early 1960s South Korean cinema, Lee Yong-min displays that he certainly mastered the elements of crafting a horror film as he fills the CinemaScope frame with low-key lit corridors and rooms, claustrophobic settings and plenty of off-beat scenes that manage to stick with you. Probably the most unique sequence, which sets A Bloodthirsty Killer apart from typical horror, is the later confrontation between Shi-mok and Ae-ja, disguised as Heo. Shi-mok witnesses, who he believes is, his mother hissing and fixing her hair like a cat. He immediately suspects that it’s Ae-ja, but he hesitates killing her as she imitates his mother so well. Shi-mok quickly devises a plan—which is quite a surprise for the viewer and very clever in its delivery—he takes a small mirror and asks Heo to look in it, if it shows her reflection then it’s his real mother, but if it shows her “true” reflection (i.e., the face of a cat) than it’s Ae-ja. She tries to advance away from the mirror and eventually smashes it; this action alone is what reveals her true identity to Shi-mok. What happens afterwards is a bizarre duel between Shi-mok and the demonic Ae-ja, and it’s quite a mind-blowing sequence, well staged and effectively suspenseful.

It’s a shame A Bloodthirsty Killer, as well as some of the existing horror films of Lee Yong-min, continues to be left behind in obscurity. It’s a film that is worth re-discovering amongst fans of foreign horror and it certainly deserves a better restorative home video release in the future.

Stills Gallery from  A Flower of Evil

Stills Gallery from A Neckless Beauty

Stills Gallery from Black Ghost

Lee Yong-min Poster Gallery

About Christopher William Koenig

Christopher William Koenig is a graduate of Columbia College of Chicago with a BA in Film-Video, specializing in directing, screenwriting, cinematography, and editing. Before college, Christopher became a science fiction and horror film fan at the age of 10, and has never looked back on it since. Also, at this time Christopher is involved as film reviewer and commentator on The Super Evil Vampire Robot Podcast of Doom (https://www.sevrpod.com/), a podcast dedicated to talking about all things horror.

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