Scen.: Baek Gyeol. F.: Lee Seok-gi. M.: Hyeon Dong-chun. Scgf.: Jeong Su-gwan. Mus.: Jeon Jeong-geun. Int.: Shin Seong-il (Huh Wook), Jeon Ji-youn (Ji-youn), Kim Seong-ok (Ok-man), Kim Sun-cheol (Gyu-je). Prod.: Daehan Association Film Co.. DCP. D.: 74’. Bn.
Seoul. Winter. Sunday. One fairly dodgy young man, one pregnant young woman, and a pack of cigarettes. From this raw material Lee Man-hee, the most imaginative and visually inventive director of Korea’s 1960s and 70s, made a small black-and-white masterpiece.
In his 15-year career Lee explored many genres: the crime thriller, Hitchcockian psychodrama (Ma-ui Gyedan, The Devil’s Stairway, 1964), even the kimchi western Soesaseul-eul Kkeuneola (Break Up the Chain, 1971). His last film, Sampo-ganeun Gil (The Road to Sampo, 1975), was completed as he lay dying. It was his homage to La strada and with it Lee Man-hee almost single-handedly invented the South Korean road movie. In Hyuil he was able to blend lessons learned from Italian neo-realism with his particular tragic vision of melodrama, one displayed eloquently in earlier films such as Manchu (Full Autumn, 1966 but long lost) and Gwiro (Homebound, 1967).
Our young couple meet in wind-blown parks up on Namsan, the great hill south of the city. Down below in Myeongdong neighbourhood, you can find cafes – which they can’t afford to enter – clinics, where you can get an abortion, and bars, where you can get lost inside your own soul. Over the neighbourhood looms the spire of Myeongdong Cathedral, indifferent to the little lives of the characters we meet. Back in 1968 the government censors hated the film and its too-realistic vision of life in the nation’s capital. They demanded changes; Lee and colleagues risked their necks by refusing. So the film was not even listed on his official filmography and shelved until its lucky rediscovery by the Korean Film Archive in 2005.
Huh Wook, the grifter, is played by Korea’s most famous male star, Shin Seong-il. Hyuil was only one of some 50 films he made in 1968 – no wonder Huh/Shin looks short of sleep. So busy was Shin in this era that it took two doppiatori to cover for him. For him there was no time for the patient work of the dubbing studio. Hyuil featured in a major 2017 retrospective co-hosted by the Korean Film Archive and Busan International Film Festival.