A collection of families navigate everyday life in Lee Hyeong-pyo’s pleasant comedy-drama.
“The sun starts to shine on the roofs in Seoul. The old and the new live together in this neighbourhood. Dream, love and tears of Seoul can be felt here.”
Made during South Korea’s golden age of cinema, Under the Sky of Seoul (or Under Heaven in Seoul as it seems to be more commonly called), is admittedly nothing particularly new for the era: by and large a melodrama about Korean values and ways of life. But with the Korean war still a fresh memory (as was their liberation from Japan), South Korea was keen to establish itself as a proud, independent country and films like this showed both foreign and national viewers what sort of a nation this relatively new South Korea was all about.
There isn’t much of a central story here; rather we’re treated a number of short vignettes which all more or less tie together within the same continuity. Set within a small community in Seoul, the main players are the Kims, whose patriarch (Kim Seung-ho) is an old-school Chinese medicine doctor whose daughter Hyeon-ok (Choi Eun-hee) is in love with a rival doctor Choi (Kim Jin-gyu), who practises Western medicine. Kim hates Choi, as he’s been receiving fewer and fewer patients. Around him stories and dramas unfold – from serious ones like his son running away to marry his girlfriend, to sillier moments such as his fortune teller friend hiding from an angry customer.
As a Western viewer with very little understanding of South Korea in the 50s and 60s, I have to admit that after seeing Under the Sky of Seoul I had a pretty good idea of what life was like. The fractured, episodic nature of each story might not make for the most coherent or well-paced movie but as a piece of art showcasing what life in Seoul was like during peaceful, prosperous times the movie really succeeds. The Western influence is encroaching, met with resistance but never shown as being inherently bad. Cho Heun-pa’s script makes sure of this by making Choi a likeable guy just doing his best. In a lot of ways, this film feels like a precursor to omnipresent k-dramas.
Under the Sky of Seoul’s biggest strength is also something of a weakness, however. By giving us a story that ambles on without any particular singular narrative taking control, the audience ends up with its attention diverted so much it’s easy to get distracted. It doesn’t help that the story is segmented so much that you end up really feeling every minute of this 2-hour film. It’s a shame because, broken up as a show this would actually work really well. Around the 90 minute mark, the story focuses up a bit but by then you’re already checking your watch.
If there was one centralising aspect of the entire film, it would be the stubborn but affable Doctor Kim. To say he is the main character of the story, however, is a bit of a stretch. He does appear the most and much of the stories focus on him in some form or another, but he never really steals the show away from anyone else when they’re on screen. It’s as much about the Kim family as it is Dr Choi or the Parks. It’s like the Collective is the main character, and we’re given a glimpse of how it all comes together. It’s not always pretty, but somehow it works. The title and the opening narration let us know this from the start: these characters don’t exist in a vacuum, but together under the same sky.
And the structure is really all there is to fault about it – which is even more interesting as it’s not even badly constructed, it’s just done … differently. Individually, the plots are largely engaging. The character interactions and connections are introduced decently (if you ignore the barrage of information narrated at you in the opening scenes), so you never feel too lost with who is who, and what role they have to play in the larger narrative. Under the Sky of Seoul is definitely worth a watch: it’s a time capsule of an era not quite bygone yet that manages to expertly mix melodrama and laugh-out-loud comedy. It might not be the most important film Korea released in that time, but it doesn’t have to be.
Verdict: Filled with endearing characters and silly moments, Under the Sky of Seoul is a bit all over the place, but it’s a fun time.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Misunderstandings: A few
Faking death to get out of trouble: Apparently more common in 1960s Korea than I imagined
Under the Sky of Seoul (1961)
Also known as: Under Heaven in Seoul
Director: Lee Hyeong-pyo
Writer: Cho Heun-pa
Kim Seung-ho – Kim Hak-gyu
Kim Jin-kyu – Choi Du-yeol
Choi Eun-hee – Hyeon-ok
Shin Seong-il – Young-gil
Shin Young-kyun – Hyun-gu
Do Kum-bong – Cheo-lae
Gu Bong-seuo – Seong Chang-gu
Heo Jang-kang – Park
Kim Hie-gab – No Mong-hyun