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Ko - production in Busan
  • by Pierce Conran /  Dec 07, 2020

  • 1958
     | 86 MIN | Romance, Drama, Crime
    CAST KIM Hak, CHOI Eun-hee, CHO Hae-won
    RELEASE DATE April 20, 1958
    CONTACT Korean Film Archive
    Tel +82 2 3153 2001
    Fax +82 2 3153 2080

    In the wake of the Korean War, the nascent South Korean film industry was beginning to find its feet. Filmmakers such as KIM Ki-young got their start making films with US Army equipment (The Boxes of Death, 1955) and viewership steadily began to rise as the government stepped in to support the industry. Legendary director SHIN Sang-ok also got his start around this time and by the time he made his sixth film The Flower in Hell (1958), annual film production had already reached 74, doubling from the previous year. The Flower in Hell (1958), a daring, erotically charged and action-packed noir, is rightly considered SHIN’s first masterpiece, yet the film’s frank depiction of sexuality and its image-shattering performance by star CHOI Eun-hee did not find favor with audiences at the time.

    Country boy Dong-sik (CHO Hae-won) arrives in Seoul one sunny day, pickpocketed as soon as he exits the station. He is looking for his older brother Young-sik (KIM Hak), who came to the city many months earlier on an errand but never returned. Young-sik is now living as a hoodlum near a US Army base, where he pilfers army supplies and shacks up with Sonya (CHOI Eun-hee), a sex worker who services US soldiers. Young-sik is dreaming of a big score so that he can run away with Sonya. Dong-sik eventually catches up with Young-sik, who is ashamed to see him, and asks him to return home alone. Yet one night, while Young-sik is in the middle of a daring heist, Sonya seduces the younger Dong-sik, setting the stage for a dangerous confrontation between the siblings.

    Depicting the so-called ‘western princesses’ (yang-gong-ju) who serviced US servicemen and frankly exploring the parasitic relationship between impoverished Koreans and the US military, The Flower in Hell (1958) boldly presented the pitfalls of necessity and desire in the Korea of its day. Yet the film didn’t come out of nowhere, as SHIN had already explored similar subject matter in his 1952 debut The Evil Night. Now lost, the film was described by contemporary writing as indebted to Italian neorealist cinema.

    Playing the seductive and hedonistic ‘western princess’ Sonya was CHOI Eun-hee, the screen siren who was married to Director SHIN. CHOI shocked her fans of the day with her powerful performance as a woman with infinite desire and no compunction about indulging in it. Fitting the femme fatale mold to a tee, Sonya embodies the corrupting influence of modernity and western commodities. In many ways, she foreshadows Myung-sook, the title character in KIM Ki-young’s The Housemaid, which appeared just two years later. Just like Sonya, Myung-sook’s rapacious desire consumes the men around her, while one of the most striking images in The Flower in Hell (1958), of Sonya rising a steep staircase, with Dong-sik meekly staring down from above, prefigures a recurring visual motif in KIM’s masterwork.

    Beyond its risque themes, The Flower in Hell (1958) also stands out as a singular achievement in action filmmaking of its day, concluding with a massive train heist sequence that ends in a flurry of bullets before moving on to a stark and bloody conclusion in the nearby muddy flats. 

    SHIN would go on to find broader success with his next film A College Woman’s Confession, which came out the same year, and this set him on a very different path from The Flower in Hell (1958). By the early 1960s, he was Korea’s top director and he had become a specialist in historical melodramas (Prince Yeonsan, 1961) and domestic melodramas (Romantic Papa, 1960), leaving the more daring but less commercially viable themes of The Flower in Hell (1958) behind.
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