A country boy experiences another side of Korea in Shin Sang-ok’s noir romance.
“It’s a rough world.”
Dong-shik (Jo Hae-won) is a young man who travels from the countryside to the city looking for his older brother Yeong-shik (Kim Hak) who travelled there a few weeks back and never returned. He is immediately taken by surprise at how rough, violent and crime-ridden life here is. The city is also heavy with American military presence. Soon he finds his brother, who has taken to life here and has shacked up with in-demand prostitute Sonya (Choi Eun-hee) and is part of a group of thieves who steal military equipment and supplies.
For Dong-shik, the city is an alien place that is immediately hostile to him, but to Sonya – the real driving force behind the story – is right at home here. Choi Eun-hee’s performance is powerful in a film that is otherwise a little bit underwhelming in a few areas. The other characters are good but somewhat copy-paste, and it’s Sonya who easily stands out and lets The Flower in Hell be its own thing where it could easily have been forgettable and samey. 50s Korea is a great setting for a story like this – once again we see how war has affected the now-split country – and a character who owns the hand life’s given her is refreshing.
A Flower in Hell is so reminiscent of film noir, and is a fine example of Korea dabbling in the genre. The city that Dong-shik arrives is in typical of the sort of corrupt, vice-infested places Marlowe would appear in. But Dong-shik isn’t a hard-boiled detective: he is, in his own words, a country bumpkin whose innocence really doesn’t belong here. It’s a shock to him that Yeong-shik has so quickly adapted to it and it’s this contrast of rural and urban life that makes A Flower in Hell a fascinating look at how the country viewed its cities during that time. You can adapt to it or die. Or live because you’re the Good Guy: this is a film after all.
What struck me as the most bizarre watching this was just how silent the entire film is. Outside of dialogue and the very rare sound effect, the rest of the movie is strikingly void of sound. Occasionally the soundtrack appears, but very quietly and very briefly. It’s difficult to tell if this is an intentional artistic choice, or due to technical restrictions. Either way it makes for an interesting atmosphere and can even work in its favour, during more dramatic scenes even if it does make the drama a bit slow and lacklustre.
Director Shin Sang-ok and Choi (who were married at the time) famously were kidnapped by Kim Jong-il in order to diversify North Korea’s cinematic output. As the dictator once put it: North Korean films never get played at film festivals. This film came out 20 years before the incident, but compared to the patriotic overly soapy stuff being released in that country at the time, the director of A Flower in Hell would certainly have brought fresh, much-needed life into the cinematic scene.
Sixty year on, and it still holds up as a pretty decent film, especially once the second half kicks in and the action gets going. It has a solid cast that’s bolstered by a very unseasy and pleasantly unpleasant atmosphere. It’s hard to know what Yeong-shik was like before, but it’s fun to see what he turned into after just a little bit of time. And with that alone the film might have come across as preachy or one-sided, but there are signs that life here isn’t terrible: Sonya thrives in it, while another prostitute Judy shows that not everyone here is awful. And sometimes you need just a touch of hope.
Verdict: Despite some strange pacing, A Flower in Hell nonetheless gives us a grim and moody look at life in Korea at the time.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Police: Costs money apparently?
Moral: Fuck ‘em all!
Hair: Smells like corn
A Flower in Hell (1958)
Also known as: 지옥화 – Jiokhwa
Director: Shin Sang-ok
Writer: Lee Jeong-seon
Choi Eun-hee – Sonya
Kim Hak – Yeong-shik
Jo Hae-won – Dong-shik
Kang Sun-hee – Judy