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Ko - production in Busan
  • by Pierce Conran /  Nov 05, 2019

  • 1964 | 110 MIN | Mystery, Thriller
    DIRECTOR LEE Man-hee
    CAST KIM Jin-kyu, MOON Jung-suk
    RELEASE DATE July 10, 1964
    CONTACT Korean Film Archive
    TEL +82 2 3153 2001
    FAX +82 2 3153 2080

    Director LEE Man-hee is well known for his dramas, but in 1964, at the height of the golden age of melodrama in Korean cinema, the filmmaker put out two of the most memorable genre films from the early days of Korean film, the noir Black Hair and the psychological horror The Devil’s Stairway. A fiercely stylized work that spins a conventional melodramatic premise into a tense descent through moral decay, with supernatural overtones along the way, the film is an assured early mas-terwork from the filmmaker, who was only 32 at the time of its release.

    Hyeon Gwang-ho (KIM Jin-gyu) is a senior surgeon at a small hospital. He is engaged in a secret relationship with the nurse Nam Jin-suk (MOON Jung-suk) but at the same time is courting Jeong-ja (BANG Seon-ja), the daughter of the hospital’s director. Realizing that marrying Jeong-ja would put him on track to take over the hospital, his life-long dream, he seeks to put an end to the affair. Jin-suk isn’t ready to call it quits just yet, and reveals that she has fallen pregnant. However, during a row on the hospital’s poorly maintained staircase, Jin-suk falls through the railing, shatters her leg and miscarries her unborn child. Gwang-ho saves her in an operation but then sees an opportunity to be rid of her once and for all, which involves dropping her in the deep pond behind the hospital late at night. Free to marry Jeong-ja after carrying out the despicable, Gwang-ho attempts to go on with his life, but his nerves jangle when Jin-suk’s body fails to appear days after the act.

    Just as some of his later masterpieces such as A Day Off (1968) would, The Devil’s Stairway builds its tense premise from a socio-economic angle. Gwang-ho lives in a small bedsit and covets the power and wealth of his hospital’s director, highlighted by the mansion he lives in. Gwang-ho finds it easy to choose future prosperity over love (although it is not altogether clear whether his love for Jin-suk extended far beyond the physical) and when faced with the prospect of losing that future he quickly slides into moral turpitude, contemplating murder.

    The character of Jin-suk, though clearly a victim, is also cut from the cloth of the femmes fatales of Hollywood noir. Director LEE often frames her as a looming specter in the background of the frame, or as an interloper who appears in the foreground and by the mere act of eavesdropping dominates a scene. Throughout The Devil’s Staircase LEE employs stark and memorable framing, while his use of sound is particularly striking for the period, as swinging doors and flickering lights blend with the shadowy images to create a foreboding and quasi-supernatural mood that heightens tension throughout the film.

    The Devil’s Stairway is currently available to stream with subtitles on the Korean Film Archive YouTube channel, while KOFA also recently published a 2K remastered version of the film on Blu-ray.
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